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 Rains in Southern California - Bm, E, A - as an example.
This is clearly in the key of A major but because the song starts with Bm would you feel and think in B Dorian and consequently use this scale over the whole song or only start your solo with this scale?
Or when it comes to playing the E chord, play E mixolydian and A major when it come to the chord A? Maybe you would just stay in the scale of A major?
Perhaps you could give some soloing tips and audio examples? I really appreciate your professional advice!
Pete, I'm just going to start with some comments on mode/scale selection over ii V I, for the benefit of others, as there is often confusion over the role modes play in such a progression.
I'll then go through some examples of how we could apply scales over the progression.
The role of modes in a ii V I progression
You're correct that It Never Rains In Southern California is in A major.
It's a standard ii V I (2 5 1) progression which resolves to the I chord.
You could of course play a B Dorian pattern over ii chord Bm (since B Dorian is the 2nd mode of A major).
You could play E Mixolydian over V chord Emaj (since E Mixolydian is the 5th mode of A major).
But essentially, these modes use exactly the same notes as A major/Ionian, since they're all related modes...
A major = A B C# D E F# G#
B Dorian = B C# D E F# G# A
E Mixolydian = E F# G# A B C# D
So, even if you did play what you consider a B Dorian or E Mixolydian pattern, you'd still technically be playing A major/Ionian because that's the key centre of the progression.
It's where the progression resolves.
A major is the "home" chord.
Playing B Dorian over an A major tonic is simply playing a position (pattern) of A major. You're playing the same notes, just "starting" on a different scale degree.
So remember, there's a difference between playing a pattern that you might associate with one of the modes, and actually playing in that mode.
The key centre is what defines modality, if there is any (not all progressions are modal).
Now, if the progression was instead...
Bm / E7 / Amaj / Bm
...and ended each measure on Bm, then that would shift the implied key centre to Bm. Bm would become the point of resolution.
That's when B Dorian would become our central mode. So playing a pattern we associate with E Mixolydian or A Ionian in this context would sound like B Dorian. Again, the notes of related modes will gravitate around the actual key centre.
It can be something very subtle that determines which mode dominates the music.
But the bottom line is, sure, play B Dorian over an A major progression if you find it helpful to do so (i.e. you find the pattern easier to play or visualise on the fretboard), but know that if the progression resolves to A major, the notes of whatever related mode you think you're playing will reflect that tonal centre - A major.
It's the key centre that determines which mode (if any) you're actually using.
If the key centre is A major...
B Dorian will sound like A major.
C# Phrygian will sound like A major.
D Lydian will sound like A major.
E Mixolydian will... yeh you get the picture!
It's fine to refer to modes by their patterns like this - I still do it - but this is not their true function, since patterns are merely a way of organising a bunch of related notes/intervals.
Their true function is determined by the chords or chord sequence being played underneath.
Any ii V I progression that has a firm resolution to I will imply Ionian, no matter which related mode pattern you play - it's all the same notes, and they will all gravitate to the tonal centre of the progression.
There are two main ways we could apply scales over this chord progression.
The first would be simply to play around with A major (including major pentatonic of course) over the progression until you come up with something you like. Trial and error, in other words.
This takes the least time as far as learning theory, but more time on finding what works independently.
Many musicians have a seemingly natural ability to do it this way. However, it's true that the more you practice this trial and error, the more usable ideas you'll "bank" for that particular progression.
The process in the video below combines trial and error (note selection) with using scale patterns as the scaffolding for building your ideas...
However, you can break this down even further if you're still struggling to connect the scale you're playing to the chord changes.
The other method is a more structured way of applying scales over chord progressions. More time is required for learning the theory, but less time on trial and error.
In other words, this method takes most of the guess work out of finding what works.
First, identify the chord root positions (B, E, A in this case) on the fretboard. It's easiest to use the E and A strings to find these roots...
As we're playing in A major, the 1 chord root will be at the 5th fret and the 2 and 5 chord roots at the 7th fret.
Step 2, outline each chord by building arpeggios so we know where the most important tones for each chord lie. This will give us the "skeleton" for our A major solo.
Here I'm using 7th arpeggios to outline each chord.
Starting with Bm7 (chord tones: 1, b3, 5, b7)...
Moving to the E7 position (chord tones: 1, 3, 5, b7)...
And finally to our tonic A major chord (chord tones: 1, 3, 5, 7)
Now we essentially have an arpeggio pattern for each chord, try playing through the chord changes using only those chord tones.
This will help train your ear to the strongest notes for each chord - the target notes that will hold your A major scale phrases together and put them into the context of the chord you're playing over.
So when the chord changes, target one of the related tones of that chord.
Once you can play through the changes using only the chord tones, you can start to superimpose the A major scale over these patterns to connect these notes into phrases.
For Bm7 we can use what many guitarists would see as a Dorian pattern...
Since all the chords are connected to the same key (A major), we can use the same pattern to flesh out the E7 chord...
And finally we can superimpose an A major scale pattern over the Amaj7 chord tones...
The chord tones remain the target notes through each chord change, but we can now connect them into phrases by using the other notes in the scale.
The below tabs demonstrate how we could break down our phrases by using these chord tone target notes, which I've highlighted (red = root, green = 3rd, blue = 5th, orange = 7).
Click the tabs to hear examples.
So there I started on the 5th of Bm, targeted the root of E7 and finally the 3rd of Amaj, tying together the A major phrasing in between.
Same concept in that phrase - targeting chord tones through the changes and bridging them with the scale.
You'll notice that just before the final change to Amaj in that example I play a three-note E7 arpeggio. Again, you can use arpeggios to connect phrases around the scale and help put them into the context of the chord you're playing over.
Final example, this time using a fuller phrase (but exactly the same chord tone concept applies!)...
Again, I use a sequence of arpeggios over the E7 chord, demonstrating how these chord tones can help to color your phrases.
Eventually, you'll become confident enough to play across a larger area of the fretboard, using your knowledge of major scale patterns.
This will mean you have to be able to identify the chord tones across the same area that you're playing the scale.
Again, more study time initially, but less trial and error time once you do master it, and you'll be more prepared for improvisation.
Hope it's helped. Don't hesitate to ask any further questions below.