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May 2014
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Fretboard Workshop: A Pentatonic Approach to Modes


Our first lick (Fig. 1) demonstrates how to incorporate the Ionian sound with the major pentatonic fingering. The real magic in each one of these modes is where the half-steps occur. By bending in and out of those areas, you really get to the essence of the sound— check out the bends on beat one of the third measure and beat three of the fourth measure.

We move on to a D Lydian tonality in Fig. 2. By landing on the G# in the first measure, you can really emphasize the sound of the #4.

In Fig. 3 we move to the 9th position and work out of an E major pentatonic shape. By adding D natural and F#, we easily move to an E Mixolydian sound.

With Fig. 4, we add the 2 and 6 to the minor pentatonic fingering to create a Dorian sound. Again, we are exploiting the half-steps in the scale with the opening bend and the G-F# move going into beat 4 of the second measure.

In Fig. 5 we shift to the exotic sounds of the Phrygian mode. Working out of the 7th position B minor pentatonic, we add a b2 (C) and b6 (G) to the scale.

For the Aeolian example in Fig. 6, we change the time signature to 12/8. You can think of this either as 12 eighth-notes or a triplet feel in 4/4. The minor tonality is really expressed in the F#-G bend in the first measure, and the D natural on beat 3 in the second measure.

Next, I want to talk a bit about the Locrian mode. Its many altered degrees make it a very unstable tonality, therefore it is hard to truly convey the feeling and mood of Locrian and to establish it as a tonal center. It is often considered more of a “passing mode,” and its associated chords (diminished or m7b5) are also considered passing or transitional, resolving to a more stable and anchored tonality.

Locrian does not contain a proper pentatonic scale, although you’ll find something close if you lower the 5 of a minor pentatonic (1–b3–4–b5–b7), as shown in the diagrams below. This altered pentatonic scale has a mysterious and exotic flavor. When used in moderation, it makes a great alternative to the standard minor pentatonic in a blues context. Throw in a b2 and b6 to this altered minor pentatonic scale and everything adds up.

Finally, we work through the somewhat mysterious Locrian mode. The lick in Fig. 7 is an attempt to make it sound like a strong tonal center—or at least a twisted, bluesy phrase.

Sometimes it only takes a simple extension of a very familiar concept to turn something seemingly complex into something completely accessible. You don’t necessarily have to stray too far away from a blues/rock-based vocabulary to open up a melodically and harmonically richer palette. At the same time, your modal melodic choices don’t have to sound too scientific or overly calculated. There’s always a happy medium. You can lean more one way or the other, and your choices will display your taste and make your playing original.

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