Guitar Modes Explained

Guitar Modes Explained

Have you ever wondered how to approach modes for guitar? It’s a challenging concept that seems like quantum entanglement until you get a grasp on everything. But like the Kama Sutra, once things come together modes are actually quite logical.

The major scale modes (yes, there are others, but do not think about that yet) are a set of seven different variations on the major scale. They all have their own distinct feel, and they can be hard to understand when you’re a new guitarist, or are new to studying music theory.

This is not a topic to digest as a beginner and it’s not something to learn in one sitting. Don’t worry, it’s not like it’s boring having guitar modes explained to you.

It’s helpful to explain what these scales sound like before jumping into playing chords or solos in one specific mode. 

Knowing how much space is between notes on the fretboard and which note corresponds with what scale degree will allow for easier comprehension later on.

The idea of a mode is really interesting for musicians: it’s simply the order in which you play notes in an established scale. For example, consider D Dorian; its notes are in different configuration than C major but it’s still part of what could be called “the C Major family”.

What Are Modes?

You need to understand major scales before studying modes. Make sure you’re clear on what a major scale is and how it’s constructed.

Mode names originate in ancient Greece. You can look up the details if you’re curious. I think the modes should be changed to honor the USA. Hot Dog, Bomb, Breast Implant, Wu-Tang, Fat, Freedom, Baseball.

Modes are scales related to major scales. The parent scale, or the one that all seven modes use is called a “major” scale for this reason.  All seven modes use the same notes as the parent scale, but each begins on a different tone. 

This starting note defines the “tonal center”, an important modal concept. Each mode can be thought of as an inversion (or different orientation) of the parent scale, with a note other than the major scale root being made the tonal center. This will become clearer when we look at some examples.

How Are Modes Constructed?

You can use any key, of course, but we will use C Major (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C) in order to keep things simple:

C Maj Scale | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

I – C Ionian (Major Scale): C D E F G A B C – W W H W W W H

ii – D Dorian: D E F G A B C D – W H W W W H W

iii – E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E – H W W W H W W

IV – F Lydian: F G A B C D E F – W W W H W W H

V – G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G – W W H W W H W

vi – A Aeolian (Relative Minor Scale): A B C D E F G A – W H W W H W W

viidim – B Locrian: B C D E F G A B – H W W H W W W

Each note is the root of a triad that is major (I, IV, V), minor (ii, iii, vi), or diminshed (vii). Each triad is composed of the root, third, and fifth of the corresponding mode. 

Every major (Ionian) scale has a corresponding (relative) minor (Aeolian) scale. The relative minor root is 1.5 steps below the major root. For example, A is the relative minor of C.  A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A.

The easiest method of finding a mode is to play a major scale that starts on a note other than root.

If we start on D, the second note, and play through D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D, we’re playing the D Dorian scale. Played over C Major, the tonal center sounds like C Major. Played over D Minor, the tonal center sounds like D Minor or D Dorian.

DDorian | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

The next step is to compare D Dorian to D Major. The D Major scale contains two sharps (F#, C#). Looking at D Dorian we see F natural and C natural. We can therefore say that the Dorian scale has a lowered (flat) 3 and lowered (flat) 7.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and Dm7. Do you hear how the tonal center shifts? 

If this is confusing it’s likely due to the two ways of examine modes, parallel and derivative. More on this later.  

Now let’s examine the remaining C Major modes: 

EPhrygian 1 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Compare E Phrygian to E Major. The E Major scale contains four sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#). Looking at E Phrygian we see F natural, C natural, G natural, and D natural. We can therefore say that the Phrygian scale has a lowered (flat) 2, 3, 6, and 7.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and Em7.

FLydian 1 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Compare F Lydian to F Major. The F Major scale contains one flat (Bb). Looking at F Lydian we see B natural. We can therefore say that the Lydian scale has a raised (sharp) 4.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and FM7.

G7 3 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Compare G Mixolydian to G Major. The G Major scale contains one sharp (F#). Looking at G Mixolydian we see F natural. We can therefore say that the Mixolydian scale has a lowered (flat) 7.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and G7. We will discuss why this is G7 instead of GM7 in a bit. 

AAeolian 1 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Compare A Aeolian to A Major. The A Major scale contains three sharps (F#, C#, G#). Looking at A Aeolian we see F, C, and G natural. We can therefore say that the Aeolian scale has a lowered (flat) 3, 6, and 7.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and Am7.

B Locrian | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Compare B Locrian to B Major. The B Major scale contains five sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#). Looking at B Locrian we see F, C, G, D, and A natural. We can therefore say that the Locrian scale has a lowered (flat) 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.

Compare how the scale sounds played over CM7 and Bm7b5. We’re using Bm7b5 because the notes B-D-F create a diminished triad from the Locrian mode. The flat 5 brings F# down to F. 

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5d725e7dc14745281a05f47b | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

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Approaching Modes: Methods of Understanding

The Parallel method of examining modes involves learning modes that begin on the same note. This method treats each mode as it’s own entity separate from chords and keys. You just need to know how to alter the major scale based on whatever chord you’re playing over.  

For instance, C Major has 0 flats and 0 sharps. If we want to play D Dorian, we know that D Major contains F# and C#, so we need to flat the 3 and 7 of D Major by a semitone (half-step) to play D Dorian. 

The Series (or key or derivative) method involves using the major scale as a guide and shifting the notes used based on the desired mode. So it’s the same process except were focusing on the notes in C Major instead of the notes in D Major. 

Confused About ModesMore Modes

Let’s create one more example using both methods of approaching modes. This time we want to play A Dorian. The series (derivative) method shows that A Dorian is derived from a different major scale. 

Since Dorian begins on the second note of the major scale, we’re dealing with G Major. G Major has one sharp (F#). We’re using the same notes in A Dorian, so A – B – C – D – E – F# – G. This approach has us looking at the notes in the G Major scale and using A as the starting note.

The parallel method involves starting from an examination of the A Major scale. A Major contains 3 sharps (F#, C#, D#), so the scale is A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#. We know that Dorian has a flat 3 and a flat 7, so we change C# to C and G# to G. We see that A Dorian is therefore A – B – C – D – E – F# – G, the same result as in the previous method. 

These two methods should compliment each other to determine the makeup of each mode.

The real key to using modes effectively is to know the chords you’re playing over. You will adjust your tonality based on chord tones.  

This means that you will not play modes like a scale. You will use them to find the best notes to play over a particular chord. You can see how becoming adept with modes requires solid knowledge of the fretboard and basic music theory.

When you place the right notes over a chord you will get the particular modal sound you’re seeking.

ModeRelation to Major ScaleRelated ChordsChord ExtensionsNotes
IonianMajor (1-3-5), Major 7 (1-3-5-7)11Use Ionian over the 11 because Lydian has a #4.
DorianFlat 3, Flat 7Minor (1-b3-5), Minor 7 (1-b3-5-b7)
PhrygianFlat 2, Flat 3, Flat 6, Flat 7Minor (1-b3-5), Minor 7 (1-b3-5-b7)b9, b13
LydianSharp 4Major (1-3-5), Major 7 (1-3-5-7)
MixolydianFlat 7Major (1-3-5), Dominant 7 (1-3-5-b7)Use Mixolydian over all dominant chords.
AeolianFlat 3, Flat 6, Flat 7Minor (1-b3-5), Minor 7 (1-b3-5-b7)b13
LocrianFlat 2, Flat 3, Flat 5, Flat 6, Flat 7Diminished (1-b3-b5), Minor 7b5 (1-b3-b5-b7)

If you’re playing a I-IV-V blues in C, for example, you can play CM7, FM7, and G7. G7 is comprised of 1, 3, 5, b7/G B D F.

Per the above table, playing a Mixolydian mode works well over dominant 7 chords. Why? Mixolydian is the only mode that contains both a natural third and a flat 7. In C, look at G Major, which has F# as the 7, and lower it for G Mixolydian. This brings the 7 to F, which works well with G7.

G7 ChordG7 1 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

This is the type of analysis you need to do in order to use modes effectively. You can see how much practice it takes for jazz dorks to do this on the fly during insane improvisation sessions.

Let’s take a chord progression and map out our solo using appropriate modes.

  • Look at the chord progression to determine the key. Major or minor?
  • Identify the parent Major scale.
  • Find altered notes in the chords.
  • Determine which modes should be used over the chords.

Confused AgainMore NotesJazz GM | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

We have an F# in the key signature, so we’re in G Major/E Minor (G in this case).

The parent Major Scale is G – A – B – C – D – E – F#. Try to figure out why the mode listed is a good choice.

The first altered tones we encounter are in measure 3. Gm7 contains a Bb and an F natural. I forgot to change the notation from sharps to flats, so don’t get confused. We can play G Dorian here.

C7 in measure four contains a Bb. We can play C Mixolydian here.

FM7 in measures 5 and 6 contains an F natural. F Lydian works here.

Fm7 in measure 7 contains an F natural, an Ab, and an Eb. Yikes, this is a spicy meatball. F Dorian is a good option.

Bb7 in measure 8 contains a Bb, an F natural, and an Ab. Bb Mixolydian sounds good.

EbM7 in measure 9 contains an Eb and a Bb. Eb Lydian should work.

We’re approaching modes in a cold, robotic manner in order to gain understanding. The ultimate goal is to introduce some brilliant phrasing and melodicism that will leave the jazz groupies swooning.

You can understand why pentatonic scales are so popular for soloing: you don’t need to worry about any of this crap! Just know what key you’re in and go nuts. Now that you know about modes you are no longer one of the peasants who only plays pentatonics.

Queue up some jazz standards and diagram your leads. It’s the only way to do it unless you possess a Mozart-like genius. If that’s the case, why are you on my site? I suppose I am easy on the eyes.

MDM3 | Mod Cheap Guitars | https://modcheapguitars.com/guitar-modes-explained/

Hopefully all of this makes sense, or it will after you practice for a while. Learning modes can be a daunting task, but it’s well worth the time.

Modes are an essential part of understanding music theory and mastering guitar playing skills. When you learn to play these seven different variations on the major scale, each with their own distinct feel, you’ll want to experiment even more!

Get some friends together and play “guess that mode”. Record it and post the results on Facebook. You will be the envy of your peer group, I guarantee!