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Guitar Lesson Articles - The Modes

Modes - Unlocking the Mystery
GuitarOne magazine (October 1998)
By Troy Stetina

Seldom do we encounter a subject that generates more confusion than modes. What are they? How are they really used? And what's with those funky names, anyway? Just getting the correct pronounciation is tough! Nevertheless, many advancing guitarists intuitively sense that mastering this minefield is one of the keys to understanding the fretboard and the issues of tonality and scale construction -- and they are largely correct. To this end, many make an effort at learning the modes. Yet all too often, the final critical steps of learning how to actually use them remain a mystery. Here we will attempt to shed some light on the subject. We will use a minimum of technical jargon to make this easy to understand. However, a few technical terms are unavoidable, so first put your hands together and utter the sacred guitar-ritual incantation, 'meguitarthinkis clearis maximus' (or pour yourself a strong cup of coffee), then whip out your axe. And remember, even if you don't get every last detail the first time around, you'll get the essence of it and can fill in the blanks later as your playing progresses. Let's do it!

What Are Modes?

Modes are essentially just another name for scales. But they have one intriguing twist. They are scales which are formed by taking a "parent" scale and displacing its starting point. So, let's say we begin with a C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C). As long as C is viewed as the starting point, or "root" note, those notes spell out C major. But play those same notes from D to D, thereby making D the root, and those notes suddenly become D Dorian (Figure 1). We say that D Dorian is the second mode of C major. Remember, it uses the same notes as C major--only the starting point is different. Next, start on the third note (E) and you have the third mode of C major, which is E Phrygian. If we continue in this way, each of the seven different notes of C major could be regarded as a root in its own right, creating seven different modes from that one major scale. Enter the seven different modal names...Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

It's All Greek to Me

Don't let the unusual names freak you out. With just a little practice, you'll get to know 'em like the back of your hand. In case you are wondering, though, the reason they have the names they do is because they were named after the geographic areas in ancient Greece (Ionia, Lydia, etc.), each of which favored a particular mode and tended to use that mode predominantly in its own homegrown musical style. Although we use them quite differently today, the original naming scheme has stuck with us.

Let's go through them now, getting both the right pronounciation as well as their proper sequence in mind. Figure 2 shows all the modes derived from C major, along with the specific notes that constitute each one. Ionian (pronounced "I-o-ne-un") is simply the modal name-equivalent for the major scale itself. Dorian ("door-ee-un"), as you already know, is the second mode of the major scale. Phrygian (that's "frij-ee-un") is the third mode -- not to be confused with RePhrygian, the modal name-quivalent for a nearby source of cold beverages. Next comes Lydian ("lid-ee-un") and Mixolydian ("mix-o-lid-ee-un") modes. These are nice to think of together as their names are obviously linked as well as for other reasons we'll get into later. The sixth mode, Aeolian ("a-o-lee-un"), is the modal name-equivalent of the natural minor scale. And last but not least, we come to Locrian ("low-kree-un"), the most demented of the lot.

Memorize the sequence of these modes. Say it fast ten times, "Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian." This is important because the sequence always remains intact. Dorian is always the second mode of the major scale--any major scale. Phygian always comes after Dorian, and Lydian is always right behind that, etc. In fact, if we number the steps of the major scale 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, and attach each number to its corresponding mode, we can draw some sweeping generalizations about how the modes relate to one another. For example, "What mode begins on the fifth tone of any major scale?" Answer: Mixolydian. Or how about, "What mode begins on the second step of the Dorian mode?" Answer: Phrygian. "What mode starts on the third step of the minor scale (Aeolian mode)?" Start with Aeolian and walk up to the third step--Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian.

Rally 'Round the Family

Scales that use the same notes are considered to be "relatives". We say they are related to one another. Since all the modes shown in Figure 2 used the same seven notes exclusively, they are all related. Looking at them this way--seeing all the modes that are derived from one parent scale--is seeing them in a relative perspective. It's one big, happy family... on the surface at least.

So how does this actually apply to music? Well, knowing their relative relationships is not all that valuable on a practical level, to be honest. Mostly this approach is a theoretical issue. There are a few possible benefits, though. Let's suppose you wanted to solo over a riff in D Dorian but you don't know the Dorian scale patterns. Let's suppose you do know the major scale patterns, however. Well, since C major uses the same notes as D Dorian, you could use the C major pattern (figure 3) to solo in D Dorian. And you can make a similar calculation to use the major scale patterns to play any other mode as well. (The Aeolian, or natural minor patterns would work fine, too, if you happen to know these better.)

There is a price to be paid for this 'quick and dirty' method of modal manipulation, however. The problem is that it is self-deception, pure and simple. You're thinking and seeing C major while you are actually playing D Dorian. As a rule, it is far better to face reality and see things as they really are--in this case, playing in D Dorian would mean seeing those notes as being "anchored" over D roots. This makes the fretboard patterns seem quite a bit different, which will in turn influence how you use those notes. This bit of modal trickery also has another drawback; it leads a person to think, "If C major and D Dorian use the same notes, therefore they are the same." They are not! If they were, the keys of C major and D Dorian would sound alike. Yet experience tells us that a major key sounds happy and a minor key (Dorian is a type of minor) sounds sad. To resolve this little dilemma, we have to look at modes in a whole new light.

Parallel Worlds

An even more important way to understand the modes is to view them in parallel. Simply put, viewing modes in parallel means lining them up and comparing them all beginning on the same "home base" note, or root. So C Ionian is compared to C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, etc. This is the flip side of the coin. Where relative modes use the same notes but have different roots, parallel modes use the same roots but have different notes. This method essentially views each mode as a scale in its own right, with its own particular mood and feel.

We start with Ionian (major). Notice how we've numbered the tones 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. (Figure 5a.) The tones of each subsequent mode may then be viewed as an alteration of these major scale tones, by either flatting (b) or sharping (#) as necessary.

Next comes Dorian, which contains the notes C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb. Compare this to C major and you'll see that the 3rd and 7th notes of C Dorian are flatted. Dorian's tonal numbers, then, are: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7. (Figure 5b.) This illuminates the most direct route between C Dorian and C major in stark terms: Simply lower the 3rd and 7th steps of any major scale and you will transform it into a Dorian mode. This is the parallel connection, and it is far more powerful and useful than the relative view.

Sounds of the ModesNow take a moment to listen for the inherent qualities of these two modes in The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" and Satriani's "Surfin' With the Alien" in the sidebar, Sounds of the Modes. (For an even better sonic comparison of all the modes see Metal Lead Guitar Volume 2, which lines them all up on the same tonal center and applies similarly situated melodies that draw out each mode's peculiarites.)

The Phrygian mode arrives next (Figure 5c.) It's darker yet with four flatted tones (b2, b3, b6, b7). In particular, though, its flatted 2nd stands out and is characteristic of flamenco guitar and the middle-eastern sound in general. It has also become a staple in the darker, heavier rock styles. For example, the Phrygian mode appears in Megadeth's "Killing Road" (sidebar, above).

Lydian is a the fourth mode of the major scale (Figure 5d.) It's just like the major scale except with a raised 4th. Rush's classic "Freewill" riff draws upon the odd character of Lydian (sidebar, above).

Mixolydian comes next (Figure 5e.) This is major scale with a flatted 7th. It is similar to the major scale in terms of feel, but with a somewhat "rounded off" or more easy-going quality. The standard boogie or rockabilly rhythm demonstrates Mixolydian (sidebar, above).

The Aeolian mode is identical to the natural minor scale (Figure 5f.) It is dark, sad, and perhaps gothic, depending on its particular application. The old "Snake Charmer" melody demonstrates Aeolian (sidebar, above).

The Locrian mode is like the Phrygian mode, but with a flatted 5th as well (Figure 5g.) Metallica's "Sad But True" riff demonstrates the Locrian mode in action (sidebar, above).

As these songs demonstrate, each mode can act as a scale in its own right, with its own distinct mood. So it is important to learn them like this, and not simply as displaced major scales. (Real slackers may choose to see "Sad But True" as F major played from E to E, but don't ask me for any more help!) Also, to learn more optional shapes and ultimately expand each of these mode patterns over the whole fretboard, see The Ultimate Scale Book.

Using the Modes in Your Music

Let's try applying one of the modes now. The idea is pretty simple: Just choose one of the seven modes and use its notes exclusively as the basis for your song, riff, or solo. For example, let's try A Phrygian (figure 6). Now, working with these notes (A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G), try coming up with some interesting riffs or licks. The trick here is to remember that the note "A" is the root. So in order to maintain the true essence of A Phrygian, you'll probably need to return to that pitch frequently, or at least at key points in the rhythm. If you're having trouble with this, check out figure 7. This is a sample phrase that uses all seven notes of A Phrygian and clearly empolys the open A string as the riff's root pitch. Try writing a riff of your own in each of the other modes, too.

Two Opposing Camps

To help in learning the modes and their peculiar flavors, we can group them into similar types. Basically, all the modes with a major 3rd tone (3) can be lumped into the "major-ish" camp. Those with a minor 3rd tone (b3) can be lumped into the "minor-ish" camp. Figure 8 shows how this plays out. Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are the three major-type modes. To get from major to Lydian, just sharp the 4th. To get from major to Mixolydian, just flat the 7th.

The minor group is headed up by the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode). To go from major to natural minor, flat the 3rd, 6th, and 7th steps. Then use the minor pattern as the foundation to create the other minor modes. Dorian is a natural minor scale with a raised 6th. Phrygian is a natural minor scale with a flatted 2nd. Locrian is the oddball of the bunch and is actually a half-diminished tonality. It's like a Phrygian mode but with a flatted 5th tone.

If all this is bordering on mental meltdown, don't worry about it. Just keep in mind that this grouping system exits and as you learn tunes and see modes in action, you're knowledge base will build gradually.

"Outside" Tones and Parallel Modes

After you've got a handle on using each mode as a scale in its own right, a more advanced way to use them is to draw on two or more parallel modes. Often the most interesting and tense-sounding notes are found outside the original mode, and many of the best players make full use of this. Rock and blues styles are especially prone to the practice of drawing on parallel modes, mixing them up within a single phrase. And this is where a full understanding of the parallel nature of modes comes in really handy. It's easy to transform, say, the Mixolydian mode into the Dorian mode--you simply flat the 3rd. It's impossible to do this if you only learned the modes by their relative perspective; the fact that the Mixolydian mode starts on the 5th note of the major scale and Dorian starts on the 2nd isn't too relevant here. Parallel tonality is also the basis of other advanced ideas like Satriani's "Pitch Axis" technique, for example. Check out figure 9, which blends D Aeolian, D Phrygian, and D Dorian into a single lick. (See the Beginning Rock Lead Guitar video (or DVD) for more on mixing parallel major and minor tonalities in licks.)

Playing Modally

Notwithstanding the use of outside tones, the notes of one scale or mode still tend to dominate within a given song for the most part. We call that the song's "key," or "tonality." This corresponds to the "parent" scale, that we saw earlier when we investigated the relative nature of modes. The parent scale dominates the song, and colors the overall mood with its distinct qualities. But within this large-scale framework, relative modal interactions will play themselves out as the chords move through a progression. This is because the determining factor in regard to modes is the root. And as chords move through a progression, the root note temporarily changes with each chord. So for example, let's suppose a song is in the key of C major, with a chord progression C-F-G. Over this, the lead guitarist may be playing exclusively from the notes of C major. Yet modes are actually being formed. Over C, the notes of C major make, well, C major. But the notes of C major over an F root create F Lydian. Try it. Play an F chord, followed by notes of C major and you'll hear the telltale Lydian quality emerge. (In particular focus on the #4, as it is Lydian's distinguishing tone.) Finally, C major over a G root creates G Mixolydian. Figure 10 shows how modes are formed naturally, in a simple progression. Actually, this example is more arpeggios than modes, yet the Mixolydian mode does come out pretty clearly at the end. The modal qualities tend to come out even stronger if you dwell longer on each chord and play more of the scale tones.

You may ignore this aspect entirely as it "takes care of itself," or you may choose to consciously draw upon and strengthen the modal qualities inherent over each chord. This is known as "playing modally." It doesn't have anything to do with the overall tonality--whether or not its a mode--it simply means that you are aware of the passing modal qualities hiding within the progression, and you are playing to reinforce them. (See Metal Lead Guitar Volume 2 for more on playing modally over chord progressions.)

Other Modes

We have focused entirely upon the seven modes of the major (or minor) scale up to now. But other scale types may be "mode-ified," so to speak. Jazz often employs the melodic minor scale--also known as the "jazz minor scale"--and makes use of its seven modes. These are, in order: Jazz Melodic Minor, Dorian b2, Lydian Augmented, Lydian b7, Mixolydian b13, Locrian #2, and the Altered scale (also called Super Locrian). If you're really nuts about learning all this stuff, try these--but only after you get comfortable with the first seven modes, above. (See The Ultimate Scale Book.)

Finally let's consider the another interesting modal relationship, this one between the harmonic minor scale and Phygian-dominant (or Spanish-flamenco scale). Harmonic minor is like natural minor, except with a major 7th step. Phrygian-dominant is like Phrygian, except with a major 3rd. These two scales both have a similar exotic-type sound, so it isn't surprising that they turn out to be modes of one another. If you start with harmonic minor as the parent scale, Phrygian-dominant is found as the fifth mode. In other words, if you start of the fifth tone of any harmonic minor scale, you are playing Phrygian-dominant. You would be equally corrent to begin with Phrygian-domiant as the parent and find that harmonic minor was its fourth mode. Again, these scales are found in The Ultimate Scale Book and Metal Lead Guitar Volume 2.

The Wrap Up

The most important thing to understand here is the basic idea of how modes are formed, then recognize that songs may use a mode at their core rather than just the major or minor scale. All modes can be treated as scales in their own right, so you should ideally learn them that way. If this was mostly new information to you, don't expect to master every detail by the next day, or even the next month...take what you can, and re-read this from time to time as you learn more scales and more music. Eventually it will all fall into place. Good luck!


For expanded scale and mode patterns over the whole fretboard, see The Ultimate Scale Book.For more practice with modes, see Metal Lead Guitar Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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