Guitar Modes... the smart (easy) way.

Part 3 of 3: Pentatonic Scales & Modes - the Smart Way to Guitar Modes

Pentatonic scales are the common root to all guitar modes: this approach simplifies modes on the fretboard so you don't have to remember a quagmire of fingering patterns. More importantly, you'll grasp modes, on the fretboard in mere minutes, just like you would on piano using the standard approach.

This is the third and last part of the section on guitar modes. The first is an introduction to this way of looking at modes. The second lays the ground by shifting the view from relative to parallel modes. You'll need that first.

This last part is hands on, putting modes directly onto the fretboard in a unique way that's so simple you'll never go back to the old one. Using this technique, you'll grasp all 6 true diatonic modes in mere minutes.

This article is an excerpt from Fretboard Essentials.

Most guitar beginners learn the following fingering patterns at the very start:

pentatonic scales guitar
Major and minor pentatonic fingering patterns.

There are many more ways of playing pentatonic scales on the fretboard, but these are the ones most people know and use most of the time. For simplicity, we will use only one octave of each:

pentatonic scales guitar
One octave major and minor pentatonic fingering patterns.

Pentatonic scales are no exception to our definition:

Scale: a cycle of notes that follow a specific interval pattern.

Just like modes do, they also follow specific interval patterns. Part two shows how 3 modes are major sounding and 3 of them are minor sounding. Now it's easy to compare interval patterns to simplify things on the fretboard.

This may (or may not) surprise you when you overlay the major pentatonic scale on the 3 major-like modes: all five scale-degrees of the pentatonic scale match notes within each mode. In fact, the same five notes for all three. 5 out of 7:

major modes

When you assign numbers to notes in scales, that's called scale degrees. Diatonic modes all have 7 scale degrees in them:

            1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Lydian:     C D E FG A B
Ionian:     C D E F G A B
Mixolydian: C D E F G A B

Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 are all identical in all three major-like modes. And those same scale degrees in that same interval configuration make up the major pentatonic scale.

This leads to one more interesting fact: only scale-degrees 4 and 7 out of each major-like mode are NOT in the major pentatonic. Now simply take the Ionian mode —in the middle— as your point of reference to grasp all 3 major-like modes in seconds. Just shift 4 up for Lydian, 7 down for Mixolydian:

guitar modes

Guitar modes diagram 1: the 3 major-like modes

  • Ionian → Lydian: 4 up

  • Ionian → Mixolydian: 7 down

  • Dead simple. One stone, six birds:

  • Major pentatonic
  • Ionian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Seamless mode shifting
  • Seamless modulation (C Lydian = G major / E minor, C Mixolydian = F major / D minor)
  • The scope of a tool is inversely proportional to its complexity. Remember this?

    guitar modes 3 notes per string

    Useless. On their own, guitar mode fingering patterns suck. Big time. But once you understand the correlations and how to organize them, even these shapes start to make sense. You've now got the underlying relationships — the surface patterns look related all of a sudden:

    3 major guitar modes

    The same holds true for the minor pentatonic scale: overlay the interval pattern of the minor pentatonic scale onto the 3 minor-like modes and all 5 degrees match the same notes within each mode:

    minor modes

                1 2 3 4 5 6 7

    Dorian:     C D EF G A B
    Aeolian:    C D EF G AB
    Phrygian:   C DEF G AB

    This time, it's scale degrees 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 that match 5 out of 7 tones out of each minor sounding mode. These scale degrees, these intervals are the minor pentatonic scale.

    Again, this leads to the fact that only scale-degrees 2 and 6 of each diatonic mode are NOT in the minor pentatonic scale. This time, take Aeolian as your point of reference for all 3 minor-like modes. Shift 2 down for Phrygian, 6 up for Dorian.

    minor guitar modes

    Guitar modes diagram 2: the 3 minor-like modes

  • Aeolian → Phrygian: 2 down

  • Aeolian → Dorian: 6 up

  • You've once again killed the same 6 birds with one stone. In this case, for use in modulation:

  • C Phrygian = Ab Major / F minor and C Dorian = Bb Major / G minor.
  • Once again, the surface patterns, any set of patterns for these 3 modes start to make sense:

    3 minor guitar modes

    Take the right approach to music, on the fretboard, and guitar modes, as well as everything else, is a piece of cake now. It's all connected. Pentatonic scales, diatonic scales and modes, chromatic scales, chords, harmony, modulation, all of it.

    Guitar Modes... the smart (easy) way 1, 2, 3

    For a deeper look at modes and their correlations:

    fretboard essentials

    For the remaining strings, understand pentatonic scales

    This approach to modes holds true for all octaves, of course, no matter what base pentatonic patterns you use. If this section on guitar modes surprised you, there is a similar in-depth review of pentatonic scales that is guaranteed to revolutionize how you use the fretboard.

    So instead of running off to try and memorize every possible pattern for every single mode, dig deeper into pentatonic scales. Understand their logic along and across the fretboard, and guitar modes will be a cinch.

    For a systematic approach to the fretboard, pentatonic scales, chords and much more, take the 7 week Fretboard Addicts test-drive. My gift to you:

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