How to Play Dorian Mode with the Pentatonic Scale on the Guitar

By Desi Serna

On the guitar, because Dorian mode centers on a minor chord, most lead guitar players prefer to approach it with minor pentatonic scale patterns. You can see how to put together A minor pentatonic and G major scale patterns here.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can think of Dorian mode as being the minor pentatonic with an added 2nd and major 6th. What’s nice about combining patterns this way is that you can stay in familiar pentatonic boxes, while at the same time incorporating major scale notes to produce the full Dorian sound.

You don’t need to memorize and master every one of these pattern combinations. Most guitarists end up settling on only a few preferred patterns and positions. As a starting place, you can play through A minor pentatonic pattern 1 beginning at the 5th fret (the first example). That’s a position all guitarists use. Remember that all the patterns begin to repeat at the 12th fret.

The key of A Dorian is just a starting point. You can produce Dorian mode in other keys by combining the patterns in this way in new positions. For example, move up the patterns two frets to play in B Dorian. Move up another fret for C Dorian, and so on.

Any time a piece of music uses the major scale and centers on the 2nd degree, which is normally chord ii, it’s Dorian mode. Some song examples that are either entirely based in Dorian mode or at least have a Dorian section include the following:

“Oye Como Va” by Santana (A Dorian)

“Moondance” by Van Morrison (A Dorian)

“Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel (A Dorian)

“It’s Too Late” by Carol King (A Dorian )

“Light my Fire” by The Doors (A Dorian and guitars tuned down one half step to Ef)

“Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd (D Dorian)

“Your Body Is a Wonderland” by John Mayer (D Dorian)

“Ecstacy” by Rusted Root (D Dorian)

“Spooky” by Atlanta Rhythm Section (E Dorian)

“Horse with No Name” by America (E Dorian)

“I Wish” by Stevie Wonder (Ef Dorian)

As you can tell from this song list, Dorian has a bit of a jazzy flavor to it. Any one of these songs is good for playing along with and practicing Dorian mode. You can also put together your own tracks by centering a progression around the 2nd degree and chord from the major scale.

Modes are referred to by their tonic pitch and Greek name. A Dorian means that the tonic pitch is A and it’s the 2nd scale degree in the major scale. If A is 2, then G must be 1 and the parent major scale. G Dorian means that the tonic pitch is G and it’s the 2nd scale degree in the major scale.

If G is 2, then F must be 1 and the parent major scale. Likewise, D Dorian is drawn from C major and E Dorian from D major.

You can see a demonstration on how to play in Dorian mode in Playing in Dorian Mode.