Two Pentatonic Approaches to Mixolydian

The mixolydian scale is widely used in rock, blues, jazz, funk and soul improvising. It comes from a major scale starting on the 5th scale degree. In other words, to play a G mixolydian scale, start on G but play all of the notes in a C major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G). If we compare this to a G major scale, (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G) you might notice that there is only one different note, F. Besides that, they are identical. On the guitar (lessons here), it is quite simple to adopt the mixolydian feel by playing either a major or a minor pentatonic scale with a couple of added or changed notes. Check it out.

Major Pentatonic Approach

The major pentatonic scale consists of the following intervals:

Root – Major 2nd – Major 3rd – Perfect 5th – Major 6th

In other words, if we wanted to make a G major pentatonic scale, we would take the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes from the G major scale. Doing this leaves us with G-A-B-D-E, and these five notes are in both the G major scale and the G mixolydian scale seen above. As a result, we can quite easily add the missing notes and create a mixolydian scale out of the major pentatonic.

The only difference between major and mixolydian is the 7th scale degree, and adding that “flat 7,” as we call it, is quite simple. It is simply a whole step below the root or octave. Once you’ve added the flat 7, adding the last missing note, the perfect 4th (C) is equally simple—play the note that is one half step higher than the 3rd.

Minor Pentatonic Approach

Creating a mixolydian scale out of the minor pentatonic isn’t so tough either, but it takes a little more thought and explanation. The first thing we need to do is look at the intervals that make up the minor pentatonic scale:

Root – Minor (or flat) 3rd – Perfect 4th – Perfect 5th – Minor (or flat) 7th.

If we look at the minor pentatonic starting on G, we will thus have the following notes: G-Bb-C-D-F. Notice the flat 7th scale degree (F) occurs naturally in the G minor pentatonic.

You should also now notice that there is one note in the G-minor pentatonic that does not exist in the G mixolydian scale—Bb. No biggie. Why? Here are two reasons:
1. The Bb can easily be moved a half step up to B-natural, giving you the “correct” 3rd scale degree in mixolydian. Hammering on to the major 3rd from the Bb, or treating the Bb as a passing tone actually sounds pretty funky in the context of mixolydian.
2. The Bb lends itself quite nicely to most mixolydian chord progressions, such as the blues, because Bb exists in a C dominant 7th (C7) chord (C-E-G-Bb). This IV7 chord is almost always present chord progressions where mixolydian is applicable, so when used sparingly—and by sparingly I mean predominantly as a passing tone or precisely when the chord progression reaches the IV chord (in this case C or C7)—it actually sounds great.

To complete the G mixolydian scale from the G-minor pentatonic, we simply need to add the 6th scale degree, E, into the mix. To do this, simply play the note that is a whole step above the 5th, or you can reach the same place by playing the note one half step below the 7th.

Thinking of mixolydian in this way helps a guitarist play licks and improvise in such a way that is both easier to conceptualize and more logical than approaching the it as we did at the very beginning of the article (as a C major scale starting on G). If we play G-mixolydian as a C major scale starting on G, we will inherently play licks, riffs and melodies that sound like they are in C major rather than G mixolydian, losing the overall feel that we were going after in the first place. Try both of these methods with your G shape, G major and G minor pentatonic scale and see for yourself!