• Learn how to connect modal fingerings with pentatonic fingerings.
• Approach modes as pentatonic scales with two added notes.
• Alternate between pentatonic and modal thinking.
Studying modes can be a confusing, challenging task. Often you may end up with impractical scale fingerings or positions that are not conducive to actually making music. If you’re already familiar with the ever useful and powerful root-position pentatonic fingering, then you most likely know how to use it to improvise and make up melodies. In this lesson, we’ll explore each mode in a familiar way and discover how to use preexisting knowledge to crack its mysteries.
There are many ways to analyze modes, but here’s a definition I like to use: A mode is a variation of a major or minor scale with some altered degrees, and these alterations generate different moods, colors, and vibes. I think of the modes as their own scales and tonalities.
The modes of the major scale can be broken down and simplified into concepts that are already familiar. They translate into a formula—or a string of degrees—as you can see below:
Aeolian/natural minor 1–2–b3–4–5–b6–b7
You’ll notice that all the major modes (the ones that contain a 3) have the degrees 1–2–3–5–6 in common, in other words, they all contain a major pentatonic scale. Similarly, except for Locrian (which we’ll address later), all the minor modes (with a b3) have the degrees 1–b3–4–5–b7 in common, and this spells a minor pentatonic scale.
This leads to a conclusion: We can think of a mode as being a five-note pentatonic scale with two added degrees. The Dorian mode is a minor pentatonic with an added 2 and 6, the Lydian mode is a major pentatonic with an added #4 and 7, and so on.
In the guitar microcosm, nothing is more universal than the major and minor pentatonic scales. The classic shape is lick-ready and its easiness on the fingers grants us quick access to a library of blues and rock phrases. It seems like a fairly manageable extra step to inject an additional two notes into the root position fingering. I feel it opens up more opportunities for creating traditional rock licks and finding bend-friendly positions than the three-note-per-string fingerings that are often associated with studying modes.
In the first diagram below, how we start with the basic major pentatonic fingering and then move to Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. The root notes are shown in red and the added notes (not in the pentatonic scale) are in blue. These patterns are not key-specific, so don’t be afraid to move them around to different keys.
The next series of diagrams cover the minor side of the spectrum. Again, we begin with the tried-and-true minor pentatonic and then move on to Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian.
Next, here are some licks based on all those shapes, with a simple root chord underlying to imply context. Instead of following a strict scalar approach, I tend to think of those modal licks as going back and forth between a bluesy, pentatonic inspired portion and a full mode portion with more notes. This usually results in a more soulful, blues-based sound rather than a scale exercise or a finger pattern.