Understanding modes for Guitar Playing

Understanding Modes for Guitar And How To Use Them For Guitar Playing || George’s Corner

Whenever someone asks a question related to modes for guitar, there are many who say that they are confused and have never been able to understand what modes for guitar actually are. I noticed that many mix positions of scales or patterns (marked as boxes in diagrams) with modes, which is completely wrong because modes are particular keys. So, this week, I will try to explain the most important facts about modes.

1. What are the modes for guitar?

In the past, there weren’t different keys (or tonalities) so the only way to make different tunes was to create melodies in different mode(s) of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do scale; which means starting from different notes. Over time, the so-called major-minor system developed (which we use today), so we use them in the context of the major-minor system. And that’s the reason why the best way to master modes for guitar is to learn each as a major or minor scale with certain alterations!

2. The best way to understand modes.

Modes for guitar are derived from the major scale. (I’ll use the C major scale to make it easier to understand):

  • CDEFGABC = 1st mode: Ionian (actually major scale)
  • DEFGABCD = 2nd mode: Dorian (start from 2nd note)
  • EFGABCDE = 3rd mode: Phrygian (start from 3rd note)
  • FGABCDEF = 4th mode: Lydian (start from 4th note)
  • GABCDEFG = 5th mode: Mixolydian (start from 5th note)
  • ABCDEFGA = 6th mode: Aeolian (start from 6th note, minor)
  • BCDEFGAB = 7th mode: Locrian (start from 7th note)

So, as you can see, the notes are the same for all modes. But when we changed the order of notes, we actually changed the structure of the scale, as well as their functional relation to chords.

If we look at the first mode (major scale), we will see the relation between notes (distances) are:
Ionian W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W=whole step/two frets, and H=half step/one fret), the second mode has W-H-W-W-H-W-W and that is different from the first. It’s actually the minor scale with a small difference – it has a raised half step VI note.

(W=whole step/two frets, and H=half step/one fret)

  • Ionian W-W-H-W-W-W-H
  • Dorian W-H-W-W-W-H-W
  • Phrygian H-W-W-W-H-W-W
  • Lydian W-W-W-H-W-W-H
  • Mixolydian W-W-H-W-W-H-W
  • Aeolian W-H-W-W-H-W-W
  • Locrian H-W-W-H-W-W-W

So, the easiest way to memorize modes is by comparing them with the major and minor scale:

MAJOR (or modes similar to major scale):

  1. Ionian = major scale
  2. Lydian = major scale with IV#
  3. Mixolydian = major scale with VIIb

MINOR (or modes similar to minor scale):

  1. Dorian = minor scale with VI#
  2. Phrygian = minor scale with IIb
  3. Aeolian = natural minor scale
  4. Locrian is minor scale with IIb and Vb, and actually wasn’t in use, it was only theoretical construction.

3. Harmonic sense of modes (chords).

All these alterations have an affect on harmony (chords), which are the main characteristics of each mode. Thus:

– #IV in Lydian causes the major II chord in major key, instead of the usual minor (and diminished IV, but this one is less important;
– bVII in Mixolydian causes the minor V chord instead of major, (and diminished III chord);
– #VI in Dorian causes the major IV instead of minor (and diminished VI chord);
– bII in Phrygian causes the major chord as a II chord in minor key instead of diminished – which is known as a Neapolitan chord, and minor chord as a VII chord instead major.

For a better understanding of the Lydian mode/key, try to play this chord progression: C, D, C and improvise using the C major scale with F# instead of the F note.

modes for guitar lydian

For a better understanding of the Mixolydian mode/key, try to play this chord progression: C, Gm, C and improvise using the C major scale with Bb instead of B.

modes for guitar mixolydian

For a better understanding of the Dorian mode/key, try to play this chord progression: Am, D, Am, D… and improvise using the Am scale with F# instead of F.

modes for guitar dorian

For a better understanding of the Phrygian mode/key, try to play this chord progression: Am, Bb, Am, Bb… and improvise using the Am scale with Bb instead of B.

modes for guitar Phrygian

If you don’t know how to use modes for your guitar playing, take a look here

Over to you

If you want to deepen your understanding of music, GuitarZoom offers top-notch music theory instruction in Music Theory Made Easy Masterclass. Tune in next week for another installment of George’s Corner.


3 Secrets to Soloing With Modes

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