The Pentatonic Modes | Midwood Guitar Studio

The Pentatonic Modes | Midwood Guitar Studio

Posted by Robinson Earle on Jul 9th 2020

I’ve often heard guitarists express frustration at being trapped within the “pentatonic boxes”. Here they are organized to create an A minor pentatonic scale up the neck: 

A Minor Pentatonic Scale Positions

Folks tend to memorize them each vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally. The most fluid players can find then whenever, wherever, and in any key. After a while, though, the ear starts craving more complexity. That said, before adding more notes, it’s worthwhile to explore all the pentatonic “modes”.

Pentatonic scales are the oldest and most wide-spread scales in existence. Archeologists have discovered prehistoric bone flutes with the holes arranged to produce pentatonic scales. The gamelan orchestras of Indonesia, Chinese zither, Native American song-spell, and the Blues are all branches on the world tree of pentatonic music. Part of the reason that these traditions sound so disparate is that they use different modes. 

As westerners, most of us are familiar with the concept of relative minor versus major pentatonic. We can illustrate the Major pentatonic by altering the above example so that Position 2 becomes Position 1, starting between the 5th and 7th fret to remain in the key of A:

A Major Pentatonic Scale Positions

Taking it a step further, let’s discuss the further scalar implications of this method of reorganization. The Chinese make use of all five available modes of the pentatonic scale. They call the Major the “Gong” scale and the Minor the “Yu” scale. Additionally, they have the “Shang” mode, also known as the “Egyptian” or “Suspended” Pentatonic:

Suspended Pentatonic

The Shang mode includes the Tonic, Major Second, Perfect Fourth, Perfect Fifth, and Minor Seven tones. With the Third omitted, it becomes possible to play it over Major or Minor Progressions, though the Minor Seven lends it a bit of a serious mood. This neutrality gives it a certain exoticism, too. It is spry and strange. Neither happy, nor sad, but very natural.

Below we have the Blues Minor, Man Gong, Jue mode. It is also the scale used in the ancient Hindustani Raga, Malkauns, which is meant to be played at midnight, and creates a soothing, meditative, intoxicating mood. The omission of the Perfect Fifth gives it a feeling of intense restraint: 

Blues Minor Mode

Lastly, the Blues Major, Risusen, Yo, Zhi pentatonic mode is comprised of the Tonic, Major Second, Perfect Fourth, Perfect Fifth, and Major Sixth. It has a feeling of adventure to it. In this case, leaving out the Major III not only lends it neutrality, but a sense of excitement and risk.

Blues Major

The reason why westerners don’t use these modes much is largely cultural. European art music tends to rely on the gravity of the Major or Minor Third and the symmetry of the Perfect Fifth. To leave these out reduces harmonic potential. That said, they are used to great effect throughout the rest of the world, and are easy to add to your tool belt. Just play the pentatonic positions you already know while shifting the emphasis to the new Tonic. It’s at the very least, a powerful and subtle musical workout for your ear. Cheers!