Guitar Modes Made Easy

So, you've heard other, more 'advanced' guitarists mentioning modes. You think you might have accidentally applied one once in one of your solos... but every time you hear the words “Phrygian,” or “Mixolydian” you freeze!

What are these alien concepts? Too complicated! Get me out of here!

Well, relax. Despite the fact that many guitarists don't begin to think about – and apply – modal playing until they are at a certain 'level', modes are really easy to understand, and can make your playing sound 10X more original, today!

So,

Modes are a set of scales which have been used in music since the times of the ancient Greece. The Greeks would tune the strings of their lyres to different intervals, to create different moods.

There are seven common modes:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian 
  • Phrygian 
  • Lydian 
  • Mixolydian 
  • Aeolian 
  • Locrian 

Ok, How Do I Learn These Modes?

Here's the biggest secret. If you already know a major scale, you can already play all the mode scales!

Modes are just variations of the major scale: the notes of the familiar major scale, starting and ending in different places.

Let me explain: 

Here's the eight note C Major scale: C D E F G A B C (also known as C 'Ionian' in Mode language).

To play what's called a Dorian scale, you just play the C scale starting and finishing on the D note. This makes what's called the 'D Dorian scale'.

The other modes start off on the following notes (highlighted in red): 

D Dorian:
D E F G A B C D (minor tonic*)

E Phrygian:
E F G A B C D E (minor tonic*)

F Lydian:
F G A B C D E F (major tonic*)

G Mixolydian:
G A B C D E F G (major tonic*)

A Aeolian:
A B C D E F G A (minor tonic*)

B Locrian:
B C D E F G A B (diminished tonic*)

* The tonic refers to the first chord in the scale, made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes... in some of these modes, those 3 notes make a major chord, in some they make a minor chord, and in the Locrian they make a diminished chord.

Play a C major scale, then start and end on D, instead... You are playing a D Dorian scale!

Continue throughout all of the modes. Play them in all positions. Which is easiest? Which is your favourite?


How Can I Apply Modes To My Playing?

So, now you kind of know what they are... but so what?

As you spotted in the first point, some are minor and some are major (and Locrian is diminished). Well, now you can use them to liven up your playing that might have previously been locked in natural major or natural minor positions, or even the predictable pentatonic!

Now you have some new shapes up your sleeve, you can slip these into your solos to create more original licks. Also, if solo-ing as such isn't your thing, you can make cool riffs within these modes, and even combine notes within them to learn some new chords.

1. Take a song that you'd normally improvise with using the pentatonic minor or natural minor scale... use the Dorian mode, instead!

2. Choose a mode and use your fingers to make shapes inside that mode, to play chords that were previously unknown (to you)... enjoy the creativity!


Where Can I Hear Modes Being Used?

These modes have been used in songwriting and composition for an extremely long time, and have created some of the melodies that you know and love. Here are some notable uses of the modes:

  • Ionian: Ode to Joy (Beethoven)
  • Dorian: Scarborough Fair (Simon and Garfunkle)
  • Phrygian: White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane)
  • Lydian: Flying Theme (from ET)
  • Mixolydian: Norwegian Wood (The Beatles)
  • Aeolian: I kissed a girl (Katy Perry)
  • Locrian: Wherever I may Roam (Metallica)

There are many more examples out there, please shout out in the comments section below if you would like to bring our attention to any others!

Choose a couple of the songs above and learn how to play them on your guitar. This will develop both your confidence in application and your understanding of modes.


Anything Else I Need to Know?

The method of understanding modes we have used involved starting the familiar scale on different notes, to create different sets of intervals.

Another common way of learning modes is to look at each mode as a modification of the major scale, so you learn all the modes in C, first... this is useful for transpositional purposes, but takes a little longer to memorise (I think).

In this 'parallel' method, modes are understood like this:

  • Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
  • Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8
  • Phrygian: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
  • Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8
  • Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8
  • Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
  • Locrian: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8

To me, that seems far more complicated than just starting in different places and recognising the differences in intervals and in sound. But, if this way works better for you, great! 🙂

Something else you might like to know about modes, is the aforementioned Ancient Greeks' views on the impact of them!

Plato and Aristotle both had strong views on what is now our most familiar mode: the Ionian mode (major scale). Both philosophers thought that this mode was conducive to laziness, and Plato even went as far as saying that it should be banned!

The philosophers were far more fond of the Dorian mode, which they thought created a feeling of sincerity and “avoided extremes.” Both also condoned use of the Phrygian mode, though for different reasons. Plato thought that the Phrygian inspired peace and temperance, whereas Aristotle thought it invoked enthusiasm and excitement. What do you think?

Summary

So, we have found out that the modes are not that complicated, after all, and can really help you to create some interesting new melodies, and to find out some new chords. All you need to do is take the major scale, and start and finish in different places!

It might be helpful for you to make a mnemonic starting with letters I D P L M A L - to help you to remember the order.

The Ancient Greeks thought that they had a real effect on how we behaved, and took the contemplation of them seriously.

Maybe your new love affair with modal improvising will help to change the world! 😉

Happy Jamming!

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she’s not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.

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