Getting Modal Using Pentatonics

May 31, 2024 4 min read

Getting Modal Using Pentatonics

Like other players, my first moments of guitar soloing glory came from using the pentatonic scale. Five notes, no fuss, you were a rock god!

Later on, while getting into more technical players, I kept hearing about these “modes,” these intricate-sounding scales that seemed complicated to fathom (it’s not, as I later found out).

The altered notes of different modes can add colour to your playing, breaking away from the limits of the pentatonic scale. But, for those still intimidated by the notion of breaking away from those handy box patterns, what if I told you there was a way of getting those modal sounds by using pentatonic?

Let’s dive in!

**Before we start, since you can do this for major and minor modes, we’ll stick to the minor scales for this piece and tackle the major scales in a future article.

The Five Boxes

The pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that takes notes from either a major or minor scale. If the A minor scale contains the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G, the minor pentatonic includes the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th degrees of that scale (A, C, D, E, and G).

Applying this to the neck, we can create five different “box” patterns, playing two notes per string, as seen here (note that all the A notes - the root notes for each of these boxes - are in parentheses for easy reference).

Listen to Minor Pentatonic Boxes MP3

Start by learning these boxes and where the roots are. If you’re playing in a different key, simply start one of the patterns on the appropriate root, and you’re off!

Modes: A Quick Overview

Here’s an easy way to understand the seven modes of the major scale (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian). Each of these starts on a different note of the major scale but uses the same notes. 

Here’s a breakdown of the modes of the C Major scale for example:

  • First mode - Ionian (aka the major scale) - C, D, E, F, G, A and B
  • Second mode - Dorian (a minor scale with raised 6th) - D, E, F, G, A, B and C
  • Third mode - Phrygian (a minor scale with a flat 2nd) - E, F, G, A, B, C and D
  • Fourth mode - Lydian (a major scale with a raised 4th) - F, G, A, B, C, D and E
  • Fifth mode - Mixolydian (the dominant scale) - G, A, B, C, D, E and F
  • Sixth mode - Aeolian (the minor scale) - A, B, C, D, E, F and G
  • Seventh mode - Locrian (a minor scale with a flat 2nd and 5th) - B, C, D, E, F, G and A

If you are playing in D minor and want to use a D Dorian mode, think of playing the notes of the C major scale over D minor. It’s an easy way to get started!

Getting the Dorian sound with pentatonic

*Quick Note: A Dorian is related to G major (G, A, B, C, D, E and F#)

Let’s say that you’re jamming away in A minor (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) using pentatonic (A, C, D, E and G) but want to get some of that raised 6th Dorian mojo in there (A, B, C, D, E, F# and G). You can quickly determine that you should add an F# here or there, but what about those sweet pentatonic runs you’ve practiced? Well, there’s another way.

If we look at the minor pentatonic scales that exist in G major (where A Dorian lives), you have an A minor one (A, C, D, E, G), a B minor one (B, D, E, F#, A) and E minor one (E, G, A, B, D). The note that changes A Minor to A Dorian is F# (A minor has an F Natural). So, looking at these three options, B Minor Pentatonic contains that F# note (as well as a couple of other funky ones, such as the B and the D).

So, why not play a B Minor pentatonic over an A Minor chord (or a pentatonic a whole step above the root)?

Let's build some lines using this concept, starting with A pentatonic, moving to B pentatonic for some colour, and resolving back to A for a strong finish.

Listen to Example 1 MP3

Listen to Example 2 MP3

Now, onto Phrygian

*Quick note: The A Phrygian mode is related to F major (F, G, A, Bb, C, D and E)

If Dorian is bright and jazzy, Phrygian is dark and mysterious. We can apply this same concept to get those sounds as well.

Breaking down the minor pentatonic scales found in F major, we have G Minor (G, Bb, C, D, F), A Minor (A, C, D, E, G) and D minor (D, F, G, A, C).

The difference between A Minor and A Phrygian is the second note (a Bb instead of a B), and the G Minor Pentatonic contains that note (among others), so by adding some G Minor Pentatonic over and A Minor chord (or playing a pentatonic a whole step down from the root), we can get an A Phrygian sound.

Here are some examples of lines, taking the same approach as the Dorian examples

Listen to Example 3 MP3

Listen to Example 4 MP3

These examples help you expand your tonal pallet using scales you already know. Sometimes, looking at and applying them in new ways is the key to unlocking the special sauce that elevates your playing.

Use your ears when playing each one to see what works in certain situations and what doesn’t. Once that’s done, you’ll be on your way to effortless modal mastery!

By Kevin Daoust -

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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