Guitar Modes – The System to Use for Rock, Blues and Pop Guitarists

When it comes to modes, you’ll notice most articles on the web approach it from the point of view of a jazz guitar.

But what if jazz isn’t your thing?

I got your back.

In this article, we’re going to show you a method that’s designed for rock, blues, and pop players, but which also works for jazz. It’s the easiest method full stop, so players of any genre will benefit from learning it.

So what’s the secret?

It’s this: we’re going to learn the modes using the pentatonic as the foundation. The good old pentatonic is the most common scale of them all. With this approach, we derive the modes from the pentatonic scale, making learning them waaaay easier.

When I learned this method, a mini explosion went off in my brain. It was like ‘finally, I get it!’. You’ll have the same reaction once you see how it works.

It assumes you have a basic knowledge of the major and minor pentatonic. If you can’t yet, check out our beginners guide to guitar scales.

So what can you find in this guide? Well. for a start, we don’t swamp you with music theory. No, we give you the most important concepts to get your head around, as a basic understanding of how they work is essential.

For each mode we include:

  • A short explanation of what makes each mode unique
  • The best fingering for each mode, to make it easy for beginners
  • A jam track for each mode, with a simple progression that’s tailor-made for each particular mode. You can play each mode over the track and hear with your own ears how each mode sounds

By the end of this article you will be playing them, and understand how they work.

Let’s get to it then, shall we?

What are Modes?

Modes are a type of scale and are simply notes organized in a pre-determined way. In this article we focus on seven modes, also known as ‘church modes’.

Learning modes helps to make you lead work more interesting, and are a crucial component in learning to improvise. If you don’t learn them, you’re never going to be able to solo particularly well.

Before we learn how to play them, you need to grasp these two important concepts to understand:

#1: In music, any scale, mode, key or lick can be classified into 2 main categories: major or minor. What makes a musical element a major or minor is the 3rd note. If you’re dealing with a major 3rd, you’re dealing with the major category. A minor third note, you’re dealing with the minor category.

In other words: Major or Minor? Look at the 3rd!

#2: Music elements need to match. If you have a chord that has, for example, a major 3rd note, the scale you play over it must contain that same note for it to sound right.

In other words: Musical elements need to match.

So let’s say you have a chord that consists of these 4 notes:

  • Root
  • Major 3rd
  • Perfect 5th
  • Major 7th

You need to play a scale that includes the same notes within it. This one will do nicely:

  • Root (matches chord)
  • 2nd
  • Major 3rd (matches chord)
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th (matches chord)
  • Major 6th
  • Major 7th (matches chord)

Ok, with these two concepts in mind, let’s move on.

So first up, they are divided into two categories, major and minor. The major ones have a major 3rd, the minor ones have a minor 3rd.

Major Vs Minor Modes

 

Major Modes

Let’s start with three major modes. These modes have the same five notes as the major pentatonic scale, shown below.

Major Pentatonic Intervals and Major Modes

What makes each of them unique is how they change the 4th and 7th notes. This is what ‘colors’ or ‘characterizes’ the major modes and makes them sound distinctive.

With major modes, it’s always the 4th or the 7th that changes.

Major Modes Characteristic Notes

We’ll now go through each mode, looking at each one’s characteristic notes, followed by how to play it in the key of A at the 5th fret.

Lydian Mode

Our first mode is going to be the Lydian – its characteristic note is the augmented 4th.

Lydian Mode Characteristic Note

Here’s how you play it. Not the red circles (with ‘R’) denote the root notes (so, in this case, the key of A) and the characteristic notes are in green. These are the tonal centre of each mode, and when playing them special effort should be made to emphasize them as they’re what gives each pattern it’s uniqueness.

Lydian Mode Formula and 1 Position

Play Over a Backing Track

Now try playing it against this backing track:

This track consists of an Amaj9(#11), chord which is a very strong Lydian chord as it features the #11 interval (AKA #4), which is characteristic of the Lydian mode. Enjoy the backing track and have fun improvising!

Recommended scales to use over this track:

A Lydian
G# minor Pentatonic
C# Minor pentatonic
A Major Pentatonic


Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian has an augmented minor seventh note.

Mixolydian Mode Characteristic Note

Here’s how you play it:

Mixolydian Mode Formula and 1 Position

Play Over a Backing Track

This funky backing track in A Mixolydian is the perfect way to explore the sonic possibilities of the mode. Keep it funky and have fun!

Recommended scales to use over this track: A Mixolydian


Ionian Mode

In contrast to the two above, the Ionian scale has two characteristic notes: a perfect 4th and a major seventh.

 

Ionian Mode Characteristic Notes

Here is how you play it:

Ionian Mode Notes and Position 1

Play Over a Backing Track

This beautiful, mellow backing track in the key of E major will help you master the secrets of the Ionian mode.

Recommended Scales to use over this Track: E Ionian, E Major Pentatonic


Minor Modes

There are 4 minor modes, but we’ll focus just on the first three for now.

We know that these three share five notes of the minor pentatonic scale. Root, b3, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 7.

Minor Pentatonic Intervals

So we know the characteristic notes will be found somewhere in the 2nd and the 6th.

Minor Pentatonic Notes and Mode Notes

Let’s go through each in turn.

Dorian Mode

If we add a major 6 to a minor pent it makes it a Dorian.

Dorian Mode Characteristic Note

Here is how you play it:

Dorian Mode Formula and 1 Position

Play Over a Backing Track

The Dorian mode will come in handy when playing over this funky backing track. Try developing new ideas with chromatic notes and keep it groovy!

Recommended Scales to use over this Track: A Dorian, A Minor Pentatonic, A Minor Blues


Phrygian Mode

The only mode with a minor 2nd

Phrygian Mode Characteristic Note

Try playing it:

Phrygian Mode Formula and 1 Position

Play Over a Backing Track

This backing track was designed to help you develop ideas using the Phrygian mode. As you explore the different possible fingerings of this mode, focus on creating melodic ideas. Keep your improvisation organized and musical in order to really develop an ear for the mode. Practice well!

Recommended Scales to use over this Track: A Phrygian, A minor pentatonic


Aeolian Mode

This mode has 2 characteristic notes, the major 2nd and minor 6th. Incidentally, this mode is also the same as the scale known as ‘the natural minor scale’.

Aeolian Mode Characteristic Notes

Here’s how to play it:

Aeolian Mode Formula and 1 Position

Play Over a Backing Track

This backing track will help you hear the color of the natural minor (aka Aeolian) scale. Experiment with bends and new melodic lines.

Recommended Scales to use over this Track: A Aeolian

 

Pro tip: You can play what is known as ‘the harmonic minor scale’ by raising the seventh note of this note by one semitone. You can also find ‘the melodic minor scale’ by raising both the sixth and seventh notes one semitone when ascending. Just remember, when descending the sixth and seventh notes should be flattened, which incidentally produces the natural minor scale.


Locrian Mode

Locrian Mode Characteristic Notes

This is how you play it:

Locrian Mode Formula and 1 Position

 

Play Over a Backing Track

This Backing tracks will help you explore the sonic possibilities offered by the Locrian mode.

Recommended Scales to use over this Track: A Locrian


Summary

In this article, we looked at modes as extensions of the major and minor pentatonic scales. This way is much easier for rock and pop musicians to learn, who are already familiar with the pentatonic scale. Most of the time modes are taught as derivations of the major scale. While this approach is perfectly valid too, using the approach we’ve outlined here makes a lot more sense to musicians know the pentatonic really well but can’t manage to break out of it.

So what next?

First, practice all the seven patterns outlined here until you know them off by heart. Yes, you need to memorize the hell out of them. Practice them over the backing tracks included in this article, so you can hear the characteristic notes (it’s only when you’re playing over a track made especially for the scale, that the modes can be heard).

A good mode practice exercise is to play the pentatonic as you’re ascending, then descend with the mode.

Remember, we’ve only gone through one position in one key (A), you need to be able to play them up and down the fretboard in all keys in all five positions.

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.