Pentatonic Modes

A lesson on how to use the 5 pentatonic patterns to learn and play modally.

Pentatonic Modes
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Looking for a simple way to learn your modes? Look no further. The simple truth is, if you know your 5 pentatonic shapes, you already possess the ability to play modally, you just don't know it yet. Sadly, I haven't found a post here that touches on this subject, so I figured I'd throw it out there. This is my first post here at UG, so here's hoping all goes well. For most of us, the first scale we were introduced to was our trusty "A minor" pentatonic scale.
--1------4--
--1------4--
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1------4--
Simple enough right? But that wasn't good enough, we wanted to play vertically as well. That's when we learned that there are a total of 5 pentatonic shapes and by playing them in order, we could stay in the same key all the way up the neck.
--1------4--
--1------4--
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1------4--

----2----4--
----2----4--
--1----3----
--1------4--
--1------4--
----2----4--

----1----3--
----1------4
--1------4--
----2----4--
----2----4--
----2----4--

--1------4--
--1------4--
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1------4--
--1------4--

----2----4--
----2----4--
--1------4--
--1------4--
----2----4--
----2----4--
It took some time, but now we really felt like we were getting somewhere. That is, until someone or something brought our attention to the modes. Our initial reaction was, "Awesome!", cause we'd been playing pentatonically for so long that we were itching for something new to add to our arsenal. Upon scouring the internet for help though, we quickly became overwhelmed by the shear amount of theoretical knowledge that the modes seem to demand. There just had to be a simpler way! Without further ado, I give you the pentatonic mode system. The first thing to understand, is that the pentatonic scale patterns are simply scales with the half steps taken out. This of course is what makes the pentatonics a great way to start playing scales. But did you ever wonder which scales these patterns were taken from? Bingo, the modal scale patterns. Let's start with the obvious, most of you already realize that your first position pattern is based off the natural minor scale. This scale is also known by another name, the "Aeolian" mode. This is what that mode looks like when filled in.
---1----3--4--
---1--2----4--
1--2----4-----
---1----3-----
---1----3--4--
---1----3--4--

--1------4--
--1------4--
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1----3----
--1------4--
As you can see, the "Aeolian" mode fits perfectly over your first position pentatonic scale. This means that you can think of your first box pattern as representing the "Aeolian" mode. So your next question is probably, how to apply that to the other patterns. So let's take a look at pattern 2.
--1-2----4--
----2----4--
--1---3--4--
--1---3--4--
--1-2----4--
----2----4--

----2----4--
----2----4--
--1----3----
--1------4--
--1------4--
----2----4--
As you can see, a few extra notes, and you have a full modal shape. This is the shape of the Major scale, also known as the "Ionian mode", and it connects to the bottom of your "Aeolian" shape just like your second pentatonic box connects to the first. (This is also why backing up your first pentatonic box gives you the major pentatonic instead of minor.) Just like before, you can now think of your second pentatonic pattern as the "Ionian mode" pattern. Next, I'll lay out all 5 shapes, so you can see how they all fit together.
----1----3--4--
----1--2----4--
--1--2----4----
----1----3-----
----1----3--4--
----1----3--4--
    Aeolian    

--1-2----4--
----2----4--
--1---3--4--
--1---3--4--
--1-2----4--
----2----4--
   Ionian   

--1----3----
--1----3--4-
1-2----4----
1-2----4----
--1----3----
--1----3--4-
   Dorian   

--1--2----4--
--1--2----4--
--1----3-----
--1----3--4--
--1----3--4--
--1--2----4--
   Phrygian  

--1----3----
--1----3--4-
1----3-4----
1-2----4----
1-2----4----
--2----4----
 Mixolydian 
As you can see, by connecting these patterns in order, you can play in the same mode across the neck just like with your pentatonic patterns. By starting a different pattern on the root note ("A" for example) you can play any of the modes anywhere on the neck. First position is "Aeolian", Second "Ionian", Third "Dorian", Fourth "Phrygian", and Fifth "Mixolydian". By using your pentatonic patterns as a guide, you will be able to learn and apply these patterns more quickly, but it also gives you a method for playing modally with your pentatonic patterns as you already know them. Simply start with the pattern that corresponds to each mode and you've got it. This will also allow you to use your pentatonic licks in a modal concept. Now, some of you may be wondering what happened to the "Lydian" and "Locrian" modes. I certainly haven't forgotten about them. The truth is, they can each be built off the same patterns, but would take the place of the "Ionian" and "Mixolydian" patterns respectively. This is because they are built on the half steps of the major scale, but they still have their own distinct sounds and are worth learning. These are the patterns for "Lydian" and "Locrian".
--1-2----4--
--1-2----4--
--1----3----
--1----3-4--
--1----3-4--
----2----4--
   Lydian   

--1--2----4--
-----2----4--
--1----3--4--
--1----3--4--
--1--2----4--
--1--2----4--
   Locrian   
That's the basic idea. By making pentatonics and modes interchangeable in your mind, you'll be able to learn and apply them much quicker. As always, play and experiment until you find what you like. Hope this has been as helpful to you as it was to me.

29 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Arcanumtb
    The purpose of this lesson was not to explain how to use the modes, but rather to point out the relationship between the pentatonic scale patterns and the modal patterns. This is meant to give players a simple way to learn the modal patterns and how they fit together, by associating them with something that they already know. While this lesson may not be the key to mastering modal playing, it can be a very helpful learning tool.
    AlanHB
    The pentatonic patterns also have a whole heap of similarities to major and minor scales. Why didnt you use those?
    gabinja
    Simply because you are ignoring that Major scale corresponds to (it is the same than) the Ionian Mode and Minor scale corresponds to (it is the same than) Aeolian mode. He did used Major and Minor scales in his explanation but with its modal names Ionian and Aeolian. You may be now experimenting one of the greatest Aha!! moments in your life as guitarist.
    AlanHB
    Its "modal name".... Major and minor scales aren't modes. Modes are a form of tonality pre-dating keys, they're separate entities. Regardless this article does not make reference to any major or minor scale at all, it's just random patterns with a "mode" stamp on them which means that when played in context they could be anything.
    gabinja
    True, aren't modes but correspond to modes. I think you maybe know this better than I, but here it seems that there is a lot of people who aren't still aware about the relationship between major scale and Ionian Mode and minor scale and Aeolian Mode. About the rest, absolutely agree. The problem is that modes are very bad understood and the vast majority confuses pattern and mode.
    AlanHB
    This article ignores any application of these shapes. I'm unsure if F or F# is meant to be the root...I started writing a longer rant about how this isn't modal, but then I realised that the locrian pattern is the same as the ionian pattern and realised there was no point. Mate, I don't know what you're hinting at, but learn about functional harmony before professing to teach modes.
    gabinja
    Maybe because in order to understand this lesson you should be initiated in the greek modes. Start with it and then you will understand this crystal clear.
    gabinja
    ...and I'm not agree that locrian and ionian are the same. They have exactly the same relationship than any other pair of contiguous modes. Take a typical ionian pattern (starting at the root) and a typical locrian pattern (starting at the root). For example, play G ionian and G locrian: THEY AREN'T THE SAME. But what you mean is that, if you start G Ionian half step down (in Gb) you obtain Gb locrian. That's it: Gb locrian has the same notes than G ionian. But G ionian and G locrian are NOT the same.
    AlanHB
    Mate you've gone out of your way to answer every post of mine and I still don't know what you think modes are. So tell me, for my "aha moment" what the difference between G ionian, G locrianand G major is and how to use each of these in a song.
    gabinja
    Sorry, ok, I try to explain it, but it would really deserve a new post. First, there is no difference between Ionian Mode and Major scale. Actually the 7 greek modes of a certain major tonality (let's take G major) have exactly the same notes. If you develop the Major scale from the root of a tonality (in our case from G) you will have exactly the same pattern than the Ionian Mode. So: Ionian is Major and in the same way Aeolian is Minor. Note that the "flavor" of each mode rises out from a major scale in relationship with the tonality in the background. I try to clear this with the simplest case: I don't know if you are aware that G major scale (Ionian) has exactly the same notes than E minor scale (Aeolian). The same is applicable to G major pentatonic and E minor pentatonic (actually the major and minor pentatonic scales are the full major or minor scales without the 2nd and the 6th grades). If you play the 7 notes of the G major scale over a G major tonality you are playing Ionian mode. If you play exactly the same notes over a E minor background, you are playing Aeolian mode. And if you play these 7 notes over a F# (half-diminished) background you get a Locrian mode. The best to have an overview of this is to put the 7 modes in order and beside them the 7 chords that emerge from a major tonality. The 7 chords that correspond to G major are: GM7 (1st grade), Am7 (2nd grade), Bm7 (3rd grade), CM7 (4th grade), D7 (5th grade), Em7 (6th grade), F#m7(b5) or half-diminished (7th grade). Beside each of these grades you write each mode in order: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian. Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. If you play the G major scale over each of these chords you get the different flavors of the greek modes. Each of the previous grades correspond to a mode. If you play, for example, the G major scale over a C (or CM7) it will emerge a Lydian Mode. In the same way, if you play the G major scale over a Am7 background you play the Dorian mode, and so on. Hope it helps.
    AlanHB
    Thanks for answering, I'm going to point out where your understanding is flawed. There is a difference between the ionian mode and the major scale, but these differences are not in the notes they contain. They relate to the harmonic context of a song. The notes function as the ionian mode when the song is in the ionian mode, and as the major scale when the song is in a major key. The issue you face from here is whether you can argue whether any song at all is in an ionian mode anymore - modes evolved into keys roughly 200 years ago. You don't seem to understand this, and the rest of your examples fail due to this misunderstanding. If you play a G major scale in a G major key, you are playing the G major scale, not a mode. You can call it a mode but you would be incorrect, it will function as the G major scale. If we followed your reasoning you would never be playing the G major scale as it would always be a mode. You are correct that the keys of G major and E minor share the same notes. They are what is called relative keys. So if you play the notes of G major over the key of E minor you get....the E minor scale. It's not a mode, it's the E minor scale. The notes of E minor over the key of E minor. No modes. The song has to be in a mode for the notes to a mode, but E minor is not a mode, it's a key. If you play a G major scale over a C chord in your example, there are so many factors that it could be anything. I'll illustrate: Progression in G major G C D G; play G major scale over the C chord in this and you will have the G major scale. The key is G major. Progression in C major; C F G C; C major scale w/b5 accidental. Not a mode because it's in the key of C major. Use of accidentals. Droning C note and nothing else; Arguably lydian. The real question is "is your song a droning C note and nothing else (including other instruments)? If it isn't, your song is most likely not in a mode, and nothing you play is modal. What you need to work on: - understand keys and chords, because right now you are referring to "background" and "tonality" rather than a song being in a key or mode, and that makes me think that you mayn't understand what the harmonic context of a song is, and the role that chords play within them. - note that chords do not change the tonal centre of a key - learn about accidentals
    Arcanumtb
    Well, for starters, because I wanted to help people learn the modes. I suppose I could have gone into more detail about how the many different scale patterns relate back to the pentatonic, but I was trying to keep everything as simple and focused as possible. Again, this was only meant to be a tool to hep players learn something that many struggle with. If you wish to elaborate or clarify on the information I've presented, then by all means, post a link to a lesson of your own. We're all here to help each other and learn after all.
    AlanHB
    I have a blog here which explains the different applications of modes http://profile.ultimate-guitar.com/AlanH... ...but this seems irrelevant to your article because you're not applying these patterns in any harmonic context, so we're just left with a bunch of random patterns that we don't know how to use. I wouldn't call this playing "modally" or "learning the modes", it's just a bunch of random patterns - they could easily be major or minor scales, use of common accidentals...they could be anything.
    gabinja
    I see it in other way. First, in order to understand this you should already know the 5 pentatonic modes and the relation between them. The same for the greek modes. Once you got that, this article is very good.
    AlanHB
    Read my blog, and try to explain how this fits into what you think modes are. If you are confused it's because you are under the impression that modes are something that they are not.
    gabinja
    oh, I think you think I do confuse patterns and modes. Ok, I actually got your comment wrong. You are right. The post of Arcanumtb may be absolutely misleading for people who still doesn't understand the modes. I unconsciously didn't pay attention to that because I was focusing in the relationship between heptatonic and pentatonic patterns. By the way, very good article.
    brassy22
    Excellent post, muchas gracias. Modes explained in a language any musician can understand. I am now able to add a major and minor modal effect to my improv. I can take what I need from modes without endless hours of boring music theory (YAWN). Can't believe this is the only post I could find when I searched Google that simplifies the subject, but I can see you have rattled some theoretical cages haha. Cheers Ian
    Tim Clay
    basically isn't the like using E & A shape bar chords but playing pentatonic scales instead of chords ?
    debradshaw
    No matter what any above person says, This is dead on! Thank you very much! Very valuable and understandable! For me this is very easy to understand. I have tried to teach this and for some reason most students cannot comprehend it. It always amazed me. So simple, but yet so hard. Rock on my friend!
    Tim Clay
    It's like arpeggiating each chord within a scale but using major or minor pentatonic scales in place of the arpeggio
    Arcanumtb
    Also, as far as the Locrian/Ionian comment is concerned, the two are not exactly the same, but their patterns do overlap each other. In my above example, I did mistakenly add the extra note at the end of my Locrian example. However, because this note fits into that mode as well, this is really more of an unexplained continuation than a wrong note. Sorry for any confusion caused by that.
    Hydra150
    Just drop the Greek names, call em 'shape 1 - 5' if you must. The Greek names serve no purpose (other than making the simple stuff seem more intelligent, and confusing the beginners you wanted to teach).
    gabinja
    It is not true. The Greek names doesn't refer to the pentatonic scales but to the modes of the major scale. When you learn the modes of the major scale, you will find that commonly they are referred to its greek names more than "1st mode, 2nd mode, and so on". Arcanumtb uses the greek names for the people who are already "modes-initiated" to relate them quicker to their corresponding pentatonic mode and not because he wants to be pedant.
    gabinja
    Simply because you are ignoring that Major scale corresponds to (it is the same than) the Ionian Mode and Minor scale corresponds to (it is the same than) Aeolian mode. He did used Major and Minor scales in his explanation but with its modal names Ionian and Aeolian. You may be now experimenting one of the greatest Aha!! moments in your life as guitarist.
    mbself73
    I access modal tones by shifting shapes. For example, if you are using Cmajor pentatonic over a Cmajor Chord using the root shape from the 8th fret and the Chord progression drops the 3rd of the chord a half step to make it a minor then I will change to the 2nd shape starting on the 8th fret (because C is the 2nd degree of Bflat) and, without doing any real moving around I am now playing in C dorian over a Cminor chord. Easy Peasy....same thing can be done with the CAGED system.