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Breaking into the Box - Quick and easy modal pentatonic scales

This is a guest post by Jeff Fiorentino. Check out JFRocks.com for more.

Although important for creating "mood" in music, many guitarists have trouble understanding modes. Beginner and intermediate-level players as well as many advanced guitarists don't effectively utilize modes and fall into playing ruts by sticking with the "go to" scale patterns they learned when they were first taught. No worries, there is a simple solution to get you out of your mode rut by breaking modes into pentatonic box configurations.

Usually modes are taught as what I call the "circle method", a very confusing approach especially for beginner-level players just trying to get a handle on the fret-board. An example of the circle method is when modes are explained as taking a "G Major scale" which is made up of the pitches, G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and saying OK, when you begin the scale on the "G" it's a G Major (Ionian) scale, and when you being the scale on the "A" it's an A Dorian scale, (minor scale with a Major 6th), and if you begin the scale on the "B" then you're doing a B Locrian scale, (minor scale with a flat 2nd and a flat 5th), etc.

This lesson will show you how to utilize modes in pentatonic box configurations that will work great for beginner and intermediate-level players trying to get a handle on modes and put some serious feel into their leads. Think of modes as exceptions to the rule. In other words a "G Major scale" is made up of the pitches G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, that's the rule. A mode example might be the "Lydian" mode, which is a G Major scale with a sharp 4th, i.e. the 4th note in the scale (the C) is sharp, so the "G Lydian" scale is G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#. These exceptions, or modes help you to create different moods in a given solo or riff because they open up additional pitches for you to work with around a given chord pattern. Say for example the chord pattern you were soloing over was G, C, A7, D. Well, the "A7" chord contains a "C#", so you can solo over the G, C and D using the G Major scale (Ionian mode), but when the A7 comes around you can switch it up and throw a "C#" into the mix, thus utilizing the "Lydian" mode to create a certain mood or feel and something that in many cases is the difference between a solo or lick everyone has heard before and something really cool and fresh. Now this is a simplistic explanation of mode use of course, but at its heart, that's what it's all about.

For the lesson featured below it's very important that you know notes on your fret-board. If you need help with that I have a great "learn the notes tool" on my website at: http://goo.gl/uG7nIw .

Below are the 7 main modes and what makes them up, i.e. what makes each of them special or differentiates them from the basic Major or minor scale. The scales below are separated into Major and minor family, not in the order they occur in the traditionally taught "circle method" I touched on earlier.

Ionian = Basic Major scale (no special component)
Lydian = Major scale with a sharp 4th (sharp 4th makes it special)
Mixolydian = Major scale with a minor 7th (minor 7th makes it special)

Aeolian = Basic minor scale (no special component)
Dorian = minor scale with a Major 6th (Major 6th makes it special)
Phrygian = minor scale with a flat 2nd (flat 2nd makes it special)
Locrian = minor scale with a flat 2nd and a flat 5th (flat 2nd and flat 5th make it special)

The modes above are all what are called "Diatonic" or 7 tone scales. To make these more easily usable we want to try to make them into box scales, 5 (pentatonic) tones ideally. The pentatonic minor scale is really just the most important pitches of the "Aeolian" mode (basic minor scale). So with the other modes we want to do the same thing. For example, the pentatonic minor scale uses the "root, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th, and minor 7th" pitches from the full "Aeolian" or minor scale. Usually the root, 3rd (or minor 3rd), and 5th are a given as a good rule of thumb, which leaves 2 other tones for you to fill in to build your modal pentatonic scale.

Modal Pentatonic Scale Examples:

Since we're sticking with playing by scale "patterns", please take note that the examples below and ones you'll create yourself will work the same way a standard pentatonic scale works, meaning the key is dictated by the position. For our lesson purposes we'll deal with the key of "A" and/or "A minor". (I've included a TAB for each example to show positioning.)

Example 1

"A" Lydian pentatonic - A, C#, D#, E, G - (root, 3rd, sharp 4th, 5th, minor 7th)


Example 2

"A" Phrygian pentatonic - A, Bb, D, E, G - (root, flat 2nd, 4th, 5th, minor 7th)


Example 3

"A" Mixolydian pentatonic - A, C#, D, E, G - (root, 3rd, 4th, 5th, minor 7th)


In the pentatonic pattern examples above, I utilized what was important to the mode or what made the mode special or different from the standard Major or minor scale from the 7 key modes list shown above. You'll still need to know how and when to use them which is probably a topic for another lesson, but briefly, you must know the pitches that make up the chords you're soloing over if it's a lead. A great practice session tip is to record a rhythm and just practice soloing over it trying different mode versions of these modal pentatonic scales. You can write down all the notes that make up the chords you're soloing over and this way you'll know which modal pentatonic might work. You can even create your own custom scales.

Making modes into usable pentatonic box configurations is a great way to use them in the real world, in jams, and in songwriting sessions. If you know the pitches on your fret-board, and the pitches that make up the chords you're soloing or riffing over, and what makes each of the modes what they are, i.e. Lydian mode is a Major scale with a sharp 4th (4th note in the scale is sharpened), then you're armed with all the information you need to solo and riff with the best of them. Don't over-think modes too much. Where the fret-board is concerned, try to view things logically yet simply. Not only will you have less headaches, you'll have a lot more fun writing and playing music...and isn't that what it's all about?

-- Jeff Fiorentino - JFRocks.com

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