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Scales from the dark side II: Using the drone

Following on from the first post in this series that covered dark modes and the scales that they originate from, this second instalment will focus on the use of such modes over a drone.

Now, when I say drone, I am referring to a single note, or octaves of the same note either played by a single instrument or multiple, it matters not. The great thing about using a drone in a section of music is that keys, chord progressions and concerns about compatibility can be disregarded. So if you have a particular favourite mode that is a nightmare to use over a chord or progression, this is the opportunity to reveal it.

Moving on a bit more though, over a drone section, multiple scales and their modes can be seamlessly linked without clashing with the underlying structure. This allows for elaborate constructions of scale sequences, multiple scales in an order that would otherwise be impossible or unpleasant to the ear of the audience.

For example, a drone note and its octaves of C may interrupt a piece of music, maybe an eight bar section used as a bridge or an interlude of some sort. One approach would be to play a mode from a scale and cycle it back or forth through the circle of fifths. So taking C Ionian as the starting point, the next modes, when cycled back through the circle of fifths, would be:

C Ionian = C Major

C Mixolydian = F Major

C Dorian = Bb Major

C Aeolian = Eb Major

C Phrygian = Ab Major

C Locrian = Db Major

This is where the sequence would end as the next mode from the key of Gb Major would be Cb Lydian, and the Cb would be incompatible over the C drone.

In the other direction around the circle of fifths, only C Ionian and C Lydian are played before the next key would make C# Locrian, again a clash. So going anticlockwise through the keys is the best option when using the Major scale. But what about the other 65 scales, I hear you ask?

Lets have a look at Melodic. C Melodic minor (mode I) over the drone would give us our starting point. Then the next modes are:

C Melodic = C Melodic minor

F Melodic = C Mixolydian b6

Bb Melodic = C Dorian b2

Eb Melodic = C Aeolian b5

Again, this is where the sequence ends as the next scale Ab Melodic contains Cb Lydian + and would create the clash between C and Cb.

Now let’s have a look at one of the scales that appeared in the darkest modes of the galaxy poll, covered in the previous instalment, C Harmonic minor b4. Scale number 23 in the Modal Method, its table is below:

key mode

C Harm min b4 C harmonic minor b4

F Harm min b4 C Phrygian Major bb7

Bb Harm min b4 C LocrianNat6bb3

Eb Harm min b4 Cb Lydian#2b6

Ab Harm min b4 Cb Ionian +b2

Db Harm min b4 C Altbb57

Gb Harm min b4 Cbb Ionian+#26##4

Cb Harm min b4 Cb Harm min b4

We can see that there are two possible changes back through the circle of fifths using the Harmonic minor b4 scale, C Harmonic minor b4 – C Phrygian Major bb7 – C Locrian nat6bb3. These sound menacing and bizarre while also having a sense of cohesion as they are following a sequence and the ear can pick up on that. This is only an illustration though, obviously it takes a fair bit of work to be able to improvise or even just play the scales while changing, but hey, you get out what you put in. Do you think Allan Holdsworth or Pat Matheny thought to themselves ‘nah, too much work, can’t be bothered’. Take a mode you like, and cycle it.

If you look at section III in The Modal Method, it contains all 66 seven note scales with their modes, cycled both forwards and back through the circle of fifths whilst staying on the same note, for easy reference. Choose a mode from a scale, look up the changes, learn on guitar. Done.

Playing with a drone is extremely liberating, opening up a vast array of scale choices to use, whether a single obscure mode or a series of modes played one after another. Here is a link to a nice drone backing track on C.


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