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Dorian Mode Workshop

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The Dorian mode is a well used scale in most genres based around Rock, Blues and Jazz as well as featuring in Celtic and Folk styles. You might say it's pretty popular!

In the tutorial I'm going to show you how you can get a lot more out of this scale by looking at how it's constructed and using that information to play lines that are based around it's arpeggios instead of just running up and down the scale. Well also look at some alternative Pentatonic ideas that aren't generated by the root note of the scale. This is sometimes referred to as Pentatonic Substitution.

We'll also take a look at the Dominant Pentatonic scale and how we can incorporate this into the Dorian Mode. Some of these ideas are technically quite advanced so you'll need to warm up those fingers before we get started!

How Is The Dorian Mode Constructed

Now I’m sure you’ve already got a grip of what a Mode is. Just in case you don’t know, a Mode is a scale that is generated by the intervals of another scale. This is known as the 'Parent' scale. Only a parent scale can generate modes. Three good examples of parent scales in Western music are the Major scale, the Melodic Minor scale and the Harmonic Minor scale. Because these three scales have unique interval sequences they will each generate seven unique modes.

In this tutorial we’re going to be working in with the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode is the second mode of the Major scale. So how does this work? Well first let’s have a look at how the major scale is built. Let's use C Major (no sharps or flats!).

The Major scale Interval sequence.

In the picture above you can see that the distance between the notes has a certain structure. These distances are measured in Tones and Semitones. This structure is what makes the Major scale unique from any other scale.

Now if we take the same notes but start the scale from the second degree a new interval structure is built.

The Dorian Mode Interval sequence.

This new interval structure creates the Dorian mode. We call it a Mode because it contains all of the musical genetics of the parent scale (notes and interval sequence) but just in a different order. It therefore has the same key signature.

Now the one thing that the Dorian mode doesn't share with the parent major scale is sound. Firstly we can see that by starting the interval structure in a different place has created a Minor 3rd interval between the root note in the third note of the scale. This means the Dorian mode is a minor scale. It also contains a b7 scale degree.

Apart from the Minor 3rd probably the most important note in the Dorian scale is the Major 6th. This gives it its distinctive moody quality which is why it's so great for blues and jazz.

Extracting The Harmonized Information

Understanding The Parent Scale

Understanding how any scale works is really important if you want to either compose with it or improvise with it. The only way to do this is to work out the chord types that are generated when the scale is harmonized.
I don't want to get too into this here so I've simplified this into a diagram of what harmonies the C Major scale (The Parent scale of D Dorian) produces. We know E (The 3rd note of the scale) is two Tones away from C. This Interval is a 'Major 3rd' so the first chord of the Major scale is obviously Major. The note a 3rd away from D (The second degree of the scale) is F. If we add the intervals up between D and F (A Tone and a Semitone) together we get a Minor 3rd. Therefore the chord generated by the second degree of the Major scale will be a Minor chord type. Etc, etc.

The chord types of the C major scale up to 7th chords.

This Maj, min, min, Maj, Maj, min, min sequence we have here is unique to the Major scale just like it's interval structure. The most important thing to understand is that C is the root note. All things will resolve to C Major!!!
So if you wanted to write a song in C Major these are the chords you would use. And you could use the C Major scale to improvise over any chord progression you made up. Simple stuff!!

Generating The Chords Of A Mode

To generate the chords of D Dorian we do exactly the same thing as we did with the scale. We start the whole sequence from D instead of C!!

The chord types of the D Dorian Mode up to 7th chords.

The most important thing to understand with this is that D is now the root note and any melody or chord progression you write with these chords will now resolve to D Minor!!!! You are now in D Dorian!!!

Breaking Down The Chords

So now we know the chords of D Dorian. Sure we can build a song structure out of them but we can also do something else with this information. We can use them as arpeggios to build more melodic and interesting lead lines!

An arpeggio is just a chord or triad (A basic three note chord 1-3-5) played one note at a time. The problem a lot of starting guitarists have is that they learn a scale and just go up and down it. I did too!!! This wears really thin, really fast, and isn't very interesting when it comes to the shape of a melody or solo.

The reason a lot of people shy away from this idea of using arpeggios is because it requires a lot of study. There are many, many ways to play the same arpeggio on the fretboard and knowing how to do this anywhere on the neck on all the different positions takes a lot of hard work and dedication. My advice is learn the CAGED chord system as it helps you understand the fretboard as a whole.

Another problem is that once you learn an arpeggio you don't just play the same one up and down! Again this isn't very interesting either, not even at sub light speeds!!

Over the next six examples I'm going to show you how you can combine fragments of the chords of D Dorian together as arpeggiated runs to create some more interesting ideas.

The basic premise is that of 'Superimposition'. Stacking one chord or triad over another to create a more complex sound. Example: If I combine a C Major triad (C-E-G) with an E Minor triad (E-G-B) I get a CMaj7 chord (C-E-G-B). If I go one step further and use an Emin7 (E-G-B-D) arpeggio over the C triad I get a CMaj9 sound (C-E-G-B-D).

Different combinations produce different sounds and start to extend the harmony of the chord your playing over. So playing fragments of three different arpeggios over one static chord will produce some really interesting sounds. Let's have a look!

Arpeggio Ideas

Example 1

This first example is pretty simple. It essentially alternates between G and F major triads (The 3rd and 4th triads of the harmonized scale) in a descending fashion. You could incorporate this ideas into to any Rock, Blues or Jazz solo pretty easily. Try expanding this using the lower triad voicings as well. Even though the line is moving it contains a pretty consistent sound as it uses the same two triads. Try combining other triads in this way.

Example 2

This is essentially the same idea as the last example but with a chromatic twist. The G triad moves to the F via an F# major triad before ending with an E min triad. This would work well in a Jazz context or if you just want to add a bit of tension to your solo. This kind of thing usually works well at the end of a section into a big resolve (over a fill!). Tension and Release!!!

Example 3

This next idea is based around a D min Pentatonic and a G7/9 arpeggio. The G7 arpeggio is featured a lot in these examples as it contains a 'B' which is that all important Major 6th degree of the Dorian Mode. OK so a few of these chords contain B, why is the G7 so important? Well it also contains the 'Tritone' interval (The Devils interval, a flat fifth!) which has a very strong sound. This phrase has a VERY Dorian sound to it. Really try to accent the quarter note pulse on this one. The G7 arpeggio is based off the CAGED 'A' shape as it sits perfectly over Position 1 (E shape) of the Minor Pentatonic.

Example 4

This is a simple 'fusion' kind of phrase. It starts on a simple Dmin7 arpeggio which runs chromatically into the 3rd of the G7 arpeggio and finishes on the 5th of an Amin7 which is the Major 9th of D Dorian. This has a very 'smooth' tonality.

One thing that's really important to bear in mind is that all these arpeggios are based around the CAGED system which allows you to play many different arpeggios without moving your position on the neck allowing me to move easily from one to the next!

Knowing your CAGED chord shapes is really important!!!

In the picture above you can see how I'm visualizing these arpeggio shapes based off their CAGED chord positions. They all reside in the same part of the neck!!!

Example 5

This idea actually starts with D Melodic Minor (That's pretty much Dorian but with a Maj7 instead!!). The E#(Maj 7th) is only a passing note (on a weak beat) so you can get away it. The G7 and Cmaj7 arpeggios are all approached (slid into) from a semitone below giving it a nice chromatic type of feel! All these passing notes are on weak beats too (the 'a' of the quarter note) so they don't sound dissonant.

Example 6

The final example in this section alternates between D Minor Blues (Pentatonic with a b5th) and our trusty G7 arpeggio. Again there's a few bits of chromaticism thrown in to give it a bit more harmonic interest.

Going Beyond Root Note Pentatonics

The Pentatonic is probably the most versatile scale ever!! Why? Because it's so simple! You can play the Major Pentatonic scale over any Major chord type as long as it has a 1-3-5. Likewise you can play a Minor Pentatonic scale over any Minor chord type as long as it has a 1-b3-5.

This means as we have three Minor chords with a 1-b3-5 inside the Dorian Mode (D min, E min and A min) we can play D Minor Pentatonic, E Minor Pentatonic and A Minor Pentatonic over a static D Minor Dorian vamp.

The beauty of this is that even though the D Minor Pentatonic doesn't contain the 2 (E) or the 6 (B) which are the primary 'Color Tones' of Dorian, the E Minor Pentatonic DOES contain both of these notes (E-G-A-B-D). So you can imply the Dorian sound by 'substituting' D Minor Pentatonic with E Minor Pentatonic.

If you don't quite get this, think of it this way. In C Major there are three straight Minor Modes. D Dorian, A Aeolian and E Phrygian. All Contain a 1, b3 and a 5. If you strip the 2 and 6 (The color tones) from these modes your left with a Minor Pentatonic in all three instances. D Minor Pentatonic, E Minor Pentatonic and A Minor Pentatonic.

You can't play a Minor Pentatonic over the last Minor Mode (Locrian) because it has a 1-b3-b5!

Here's a couple of pointers when using these other Pentatonics.

  • 1 - Try your hardest to resolve these ideas to a note from a D Minor triad (D-A-F)! E also works too! We're in D Dorian.
  • 2 - You can recycle most of your existing Pentatonic vocabulary (licks) to these new Pentatonics as long as you...(See 1).

Here are a couple of ideas that use this principle of substituting Pentatonic scales. In our case, E Minor Pentatonic and A Minor Pentatonic.

Pentatonic Ideas

Example 7

Here's a good example of how you can mix these three Minor Pentatonics together to make what 'are' standard Pentatonic ideas sound a bit more colorful. This one starts with E Minor pentatonic then switches to A Minor and ends on D Blues. We get the 6th from the E Minor and 9th from the A Minor. Nice!

Example 8

Here's another variation in a different position this time we alternate between A Minor Pentatonic and D Minor Pentatonic and get all that nice 9th goodness. It's slightly softer sounding than just a regular root note Pentatonic.

You'll notice I'm not moving when switching Pentatonic shapes. This is because the Pentatonic positions are inherently linked to the CAGED Minor chord shapes (That's a whole other tutorial!). Just Google 'CAGED Pentatonic Shapes' if you don't already know this.

Dominant Pentatonics

The Dominant Pentatonic is just a Major Pentatonic with a b7 instead of a major 6th. Hey! Pentatonic just means 'five note scale'! It works perfectly over any Dominant chord and is in fact just a 7(add9) arpeggio. You learn it in all five CAGED positions just like the regular Pentatonic. You can also apply any Pentatonic patterns and phrasing to it too!

On the left is a CAGED E shape Major pentatonic (Position 1). The 6th is moved up one fret to create the Dominant Pentatonic on the right.

Why It's So Cool!!!

When you start it from the 5th it turns into a Minor Pentatonic with a Major 6th instead of a b7 (Very Dorian!!). Cool!! Even cooler, if you start it from the 3rd it turns into a Half Diminished Pentatonic that can be used over 7th chord of the Major scale (Locrian). Awesome!


So that's about it folks! I hope you enjoyed this and maybe got some useful information from it too. I'll leave you with one thought!
All these ideas can be used over any Mode of C Major! Why? Cause they all contain the same chords!!! Try Ex5 over a G7 vamp (It's Country!!), Ex1 over an Fmaj7(#11) (Lydian) chord vamp. Use E Minor Pentatonic over an A Minor chord progression (Am-G-F)!

There's a lot of mileage in knowing how to transfer ideas between Modes of a simple Major scale! Enjoy!

P.S. I've included a Dorian style 'Jam Track' in the Playback folder!! :)

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