Using pentatonic scales to create major modes: Ionian

Today I’ve been thinking about the major pentatonic scale. It’s a scale that players in most styles of music know. If you don’t know the sound, think the bass line from “My Girl.” Most people approach this scale as root based to the key they’re in. For example, the song is in C major, you use the C major pentatonic scale, but they are other ways to use this scale, where you can actually get all the modal sounds too.

Think about the user friendly key of C major, you have C D E F G A B C in the whole major (or ionian) scale. The C major pentatonic scale gets all the good notes: C D E G A. No tense notes, so it’s a great choice for beginners. The problem is, this use of the scale can start to sound like a one hit wonder after 9 gigs a week. What if we approached it differently? Take the key of C major again: C D E F G A B C, and play a G major pentatonic over it: G A B D E. This creates a totally different sound, and the best part is, all your licks still hang together and sound good, it just sounds a little more “colorful.” The B is a major seventh from the root, which can be a pretty note or a tense note, depending on how you land rhythmically. Another choice would be F major pentatonic over C major: F G A C D. This is a much more tense choice, as the F will always clash with a C major chord. The interesting thing is, that using a pentatonic scale instead of the full major scale and just landing on an F, makes the F less tense. So here’s a systematic way of looking at using major pentatonic to create the full Ionian mode: I/I (read one over one) or C major pent over C major in the example, V/I (read five over one) or G major pent over C major, and IV/I (read four over one) or F major pent over C major. These are listed in order of “outness.” You can use these to create a solo that has a little tension and release. Start with I/I, then go to V/I (tension), then I/I (release), then IV/I (tension), then I/I (release), then V/I (tension), then IV/I (more tension), then I/I (release).

Hope you enjoy using these ideas!