More Rock Modes
by Chris Botta
Last month, we talked about using elements of modal improvisation when playing rock lead. This month, we'll further examine how modes are put to use in rock lead playing and hopefully answer some questions that are often raised in guitar lessons. The most important thing to remember from our earlier discussion is the basic theory behind modal improv and composition - that is, we will take a system of notes, let's say a C major scale, and by designating another note as the tonic, let's say A, we'll derive a different tonality. In this case it would be A pure minor or what is known as the A Aeolian mode.
Modes at Work - Major and Minor Pentatonic
These theories can be a little difficult to grasp at times, so now that we've jumped into the deep end of the pool with both feet, let's try to stay close to home. Often, my students ask me, "What is the difference between major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales?" This question begs to be analyzed from the modal perspective.
The answer lies in what are known as "relative keys." Each major scale has a relative minor scale and each minor scale a relative major scale that share the same notes, in exactly the same way that the C Ionian and A Aeolian modes share all the natural or white key notes. It's the same with pentatonic scales. The C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic scales share all the same notes, so by making either C or A our "tonic" or root note, we get C major pentatonic or A minor pentatonic, respectively.
Here is a long form pentatonic scale. Try improvising licks over the following two progressions, using the exact same scale. The trick is to emphasize the note C when playing over the C major progression, and the note A when playing over the A minor progression.
It's important to note the position of the root notes within the framework of the scale pattern/chart. The C notes, which are the roots for the C major pentatonic mode, are filled in. The A notes, which are the roots for the A minor pentatonic mode, have thicker circles. You can begin and end a scale going from low key note to high key note, but it's not necessary in an improvisational or compositional context. Begin and end wherever it sounds good or is comfortable. Was it Charlie Parker who said, "If it sounds good, it is good?"
Country & Blues
When I first learned how to play blues scales, my teacher described the two different sounds or modes that were easily achieved as "blues," and "country." I still think of it this way on a certain level and it may help you to keep it in mind. Blues has a more minor sound, as opposed to country, which is more major. In classical theory, the two main modes are major and minor, as well. All of these similar modes can be better understood when they are organized into a system. Here's a quick reference chart.
It's important to note that pentatonic scales differ slightly from what are traditionally known as "blues scales." The traditional form of the blues scale has an extra note, making it a six-note scale. This note is what is known as a "passing note," and comes between the 3rd and 4th degrees of the minor pentatonic scale. In an A blues scale, the notes would be A, C, D, D#, E, & G. D# is the passing note, also known as a flatted fifth. This note is also sometimes referred to as a "blue note."
A Blues = C Country
A Minor Pentatonic = C Major Pentatonic
A Minor = C Major
Here is another important key area that you should know well:
E Blues = G Country
E Minor Pentatonic = G Major Pentatonic
E Minor = G Major
Use the following Long Form Pentatonic Scale to play over progressions below:
Another important aspect when working with scale patterns is to be able to identify which notes are best for bending. With a major pentatonic scale, the second degree of the scale is usually the best sounding in a half or whole step bend. The notes identified by a square bend well in both modes. The notes identified by a triangle work best in the minor pentatonic mode. Try to figure out where all the key notes are - use your ear or read on…
Often, different modes will be used over the same or shifting harmonies within the same piece of music. This happens all the time in the blues, so it's a good place to delve into this approach, which is called, "mode mixture." If we are going to mix modes over a given set of changes in a single key, we need to know how to access the major and minor modes that are built upon that key or tonic note. To do this, it will be helpful to know a bit about scale construction.
Since the major pentatonic scale relates to the major scale, and the minor pentatonic scale relates to the minor scale, we can build our parallel major/minor scales by examining how these scales are interrelated. Let's look at our white key, C major scale from last month again.
Since C major and A minor are relative keys, that is, they share the same notes and key signature, we can build an A minor scale by starting on the 6th degree of the C major scale at left and going up the scale from A to A. Please note that these scales relate back to our Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively. Now, let's take a look at the major and minor pentatonic scales:
Notice that the notes of the pentatonic scales, both major and minor, are contained in their respective major and minor seven-note scales. We could also say that the minor pentatonic scale begins on the 5th degree of the major pentatonic scale. Have you ever heard that a blues scale, placed three frets down from its original position would create a major pentatonic or country sounding scale? This is the same thing! Another way to look at it is that the second degree of a minor pentatonic scale will produce a major pentatonic scale, albeit in another key. Let's keep our theoretical exploration in the key of A for simplicity's sake. What minor pentatonic scale has A as its second degree? It's OK to "cheat" a little bit here and use your "three frets down" recipe if you want.
The answer is F# minor pentatonic or F# "Blues." So, now we know, that if we want to have both major and minor pentatonic scales in the same piece in the key of A, we will need A minor pentatonic or A blues, and F# minor pentatonic or F# blues, which is the same as A major pentatonic/A country.
Let's make a chart as we did above for C major/A minor and G major/E minor, for the key of A major/F# minor:
F# Blues = A Country
F# Minor Pentatonic = A Major Pentatonic
F# Minor = A Major
To access A minor pentatonic/blues and F# minor/pentatonic scales for our parallel mode experiment in the key of A, you'll have to know pentatonic forms in both of those keys. A minor pentatonic long form I is shown above. A major pentatonic long forms I & II and A minor pentatonic form II are shown below.
Remember, it's always important to know where the root notes for the key that you're playing in are located. In this case, we're in the key of A, so those notes are blackened in.
Again, the root notes for the key of A, i.e. all the A notes, are blackened in. Try to notice how the patterns shift around the notes, depending on whether you're playing major or minor pentatonic.
These long form scales can be very useful for improvising. Some players prefer them to straight, "positional" play. However, it's important to know both the long form scales and the five basic pentatonic blues forms in a variety of keys, including E, A, F#, D, C, B and C#.
But wait, we're not finished yet! Mode mixture, which we defined as the process of using both the major and minor modes in a piece of music in one key- is neither new nor passé. In classical music, this technique was used quite frequently in the great works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. But it's also used extensively in the blues, and you might even be using it yourself, without knowing it. Not long ago, one of my students expressed a desire to learn solos by Eric Clapton. I knew plenty of Clapton licks, but upon reexamining some of his solos from a slightly different perspective, I realized that he was constantly mixing modes. Just learning the licks was not that hard for my student, but finding out how to apply them in different keys presented a more difficult challenge.
Let's take a blues in A, and build some solo licks throughout, utilizing both major and minor pentatonic scales. You can use the chord structure of the piece below for your improvisations. I've gone ahead and written out a couple of choruses worth of licks that alternate between major and minor pentatonic scales for you to try out. Familiar sounding, huh? An important element to examine is the use of half-step and whole-step bends.
Thanks for joining us! Next month we'll swing back towards major-scale-based modal concepts and conclude our exploration with a look at how some of the great classic rock guitarists took their music beyond the blues by using modes. -Chris Botta
About the Author
Chris Botta grew up in New York City and began studying the guitar at the age of nine at a local music school. In his early teens, he began playing with his first rock bands.
He took his undergraduate studies at the Mannes College of Music, studying guitar with Michael Newman and theory with Carl Schacter. Upon graduation, Chris began teaching privately and at the Queens Village School of Music. At this time Chris also began writing, recording and performing with a variety of local groups.
He continues to teach and to craft his sound, style and songwriting, which combines influences from the rock era while reflecting the modal melodies of Indian music, modern classical harmony, and the edgy New York rock sound.
Email Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris' Website: www.chrisbottaguitar.com
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