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Learn Modes on the Guitar

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

By Aaron Cloutier for Guitar on Demand


What Are Modes?

Hello dear reader! I hope all is good with you.

In my experience during my 10+ years of teaching in private music schools, I’m still surprised to see that not much has changed regarding how information about modes is presented to guitar students even in this age of information.

Of course I’m speaking in generalities as I know not all resources are the same but there still seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding the modes and what to do with them once you learn them.

I always get excited about this particular topic because there’s so much to be gained from a basic understanding of what the modes are and how to use them in a practical application.

Seriously, I love talking about the modes and discussing ways of how to implement them in your music whether it's in the service of songwriting or soloing.

Even if you're not the most technically proficient player, you will have so much to gain as a musician in terms of improvisation and composition by some focused study and application of these modes.

Anyway, let's get into it. I'm going to do my best to break it all down (cough cough cough)

Here we go.

THE MODES!

  • What they are

  • Why you need them

  • How to use them

Let's go.

What Are Modes?

In essence, a mode is a rearrangement of a pre-existing scale.

For example, if we are talking about the modes of the major scale, that would mean that we can rearrange all seven notes in any major scale to come up with 7 different sounding scales unto themselves.

Let’s look at a C major scale for example.

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

So in music, the sound of a scale is defined by the space in between the notes. The name we give these spaces is called “intervals.” Specifically, an interval is a measurement of the distance between two notes (example: C to D is a whole step interval.)

This C major scale is constructed out of a unique series of whole step and half step intervals.

W-W-h-W-W-W-h

W=Whole step (2 frets on the guitar)

h=Half step (1 fret on the guitar)

We call a pattern of intervals an "intervallic pattern" if we're feeling fancy.

Here’s how our C major scale looks all laid out including the intervallic pattern.

C-W-D-W-E-h-F-W-G-W-A-W-B-h-C

The scale starts on the first note “C” and Ends on “C”

The easiest way to hear this would be to play a "C" to a "C" using only the white keys on the piano.

So what a mode is essentially is the same scale but starting and finishing on a different note.

For example, what if we took this scale and started on the second note “D” and ended on “D”? Using all the same notes as before?

We would end up with this.

D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D

This is best heard by playing a “D” to a “D” on the piano using all the white keys.

The pattern of intervals would change From this

W-W-h-W-W-W-h

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

To This

W-h-W-W-W-h-W

D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D

Same exact notes, yet the order is changed. As a result, you have a completely different sounding scale.

Also notice how the stream of notes follow alphabetical order? This is super important to keep in mind when figuring out the modes in your own studies.

Alright moving on.

Now let’s play an “E” to an “E” Using all the white keys.


We now have this.

E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E

The pattern of intervals would change from this

W-W-h-W-W-W-h

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

To This

h-W-W-W-h-W-W

E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E

And so on and so on. You can do this for all 7 notes in the scale.

If you have a piano handy, try this out right now to see what I mean. You're using the same collection of notes ( C D E F G A B ) and yet by continuously changing the order in which these notes occur, you're changing the very sound of the scale itself.

( It still blows my mind to this day! )

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO GUITAR PLAYERS?


A great way to simulate this piano approach if you're a guitar player is to simply play the mode across one string. You'll really begin to see and hear the nature of the scale I guarantee.

I love this way of thinking about modes because it allows you to see them all in a linear form rather than as a vertical box pattern on your guitar. To take this even further, take a mode on one string and compare each note found in it to a droning root note.

For example, play the D Dorian mode across your “D” string on your guitar while pedaling that open “D” note in between each note you ascend across the neck. That root note will provide a reference to your ear and will allow you to really begin to internalize the nature of this mode.

Names of the Modes

Now that we know what they are, let’s talk briefly about the names of each mode. In my early days as a teacher, I would make the mistake of rambling on and on about what these modes are and how to construct them without even playing them for the student. Hopefully you have a better understanding now of how these modes sound.

Anyway, here are the names for all the modes of the major scale. These apply to every natural major scale in all 12 keys with each mode having its own unique sound and mood associated with it.

Ionian - (Happy/Bouncy)

Dorian - (Melancholy/Funky Minor)

Phrygian - (Dark/Intense Minor)

Lydian - (Whimsical/Quirky Major)

Mixolydian - (Ethereal/Sad Major)

Aeolian - (Dramatic/Natural Minor)

Locrian - (Creepy/Tense)

Why You Need Them

For the remainder of this writing, I will be speaking directly to guitar players as I have exhausted what little I know of the piano. As I mentioned above, you will have so much to gain as a musician in terms of improvisation and composition by some focused study and application of these modes due to the distinct flavors you can get out of rearranging this one major scale seven times but let's list off a few things.

  • Learning all 7 of your 3 string major scale shapes (yes, those are the modes of the major scale) will help improve your technical ability and dexterity on the instrument.

  • Learning the modes will tune your ear and make you become a better improviser.

  • These improvisational skills are often associated with soloing over chord changes but it also pertains to the act of songwriting itself. Understanding each of these 7 tasty flavors will breathe some color into your melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions.

  • Speaking of chord progressions, did you know that you can write and play modal chord progressions? Check out Sweet Home Alabama for an example in G Mixolydian.


To Use Them

Alright so I've explained the what and the why. Now onto the how

As I feel that showing is much better than telling, I've put together a video explaining the modes in greater detail plus how I like to use them in my writing and improvising.

I've also included in the video a little trick on how to use your root position pentatonic scale to string the three minor modes together.

Feel free to check that out here.

The subject of the modes is vast and I'm only scratching the surface here so I'd love to know your thoughts on this. What is the most challenging thing to you about the modes?

Leave me a comment. I'd love to answer any questions you have!

Thanks for reading!

Aaron Coultier is an online guitar teacher at Guitar on Demand.


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