The pentatonic scale is a watered-down version of the major and minor modes from the major scale. If you know your major and minor pentatonic scales, then there is a simple trick to play the major and minor modes. And you really only have to learn the trick two times to hint at 6 of the 7 modes from the major scale. I cover that simple hack plus a bonus hack that uses the Locrian mode over dominant 7th chords.
A brief introduction to modes and the pentatonic scale
If you are interested in modes then you should already know your pentatonic scales and the major scale in general. I have a no-nonsense breakdown of the 1st 6 modes of the major scale using the pentatonic.
If you have found modes confusing then get ready to understand them. Let’s build up to that by looking at the chords that can be built from the major pentatonic scale:
Major pentatonic = 1-2-3-5-6.
The scale degrees build the following chords: major triad, 6, add9 and a 6 add9 chord. You can use the major pentatonic built on the 1st of a major chord to solo over any of the chords. Here is the minor pentatonic scale:
Minor pentatonic = 1-b3-4-5-b7
You can build a minor triad, m7 and m11 chord with those scale degrees and you use the minor pentatonic built off the 1st of a minor chord to solo over those chords. If you play blues or rock, you can also apply that scale to major and dominant 7th chords.
Major pentatonic scale to major modes hack
There are 3 major scale modes in the major scale. They each have a major pentatonic associated with them. The same is true for the minor pentatonic and modes, but I’ll cover them in the minor section below.
You can turn any major scale mode into a major pentatonic by removing the 4th and 7th scale/mode degrees. Or you can flip that and turn a major pentatonic scale into a major scale mode by adding the appropriate 4th and 7th scale degrees.
The major scale builds major modes on the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees. Read my Music Intervals article if you do not understand any of the intervals listed below. Here is an example for C major but in terms of the pentatonic scale:
C Ionian = C major pentatonic + the P4 and M7 = (C-D-E-G-A) + F + B
The notes F and B (the tritone) are the notes that are missing from the C major pentatonic scale. Or, more importantly, the major pentatonic scales are missing the 4th and 7th of the Ionian mode. The 4th and 7th intervals for the F Lydian mode and G Mixolydian modes are different, hence the different sound for each mode. Here are those scales/modes:
F Lydian = F major pentatonic + A4 and the M7 = (F-G-A-C-D) + B + E
G Mixolydian = G major pentatonic + P4 and m7 = (G-A-B-D-E) + C + F
That’s kind of my hack but not the one I use. I’ll cover what I do below, but let’s cover the minor pentatonic and minor modes of the major scale.
The minor pentatonic and minor modes of the major scale
Hopefully, you know that every major pentatonic can be turned into it’s relative minor pentatonic. I’ll assume you do so let’s look at Dm, Em and Am pentatonic and the minor modes from the C major scale:
D Dorian = D minor pentatonic + M2 and M6 = (D-F-G-A-C) + E + B
E Phrygian = E minor pentatonic + m2 and m6 = (E-G-A-B-D) + F + C
A Aeolian = A minor pentatonic + M2 and m6 = (A-C-D-E-G) + B + F
So if you know all the pentatonic scale shapes, you just add in the missing mode notes and you get the mode. However, that is easier said than done.
I’ll cover this in a future article, but you should be practicing 3-note minor and major arpeggios. But make sure you recognize each note as either the 1st, 3rd or 5th of the triad. Adding in all the missing mode or pentatonic notes is much easier once you see the triad notes.
So that’s the hack – just making a simple change to the scales you already know. I kind of do that, but I also don’t really do that. Let’s look at the major scales and modes below and I’ll explain.
Major modes abbreviated hack
I like to keep things simple, and as a result, I don’t play the Phrygian or Lydian mode. Okay, maybe the Lydian, but definitely not Phrygian. And I don’t play the full mode – at least not consciously. I practice the major and minor triads and add the related pentatonic scale notes.
For C major/Ionian and F Lydian, I only add the major 7th B and E respectively. What that does for me is it builds a maj7, maj9, maj13, and maj9/13. And for G Mixolydian, I only add the flat 7 F which gets me G7, G9, G13, and G9/13.
If you don’t know those chords, then check out my C major scale chords. You might also want to look at my CAGED System article for a comparison of the pentatonic scales and the triads associated with them.
So all I do is add the major 7th scale degree for the 1 and 4 chords and I add the flat 7 for the 5 chord. That is easy to do because the 7th is behind the tonic – 1 fret for the major 7th and 2 for the flat 7.
“KNOW WHERE YOUR ROOT NOTES ARE!” so sayeth Everyone!
I do make an exception for Lydian because the augmented 4th is so distinctive. But in the beginning, you should keep it simple and just add the missing 7th of each mode.
Here are scale scales for the major pentatonic, Lydian mode and the major pent with the M7 and b7 added. Use the major 7th version to solo over the 1 & 4 chords (C and F) and the b7 version for G7, the V chord. Use the Lydian mode over the IV chord F or as a different sound over the tonic C major.
My approach to modes is to just add the missing notes to the pentatonic scales. For the major pentatonic, I’m definitely adding the 7th and I will add the 4th as I see it. However, first I am focusing on the base triad, then the major pentatonic. Adding the 7th and 4th then occurs naturally for me as I see those notes or want to add them.
If you just add the missing notes while playing a pentatonic it will really move you to the next level of playing. Give it a try – I’m sure you will agree.
Minor pentatonic and the Dorian mode
Similar to the Lydian mode, the Dorian mode has a distinctive interval – the major 6th. This is definitely a mode you want to play in full. You can play the minor pentatonic with just the major 2nd added, but that major 6th is worth learning when you want the Dorian sound.
The minor pentatonic is missing the same notes at its relative major pentatonic. For A minor, that would be the notes B & F, the major 2nd and minor 6th respectively. When you only add the major 2nd then you get the additional sounds of a minor add 9 and a m9 chord.
In my opinion, don’t bother learning the Phrygian mode. You can if you want to in the future, but keep it simple for now. If you really want to experiment, then just play the b9 1 fret in front of the root/tonic note.
Here are the scale shapes for the minor pentatonic, the minor pent with the Major 2nd and the full Dorian mode. Remember, the Dorian mode is just the minor pentatonic with the m2 and M6 added.
I label the M2 as 9 instead. of 2 on the scale blocks – I always think in terms of chord names. You can use the minor pentatonic with the major 2nd to play over chords built on the 2nd and 6th scale degrees unless it is a minor 6 (Dorian chord).
So just drop in the major 2nd for a nice addition to your minor pentatonic scale shapes. If you want the full Dorian sound then add the major 6th as well. For Aeolian, add the b6. You can visualize the major 6th as 1 fret behind the b7 or 2 frets above the perfect 5th and the minor 6th is 1 fret above the perfect 5th.
The Locrian mode and Locrian pentatonic
I can’t skip the last mode of the major scale without an easy hack. The mode built on the leading tone of the major scale is known as Locrian and has the following intervals using B as an example:
B Locrian = B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = 1-b9-b3-4-b5-b6-b7
There are 3 chords that you can build from the mode, all of which are used as substitutions for a dominant 7th chord though the m11b5 is only see in jazz:
dim triad = 1-b3-b5 = rootless V7, e.g. G7 no root = Bdim
m7b5 = 1-b3-b5-b7 = rootless V9 chord, e.g. G9 no root = Bm7b5
m11b5 = 1-b3-b5-b7-11 = rootless V9/13 chord, e.g. G9/13 no root = Bm11b5
You should know that the blues scale is the minor pentatonic with the b5 added. If you play a blues scale without the perfect 5th then that is known as the Locrian pentatonic.
If you build that pentatonic on B, the major 3rd of a G major chord, that gives you a B Locrian pentatonic which has all the notes in a Bm11b5 chord. Just drop the F# from a B blues scale and you have a great scale to play over G7 chords.
Try just adding either the major 7th or the b7 to the major pentatonic for an Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian sound. Add the major 9th to the minor pentatonic for a richer minor scale. That simple hack will really make a difference to your lead playing. And don’t ignore the Lydian and Dorian modes as they are fantastic modes to use.
Download this image as a reminder of how the modes are related to the pentatonics. Remember, a major pentatonic has all the notes in a 6 add9 chord, while the minor pentatonic scale has the notes of a m11 chord.