A lot of guitarists have trouble coming to understand the modes of the major scale, I know it took me many moons to come to grips with it, but once I finally unravelled its mysteries, I realised how simple it really is. The word mode sounds so ambiguous and lame, I prefer to use the word mood, as this word accurately describes what modes really are. Now, describing modes is easy, but using them musically is a bit trickier, however, knowing what they are is the first step. First of all, before you even read this, make sure you know how to play the major scale. It isn’t called the mother of all music theory for nothing. At the very end of this article is a quick little primer on the major scale that might be of some help. Also, for convenience sake, I will be referring to the C major scale, as it is the only major scale that contains no sharps or flats. Also, remember that the chromatic scale is the scale which contains every single note, the word chromatic coming from the word chroma (meaning colour), so the chromatic scale contains every single colour. Scales are simply notes, or colours taken from the chromatic scale, and added to a musical palette. There are literally hundreds of scales, and musicians like Allan Holdsworth have even made up their own. But I am getting off track here. Now before you begin, make sure you know the major scale! I have written a guide on the major scale which you can use as a resource.
This guide is in no way trying to be thorough or extensive, instead I am explaining the concept of modes in its simplest and rawest form. Because, after all, it is very simple, and the last thing I want to do is scare you off with encyclopedic jargon and walls of text. Alright, here we go..!
There are 7 modes (moods) to the major scale, in order they are:
- Ionian (the major scale)
- Dorian (minor bluesy sounding mode, characteristic note is the maj 6th)
- Phrygian (minor spanish sounding mode, characteristic note is the flat 2nd)
- Lydian (major sounding mode, characteristic note is the augmented 4th)
- Mixylodian (major bluesy sounding mode, characteristic note is the flat 7th)
- Aeolian (the (natural) minor scale – flat 3rd, flat 6th, flat 7th)
- Locrian (very unstable sounding mode, it’s characteristic notes are the flat 2nd and flat 5th)
A cheesy mnemonic to help you remember the order is:
I Don’t Particularly Like Modes A Lot
Let’s take a look at the C major scale (Ionian), the notes in this scale are CDEFGABC, if we play the C major scale and instead of focusing the tonality on C (the root note) we focus on the second note of the scale (D) then we have a completely different sounding scale – the D Dorian scale – which looks like this: DEFGABCD, we are still playing the same notes of the C major scale but we are getting a completely different sound by concentrating on the D as the root note instead of the C. This is how modes are constructed; if we concentrate on the 3rd note of the C major scale (E) then we have an E Phrygian scale – EFGABCDE – and so on… in this sense it’s best to think of the modes as an anagram of the major scale (change the letters around and the word has a completely different meaning, in this case, change the root note around and the sound/mood changes radically) A good analogy to describe how modes work can be found in conversation, by emphasizing certain words in a sentence the meaning behind the sentence is changed. The best example of this i can think of is found in an episode of Seinfeld ‘The Mom And Pop Store’:
- ELAINE: Well, I talked to Tim Whatley…
- JERRY: Yeah…
- ELAINE: And I asked him, “Should Jerry bring anything?”
- JERRY: So…?
- ELAINE: Mmmm…and he said, “Why would Jerry bring anything?”
- JERRY: Alright, but let me ask you this question.
- ELAINE: What?
- JERRY: Which word did he emphasize? Did he say, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” or, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” Did he emphasize “Jerry” or “bring?”
- ELAINE: I think he emphasized “would.”
I know this sounds confusing, so i made some diagrams to make the learning process a whole lot easier (VISUALISATION IS KEY!)
Modes of the C Major Scale
‘Colours’ of the C Major ‘Palette’
Now putting modes into practice is a different beast altogether, it is a tool used by jazz guitarists mainly to colour their solos based on the chord progression. For example, in a typical jazz chord progression of II V I in the key of C major the chord progression would be Dm7 G7 Cmaj7.
Seeing as how the key of the progression is C major a guitarist could choose to simply play the C major scale (C Ionian Mode) over the entire progression, but if you decide to emphasis the D note instead of the C note whilst the Dm7 chord is playing and the G note while the G7 chord is playing and finally the C note while the Cmaj7 chord is playing, you would be playing the exact same C major scale throughout but you will be using three different modes of the same scale (D Dorian, G Mixolydian and C Ionian) over their respective chords in the progression.
This would mean that you have endless soloing moods to tap into, both major and minor by using the same scale. Here’s a good video to showcase an excellent (Australian!) guitarist using modes of the C major scale to create different moods.
Notice how Frank Gambale is playing the C major throughout the song, but by emphasizing different notes of the scale he creates different moods? The intro sounds triumphant (Lydian), the chorus is very major sounding (Ionian), and the solo is very minor and bluesy (Dorian)!