Friday, September 23, 2011

Pentatonic Spice - Adding modal sounds to your boxes - Part 1 of 3

When a student of guitar walks into a lesson, asking to learn how to solo, the pentatonic scale is most often the first scale a teacher will present. Why? Firstly, it is simple to memorize. Secondly, it sounds pretty great! Thirdly, it is one of the oldest scale patterns in the world and deeply engrained in us. Players such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Iommi, David Gilmour, SRV and MANY MANY others use this scale as option A. So if you like their music, or any music that was influenced by them or the blues (which is almost all!), then this sucker is worth owning.

The Problem
I suspect most people reading this lesson already know all this. As a matter of a fact, I suspect most of you know this scale very WELL. So well, in fact, that you now feel trapped by it. If this is you, then maybe some of these ideas will help a brother out.

Let's Get to Work
Have a look at the diagram at the top of this post. Click the image to download a pdf of it (or click here). At the top of the diagram, I have placed the most common form of the pentatonic scale. Let's imagine for a minute that you are soloing. Typically, players use this scale as a minor scale -- meaning using its lowest note as the root. So if you are playing over an A chord (or 5th fret power chord for you metal heads) then plant this baby on the 5th fret and have at 'er.

Being a minor scale ... it can be seen as a partial scale ... the pentatonic being a skeletal version of the 7 note major scale shapes. Pent - meaning "five" - gives you some insight into this. Or, it is simply a 5 note scale, with the "handle with care" notes removed - which is why it works so well.

From Wikipedia:
"The ubiquity of pentatonic scales, specifically anhemitonic (without semitones) modes, can be attributed to the total lack of the most dissonant intervals between any pitches; there are neither any minor seconds (and therefore also no complementary major sevenths) nor any tritones. This means any pitches of such a scale may be played in any order or combination without clashing."

Because of this, you have the option of re-introducing some of these removed notes to access more "modal" type sounds. Only 2 little notes can change a LOT.

The word "modes" causes more stress, arguments and confusion than any guitar topic! Before any of you theory police dive down my throat, let me just take a minute to say making something modal is about the underlying chordal harmony. No scale can make something modal in a true sense. I am using that word because it is very commonly used - and well misunderstood. But let's not go there for now.

Some quick theory you need to know:
In any key, there are 3 minor chords.
They occur off of the 2nd, 3rd & 6th notes of the scale.

Some examples:

Key C - C, Dmin, Emin, F, G(7), Amin, Bdim
Key G - G, Amin, Bmin, C, D(7), Emin, F#dim
Key A - A, Bmin, C#min, D, E(7), F#min, G#dim

If you look at all those keys, you should notice that all the chord TYPES remain unchanged.
  • The first, fourth and fifth chords are Major.
  • The second, third and sixth chords are minor
  • The fifth, while being major, can also be dominant - This is a very critical note of the scale. Especially in Jazz.
  • The 7th is a diminished chord - some opt for min7b5

So from this quick glance, you hopefully see what I mean when I say that the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th notes' chords are minor. The "modes" or scale shape that goes with these chords are named:
  • Dorian (from the chord built off the second note of the scale)
  • Phrygian (off the 3rd note of the scale)
  • Aeolian - a.k.a. natural minor (off the 6th note)
In other words, these scale forms are directly associated with specifically minor chords.

What does all this mean?
What it means is that when you are playing a minor pentatonic solo and you want the listener to hear it sound as if it is the II (two) chord of the key, you would add some Dorian notes. If you want the chord to sound as if it is the III (three) chord, then Phrygian is your woman (or man if you are so inclined). Leaving Aeolian as the VI (six) chord sound.

So this is the "why" behind all this. To summarize, by adding 2 notes to a shape that you already know, you now have access to a whole new world of sounds. 

The bottom line in all this is to hear it. So have a go. 
On my chart you will see that I colour coded the added notes, so try out each form. Get a backing track or loop going. Pick a chord and start with your ever-comfortable minor pentatonic and solo as you usually do. Then start adding in notes from the Dorian. When you got that sound in your ears then move to the Phrygian, on and on.  With each shape, really listen and try to understand its nuances, its character.

I should say (although I don't really want to influence your tastes) that the Dorian is the most common sound... followed by Aeolian. The Phrygian has somewhat of a Spanish sound (at least that is the description I have most commonly heard). This likely comes from the addition of the b2 & b6.

Oh! At the bottom, just for laughs, I added a shape that includes all the notes combined. You truly do have access to all these notes but in doing so, you really get into ambiguous territory harmonically. So it must be used with great care. Ultimately, your sense of creativity and good taste will rule the day.

These simple additions to something you already know can have powerful and immediate changes to your sound. So dig in!

Here are some examples of how they each sound. I tried to use similar phrasing and tone so that you can hear the nuances of each scale form.

Click Here to read Part 2 of this series. Adding Blues sounds.

P.S. I added an explanation of intervals for anyone confused by the terminology. Click here for that post 

Sixstringobsession files by Jeremy_green


  1. Excellent work Jeremy, I dig lots :D Please keep em coming. Your tone sounds great to man.

    Guitar Lessons Sarasota

  2. Hi Jeremy

    Thanks for the lesson! Is there a way to download this backing track? It's great!