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Custom Modal Pentatonic Scales

JamPlay, LLC
Published on 11-8-2016
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Introduction

Most guitar players I know started getting into lead guitar with the minor pentatonic scale. The scale has been used for decades and is one of the best tools to learn how to improvise. The simplicity of its formula and the ease of it's fingering make it an all time favorite amongst rockers.

But sooner or later all guitar players feel limited and start to see limitaions in the sound of the minor pentatonic. That’s often when problems arise. Most players start getting into modes and forget about phrasing. What used to be melodic leads become technical repetitive exercises. I’ve seen this many times over the years I have taught. Most players seem to have a difficult time improvising with modes.

This article should help anyone in that delicate situation. Together, we will create new scales that will be based on the simplicity of the pentatonic scale while incorporating elements of the more complex sounding modes.

The 5 Note Rule

There’s something magical about having a five note scale. You probably know this if you’ve been playing for a while. The fewer notes you have to play, the less chances you have to hit a wrong note. This principle will be the basis of our lesson. All the scales we will work with will have only five notes. Let’s take a look at two very commonly used five note scales: the minor pentatonic scale and the major pentatonic scale.

minor pentatonic scale
Root - min3rd - 4th - 5th – min7th
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Major pentatonic scale
Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - 5th – Maj6th

Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Diatonic Scales

Before diving into the subject, we need to take a closer look at the seven note scales we’ll be working with (diatonic scales). There are a multitude of diatonic scales, but we’ll concentrate on the three commonly used minor and major scales. Let’s take a closer look at their formula. As you study the following scales, notice the highlighted notes. These notes correspond to the characteristic notes and differentiate one scale from the other within their corresponding minor or Major category.

3 Commonly Used Minor Diatonic Scales

Dorian
Root - Maj2nd - min3rd - 4th - 5th - Maj6th – min7th

Phrygian
Root - min2nd - min3rd - 4th - 5th - min6th – min7th

Aeolian
Root - Maj2nd - min3rd - 4th - 5th - min6th – min7th

3 Commonly Used Major Diatonic Scales

Ionian
Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - 4th - 5th - Maj6th - Maj7th

Lydian
Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - #4th - 5th - Maj6th – Maj7th

Mixolydian
Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - 4th - 5th - Maj6th - min7th

Connecting Both Systems

Take a moment and compare the formula for the minor pentatonic scale with the three commonly used minor diatonic scales. Do the same with the Major pentatonic scale and the three commonly used Major diatonic scales. Notice how the minor pentatonic scale is found in the Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian scales.

In the same way, notice how the Major pentatonic scale is found in the Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian scales.

This means that we can interchange both scales and borrow notes from both systems to create a new scale. In this case, we’ll create new five note scales (pentatonic scales) by using the standard minor or major pentatonic scale and incorporating to them the characteristic note(s) of the diatonic scale we want to work with. We’ll call these new scales “modal pentatonic scales."

Minor Modal Pentatonic Scales

Dorian Pentatonic

For the Dorian pentatonic, we will need to incorporate the Major 6th to a minor pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - min3rd - 4th - 5th - Maj6th - min7th

That gives us a six note scale. We will have to eliminate one note in order to get a five note pentatonic scale. The best choice is to eliminate one of the notes that is close to the additional note (Major 6th in this case). We are left with two options: eliminating the 5th or the 7th. Both options are valid and will result in a Dorian pentatonic scale.

Dorian Pentatonic (eliminating the 5th)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Dorian Pentatonic (eliminating the min7th)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Phrygian Pentatonic

For the Phrygian pentatonic, we will need to incorporate the minor 2nd to a minor pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - min2nd - min3rd - 4th - 5th - min7th

That gives us a six note scale. We will have to eliminate one note to get a five note pentatonic scale. Although many options are valid, let’s eliminate the minor 3rd.

Phrygian Pentatonic (eliminating the min2nd)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Aeolian Pentatonic

For the Aeolian pentatonic we will need to incorporate the Major 2nd and a minor 6th to a minor pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - Maj2nd - min3rd - 4th - 5th - min6th - min7th

Let’s take a look at a possible Aeolian pentatonic scale:

Aeolian Pentatonic (eliminating the 5th and min3rd)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Major Modal Pentatonic Scales

Ionian Pentatonic

For the Ionian pentatonic, we will need to incorporate the 4th and Maj7th to a major pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - 4th - 5th - Maj6th - Maj7th

We need to eliminate two notes to the previous sale to get a five note scale that includes the characteristic notes of the Ionian scale. Several possibilities are offered, here is one of them:

Ionian Pentatonic (eliminating the 5th and Maj6th)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Lydian Pentatonic

For the Ionian pentatonic, we will need to incorporate the #4th to a major pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - #4th - 5th - Maj6th

We need to eliminate one notes to the previous sale to get a five note scale that includes the characteristic notes of the Lydian scale. Following is an example of what can be done:

Lydian Pentatonic (eliminating the 5th)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Mixolydian Pentatonic

For the Mixolydian pentatonic, we will need to incorporate the min7th into a major pentatonic scale. Here is what we’ll get:

Root - Maj2nd - Maj3rd - 5th - Maj6th - min7th

We need to eliminate one note from the previous sale to get a five note scale that includes the characteristic notes of the Mixolydian scale. Let’s eliminate the Major 6th:

Mixolydian Pentatonic (eliminating the Maj6th)
Modal Pentatonic Scale Lesson

Going Further
Make sure you understand all of the steps we took to build these modal pentatonic scales. Try building your own set of scales and pick the ones you like. Remember that you should always use these scales over backing tracks in order to hear them in context. Not doing so will prevent you from really hearing the color of the scales you are using. Be creative, develop new ideas and keep everything musical.
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