Expanding on Pentatonics to Create Modes

Taking something familiar and expanding on it


  • Expanding on Pentatonics to Create Modes

I have been considering different ways to approach teaching the modes, and I came upon a simple idea geared toward players who are just getting into the world of modes. I like encourage people to take what is already familiar and expand on that. Guitarists tend to be familiar with pentatonic scales. What they don’t always realize at first is that to create modes, you just have to add a couple of notes to a pentatonic scale.

Let’s start by taking a look at a very familiar pattern, and how we can create any of the modes by simply adding a couple of notes to it. If you’re intrigued, then you can read through the rest of the lesson to get a little more detail on how this works, and how to expand the concept to the whole fretboard.

Expanding on the Pentatonic Box

Chances are you may already be familiar with the good ol’ “pentatonic box.” Entire careers have been built on this finger-friendly pattern, which (as you may also know) can be applied as either a major or minor pentatonic. I have shown these first couple of examples on the 5th fret, which gives us either a C major or an A minor pentatonic, depending on the context (what chord(s) it is played over).

I feel like I should also acknowledge that some players tend to consider pentatonics to be kind of basic, something to be avoided as skills improve. The fact is that pentatonic scales sound good. There is nothing wrong with them. In many musical contexts, they are the perfect choice. Don’t feel like you need to avoid them! The material in this lesson will give you a few simple ideas for how to spice them up a bit.

So take a close look at the diagrams below. Notice that this super-familiar pentatonic pattern is actually buried in fingerings of six different modes, all in this exact same position. All you have to do is add a couple of notes to the pattern. Getting to know where these notes sit can be a big step toward learning your way around the fretboard.

If you are using C major pentatonic, you can just add a couple of notes to make it C ionian, C mixolydian, or C lydian. But the notes of the pentatonic are still there in all 3 of those modes. And the same goes for A minor pentatonic–add a couple of notes to it, and you have now expanded it to be C dorian, C phrygian, or C aeolian. Among other things, this demonstrates that all of these modes are not very different from one another (although they can sound pretty different). Move one note over from the ionian, and you now have mixolydian. Etc.

Another important point about these different modes: those “extra” notes (the 4th and 7th in the major modes, and the 2nd and 6th in the minor modes) are the notes that are unique to those modes, giving that mode its unique character or color. Emphasizing those notes therefore emphasizes that color. So, if you are playing in lydian, emphasize that #4. If you’re in dorian, emphasize that natural 6th.

So far, I have tried to keep this brief. If you like to geek out on this stuff (as I do), read on to learn a bit more about how & why this works, and how to expand it to the entire fretboard. Note that all the material below is contained in the PDF that goes with this lesson (link at top of page).

Two categories of modes: major & minor

A mode is categorized as major or minor depending on whether the 3rd degree of the mode is flatted.

Ionian = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Dorian = 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Phrygian = 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Lydian = 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Mixolydian = 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Aeolian = 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Locrian = 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

Major modes: ionian, lydian, mixolydian

Minor modes: dorian, phrygian, aeolian

Core triads: At the heart of each mode is the sound of the core triad, built from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of its respective mode. All 3 of the major modes have major triad (1, 3, and 5 are all natural, ie. not sharp or flat), all 3 of the minor modes have a minor triad (1, b3, 5). 

For this discussion we are going to omit the red-headed stepchild that is the locrian mode. Because its core triad is a diminished triad, it is rarely used in improvisation outside of the world of jazz. 

Also note at this point that the triad contains 3 notes, and each mode contains 7 notes, so the triad accounts for almost half of the notes present in the mode. 

Major pentatonics and major modes

In ALL of the major modes, the 2nd and 6th degrees are the same. Add these to the triad, and now we have 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, all the same in all three of the major modes. It also happens that the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 make up a major pentatonic scale. In other words, the major pentatonic is present in all 3 of the major modes. Or to put it yet another way, you could use the same major pentatonic scale in the ionian, lydian, or mixolydian modes. 

The ONLY differences between the major modes are the 4th and 7th. In the ionian mode, both the 4th and 7th are natural. In the lydian mode, the 4th is sharp (raised by 1/2 step) but the 7th remains natural. In the mixolydian mode, the 7th is flatted but the 4th remains natural.

Note, there is no standard major-scaled based mode where the 7th is flatted AND the 4th is sharped. This does occur if we create modes from the melodic minor scale (the lydian dominant), but that’s jazz world again, and we’re not ready to go there.

So, it is really the placement of the 4th and 7th degrees that gives a major mode its unique characteristic. We’ll come back to this idea in a minute…

Minor modes and minor pentatonics

In all of the MINOR modes, we start with a minor triad (1, b3, 5). EVERY ONE of the minor modes also contains a natural 4th and a flatted 7th degree. Add these to the minor triad, and you now have a minor pentatonic scale – 1, b3, 4, 5, b7. (Note, there are minor scales that do contain a natural 7th degree—the melodic and harmonic minor scales, but these are outside the scope of this lesson, mostly used in jazz and classical music).

In other words, the minor pentatonic is present in all 3 of the minor modes.

The ONLY differences between the minor modes lie in the placement of the 2nd and 6th degrees. So these are the ones that give each minor mode its unique color. The dorian mode has a natural 2nd and a natural 6th. Aeolian has a natural 2nd and a flatted 6th. And the phrygian mode, somewhat less common than the others, has a flatted 2nd and a flatted 6th.

The 5 pentatonic fingerings with their mode “color” notes

If you have looked at other lessons here at HCG, you may already know how the 5 pentatonic fingerings correspond to the 5 CAGED shapes. Remember that the CAGED shapes are triads, made up of 3 notes, and a pentatonic scale contains 5 notes, so the triad accounts for more than half of the notes in a pentatonic scale. Now we will take a look at how these 5 pentatonic fingerings can be expanded into modes by adding the color notes as described above.

CAGED  C shape

CAGED A shape

CAGED G shape

CAGED E shape

CAGED D shape

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