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Modes on Guitar & Modal Theory

This series will introduce you to the concept of modes on guitar, starting with the modes of the major scale. We'll start by looking at the characteristics of each mode individually. After that, we'll discover how they work together on the fretboard and when to use them.

First, an important introduction to modes, because this is not something we can just rush into (as you'll soon realise).

What are modes?

Watch this video presentation for a good intro...

In a nutshell, modes are "scales within a scale".

diagram showing how modes are derived from a parent scale

In the example in the video, the major scale was the parent scale. All its modes (children) can be used as scales in a solo, just like the major scale itself. But what makes them modes is that they are derived from the intervals of a parent scale.

That's why we call them modes OF a particular scale (e.g. modes of the major scale, modes of harmonic minor etc.).

Modes Of The Major Scale

First, make sure you're familiar with the major scale.

The major scale has 7 tones, and each tone represents a degree of that scale - 1st (root), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th.

In modal theory, each degree of the major scale marks the "start", or root, of a new mode, with the same corresponding number.

diagram showing modes of the major scale

For example, the 2nd degree of the major scale also marks the root note of its 2nd mode (see below for the numbered modes).

Play the major scale from its 2nd degree, and you will be playing the sequence of tones that make up the 2nd mode of the major scale.

However, it is only when that sequence of tones is played in context, over a backing note or sequence of chords built around that same degree, that its modal colour truly shows. More on this later!

Let's start by getting to know each of the modes on guitar individually before pulling it all together. Take your time and try not to concern yourself too much with their unusual names (Ancient Greek origin)!

1. Ionian (see major scale)

2. Dorian

3. Phrygian

4. Lydian

5. Mixolydian

6. Aeolian (see natural minor scale)

7. Locrian

+ Modal Harmony (Ear Training)

+ Mode Relationships

+ Modal Chord Progressions

Essential Mode Theory

When you start to understand this intrinsic relationship between the modes, all connected to the notes of their parent scale, you realise that you're only ever really playing the major scale in a relative position.

All 7 modes use the same 7 notes as their parent scale, in other words. They just "start" from different degrees of that parent scale.

For example, D Lydian uses the same 7 notes as its parent A major scale, just "starting" from a different degree...

Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
A Major A B C# D E F# G#
D Lydian D E F# G# A B C#

This is because the note D is the 4th note of the A major scale, therefore D becomes the root of its 4th mode.

Taking another parent scale, F major, where do you think its 5th mode Mixolydian would be rooted?

Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
F Major F G A Bb C D E

The answer is the note C. This is because C is the 5th note of the F major scale and therefore corresponds to the 5th mode mixolydian...

Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
F Major F G A Bb C D E
C Mixolydian C

All you're doing is picking one of the major scale's degrees and making that degree the new "center" or "1" of the scale.

The reason it doesn't always sound like the major scale is because the backing chord/progression or bass note puts it into the context of one of its modes.

For example, if you play D Dorian, the parent scale (and therefore note pattern) may be C major. But if the backing chord is D minor it will reinforce D Dorian as the tonal center, even though you're just playing the notes of the C major scale.

The lesson on mode relationships helps you to visualise this concept.

Mode Intervals and Related Chords

It's also useful to be able to see/hear the subtle differences between each major mode and each minor mode. This will help you to identify which chords a particular mode will work over.

For example, mixolydian would work over a dominant 7th chord but not a major 7th chord, because mixolydian has a flat 7th (not a major 7th) interval.

A major chord with a #4 (sharp 4th, also called a #11) would be best suited to Lydian, because Lydian has a #4 interval.

The below tables show you which chords each mode tends to be associated with. The important chord tones are emboldened and underlined in the intervals column.

Major Modes

Note that, although Lydian's most commonly associated chord is a #11, it's also commonly used over major or major 7th chords without the #4/#11, as an alternative to Ionian.

Mode Name Intervals Common Chord Type
Ionian 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Major 7th (e.g. Cmaj7)
Lydian 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 Major 7th Sharp 11th (e.g. Cmaj7#11)
Mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 Dominant 7th (e.g. C7)

Minor Modes

Mode Name Intervals Common Chord Type
Dorian 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 Minor 6th (e.g. Cm6) or Minor 7th (e.g. Cm7)
Phrygian 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 Suspended 4th Flat 9th (e.g. Csus4b9)
Aeolian 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 Minor 7th (e.g. Cm7)

Diminished Mode

Locrian is the "odd one out" because it's the only diminished mode out of the 7, therefore its related chord is diminished (called half diminished when extended to a 7th chord).

Mode Name Intervals Common Chord Type
Locrian 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 Half Diminished (e.g. Cm7b5)

When to Play Modes

The video below gives you some theory behind knowing when to play a particular mode and some ear training exercises to help you identify when a movement of harmony is modal (or at least implies a given mode)...

Each mode lesson in the contents has ear training audio and links to popular songs that could be considered modal, so you'll be able to explore each mode's sound, both melodically and harmonically, individually.

Have a question about guitar modes?

This is where you can ask any question regarding guitar modes and modal theory.

Guitar Mode Questions From Other Visitors

Click below to see submissions from other guitarists. Feel free to comment on the answers provided and help expand the topic...

Does The Natural Minor Scale Have Modes? 
I'm trying to learn a little bit more about music and how it works and I'm just a little confused right now concerning the natural minor scale. Basically, …

How to Hear the Difference Between Modes and their Parent Scale 
So far all I am noticing with modes is that they are just basically playing the parent scale (e.g. C major)in different positions of the neck. Basically …

Are There Different Chords for Each Mode? 
Hi there I would like to know if there is a different triad chord for the different modes. Example: If you are playing in the key of C, will you …

Modes Over ii V I Progression 
I'm really finding learning the modes fascinating but am a bit confused concerning their practical application in soloing! Let's take the song It Never …

Modal Progressions and Related Modes 
Your lesson on minor modal progressions was done well and I get it, but to be clear, if I'm playing over a G major key with a G mixolydian, does the progression …

Using Modes Over Chords 
Sir, please explain by parts how to use modes with types of chord progression and what are the various moods that we can hear by using different modes …

Guitar Mode Patterns 
I am little confused by the guitar mode patterns. I know all the shapes of the major scale, now does that mean that I automatically know the shape of Mixolydian …

Modal Songs 
About modes, do you make a complete song with basically one of the modes... like a song in Ionian, or say Dorian... the whole song? Or do you mix the modes …

Using more than two chords in modal chord progressions 
Hi I am having trouble understanding how to use more than just the 4 and the 5 chord to make a progression for use with modes. What I mean is I know how …

Parallel vs Relative Modes 
I was browsing a site the other day and it shows that there are two ways to play modes - up the neck in seven patterns... A, B, C etc. and then it says …

Modes and modal chord progressions 
Hi FretJam me again. I've got 3 short questions which are bothering me. The first stems from a series of columns at about modes …

Modes and Scale Patterns 
I was recently looking at the Bigger Picture modes lesson . With the scale across the six strings I found out that is where Ionian, Dorian come from. …

Highlighting a mode's flavour 
I know all the box patterns for all the modes and I also know that if you connect them in order you will have a pattern covering the whole neck. So …

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