Guitar modes explained and how to use them to improve your playing
Guitar modes are a scary topic for many intermediate and advancing guitar players.
While the theory behind the modes can get a bit complex unless you have a solid basis in music theory, you can, and should, start using them even if you’re not a music theory buff.
In this lesson, I’ll try to simplify guitar modes as much as possible and show you how to use them to both improve your guitar playing and make music.
That said, since guitar modes are not a topic for beginners, I do suggest you have a working knowledge of the major scale and the natural minor scale before starting to tackle modes. (As you’ll see in this lesson these two scales are also modes, the Ionian and the Aeolian mode respectively).
It would also help a lot if you know the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard before learning the modes, as well as before applying any other music theory concept to the guitar.
What are modes in music?
Music modes, (also called Greek modes and Gregorian modes) were formed in the middle ages.
Over the years they lost their popularity to major and minor tonalities but they resurfaced centuries later.
Modes are scales derived from a parent scale. The most commonly used guitar modes, the ones we’ll explore in this lesson, are derived from the major scale.
The modes of the harmonic minor and the melodic minor scale are also used in genres like Jazz and Heavy Metal, but if you’re a beginner in the subject of guitar modes, it’s wiser to stick to the modes of the major scale.
While all modes are scales – a set of notes ordered by pitch – not all scales are modes.
For instance, while the major scale and the natural minor scale are the first (Ionian) and the sixth (Aeolian) mode of the major scale, the blues scale is a scale, but not a mode.
Why learn guitar modes?
There are multiple reasons why you should learn modes on the guitar, but these are what I consider the main two:
- Every mode has its own distinct sound and flavor, which you can choose to use in your guitar licks, riffs, and solos.
In this lesson, I will give you a short lick for each guitar mode to give you an idea of the flavor of each different mode of the major scale.
- Through the process of learning (and using) guitar modes you will gain a thorough knowledge of the guitar fretboard as well as be able to see more clearly the relationship between scales, arpeggios, and chords.
Knowledge of the guitar fretboard is essential if you want to reap this benefit.
Modes of the major scale with examples
In this section of this lesson, we’ll go through each mode of the major scale and explore its sound.
We will be using the key of G major which is made of these notes: G A B C D E F# (G)
Every mode of the G major scale is made of these same notes but starts from a different point of the scale.
This is a summary of each guitar mode and the order the notes within it are placed:
G Ionian: G A B C D E F# (G)
A Dorian: A B C D E F# G (A)
B Phrygian: B C D E F# G A (B)
C Lydian: C D E F# G A B (C)
D Mixolydian: D E F# G A B C (D)
E Aeolian: E F# G A B C D (E)
F# Locrian: F# G A B C D E (F#)
Next, we’ll explore each mode in more detail.
One last thing you need to know before learning the guitar modes themselves:
With every mode there is a corresponding chord.
The Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian mode have a corresponding major chord (ex. C major for C Lydian).
The Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian mode have a corresponding minor chord.
The Locrian mode has a corresponding diminished chord. This chord is usually played with the added 7th degree of the scale which gives us the Minor 7 (b5) chord.
The reason for this is that the major modes have the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale within them, the minor modes have the 1st, b3rd, and 5th degrees of the scale while the Locrian mode has the 1st, b3rd, and b5th degrees of the scale.
Go to this lesson if you don’t know how chords are formed from scales.
These three notes, which are also the notes of the arpeggio, are the most important notes and by emphasizing them you’re establishing the tonal center of the mode.
For instance, by emphasizing the notes D, F#, and A in the D Mixolydian mode, you make it clear that you’re playing in D Mixolydian, not G major (Ionian), even though the two share the same notes.
The following are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of each mode in the key of G major.
G Ionian: G B D (major triad)
A Dorian: A C E (minor triad)
B Phrygian: B D F# (minor triad)
C Lydian: C E G (major triad)
D Mixolydian: D F# A (major triad)
E Aeolian: E G B (minor triad)
F# Locrian: F# A C (diminished triad)
For each guitar mode pattern in the examples, you are given the corresponding chord.
Playing this chord before and after practicing the pattern will help train your ear to identify the sound of each mode in relation to its chord tones.
In the guitar lick examples that come with each mode, the notes of the triad are deliberately used in strategically important places in the music and are usually long notes.
To help you see this, I’ve written the name of these notes above the music in each lick.
The Ionian mode
The major scale has a happy sound and is the parent scale from which all the other modes are derived.
In the following lick I ended each phrase on a chord tone (G, B or D) to particularly emphasize the concept of tonality.
I’m doing this mainly for educational purposes and when improvising or composing solos on the guitar this is by no means a rule you should strictly follow.
You can, and your music will sound very melodic if you do. However, chord tone soloing is a pretty advanced subject and at this point you may not want to obsess too much on playing the right notes since it will get in the way of your creativity.
Always keep in mind that if something sounds good, it is good, irrespective of whether it is backed by conventional music theory or not.
The Dorian mode
The Dorian mode is like the natural minor scale with a #6 degree of the scale. (A sharp before a scale degree means that you should raise that note by a semitone, a fret on the guitar)
The Dorian mode sounds the happiest among the minor modes.
This guitar lick is in the Dorian mode and emphasizes the root note (A) of the mode.
The Phrygian mode
The Phrygian mode is also like the minor natural scale but with a b2 degree of the scale (a flat before a scale degree means you should lower that note by a semitone).
This alteration gives this mode its characteristic dark quality.
The next guitar lick is in the Phrygian mode and emphasizes the chord tones at the end of each phrase.
The Lydian mode
As a musical example for this mode, I’m giving you a guitar riff instead of a lick. The main difference between a riff and a lick is that a riff is meant to be repeated.
The Mixolydian mode
The Mixolydian mode is like the major scale with a b7 degree.
The next lick uses notes from the Mixolydian mode and emphasizes the chord tones at the end of each phrase.
The Aeolian mode
Also known as the natural minor scale, this is probably the most used scale in music. (The scale used most frequently is the minor pentatonic scale, which is the same as the natural minor scale with two notes – the 2nd and 6th degree of the scale – omitted).
In the next lick, the first two bars are made entirely from the chord tones of the E Aeolian mode.
These notes are very consonant, which is why I introduce non-chord tones in the third bar. While consonance is sweet to listen to, our ears also love hearing dissonance resolving into consonance.
The Locrian mode
If the Aeolian mode is the most popular scale in music, the Locrian mode is one of the least.
It’s the only mode of the major scale that has a diminished 5th, which makes it very unstable.
As expected, a guitar lick in the Locrian mode is going to sound weird!
Conclusion: Where to go from here
In this lesson, I’ve done my best to introduce you to the world of guitar modes and the musical opportunities they provide.
The study of guitar modes can go much deeper than this introduction though.
If you want to learn how to use the modes further, I suggest you take the following steps:
- If you have understood the gist of this lesson but not all the theory behind it, it’s probably because you have missed some or all of the music theory elements (ex: intervals, chord construction, and scale theory) that lead to a thorough understanding of the musical modes.
If this is the case, I suggest that you brush up on your music theory to be able to see the big picture.
- Learn the modes all over the guitar fretboard and start using them to create short licks and riffs. Learning a mode (or a scale) doesn’t simply mean memorizing it. You also need to be able to use it to create music – no matter how simple your music is at this stage.
- Modal harmony: While modes can be used simply as scales they can also be harmonized and have chord progressions built around them. I suggest you get into this vertical aspect (harmony) of the modes only after you have mastered the horizontal aspect (melody).
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