Modes are probably the most useful, yet most often ignored part of guitar theory. For many people that play guitar, modes are just too intellectual, and guitar playing is about feel? But they are critical in jazz, and actually come up all the time in rock and metal. A good understanding of guitar modes can revolutionize your playing, offering great new tonal palettes, often by recycling licks we already know - a really easy way to learn guitar scales. As a jazz guitar lesson, this has to be one of the most important; unfortunately, most of us get hung up by their names...

Guitar player #1 “You're after my friggin’ pick?”
Guitar player #2 “No, I said after the Phrygian, you pick”
Guitar player #1 “Oh right, the mode thing again (casts furtive glance to bass player)”

If you do not understand modes or feel like you could be in the above scenario, don’t worry, by the end of this article you will be a Phrygian pro.

What is a Mode?

A mode (Latin for “method”) is just another way at looking at scales. The idea of modes has been around since the Middle Ages, originating in Greece. Modern modes of the major scale still use the original Greek names and this is their biggest problem. The names are intimidating. But the theory and rationale is actually really simple.

In essence each mode is just the same scale starting (and ending) on a note other than the root (the first note of the scale). So the notes of the C major scale are C D E F G A B. (We always use this as the first example as it has no flats or sharps). If we start playing this scale on the C, we are playing the Ionian mode. If we play the same notes starting on the D, we are playing the Dorian mode. And so on. Have a listen to each of these seven major scale modes below.

C Ionian
D Dorian
E Phrygian
F Lydian
G Mixolydian
A Aeolian
B Locrian

Each mode after C Ionian is a variant of C Ionian based on the same note spacing but starting and ending on a different note. We looked at the note spacing formula in Understanding the Major Scale. If we are going too fast, review this article now.

How Are Modes Useful?

A knowledge of modes offer two things. Firstly, each mode sounds different to the others, and of course the use of modes is the basis of modal jazz. Secondly, it allows us to reuse the same licks in a new context. If you know a killer C major riff it will still sound killer (but totally different) over the rest of your band playing A Aeolian or G Mixolydian. You might not chose to learn all the modes, and some certainly come up with a lot more regularity than others. Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes are all very widely used in jazz and popular music.

The C Ionian Mode (also known as C major)

The first mode we will discuss is C Ionian, which is simply the C major (CM) scale.

This is the first of the seven modes and is important because it sets the spacing formula. The C Ionian mode uses only the white keys (highlighted in green) of a keyboard. This is an excellent way to see the construction (note spacing) of this mode.

Pay particular attention to the spacing between each note (whole and half steps) because this is the key to understanding all of the modes.

W= Whole step between notes (there is a black key between notes)

H= Half step between notes (no black key)

If you want to understand the theory of modal scales read on. If you just want to know the notes, jump to the guitar mode charts here

Note Spacing in the Modes

So, as explained above, each mode starts on a different note of the scale.

The spacing between the notes remains: Whole, Whole, half, Whole, Whole, Whole, half.

The following chart looks a little daunting, but don't worry, you may find it useful especially if you are looking for a different sound in your composing or playing.

W W h W W W h
C Ionian C D E F G A B C
W h W W W h W
D Dorian . . D E F G A B C D
h W W W h W W
E Phrygian . . . . E F G A B C D E
W W W h W W h
F Lydian . . . . . . F G A B C D E F
W W h W W h W
G Mixolydian . . . . . . . . G A B C D E F G
W h W W h W W
A Aeolian . . . . . . . . . . A B C D E F G A
h W W h W W W
B Locrian . . . . . . . . . . . . B C D E F G A B

W=Whole-step spacing (eg. A black key between C and D)
h=half-step spacing (eg. No black key between E and F in Ionian)

We can see from the above chart that the whole and half-step formula remains the same for each mode as C Ionian (CM scale), but just starts at a different point within that formula (W, W, h, W, W, W, h).

For example, you will see on the chart that E Phrygian starts with a half-step interval between E and the F, whereas the F Lydian mode starts with a Whole-step. You can trace that Whole step up to the top of the chart to see where in the original formula (C Ionian) this mode starts from. Here it is on the guitar fretboard:

Notice the whole/half step formula is still W-W-h-W-W-W-h if started from the note C

W = whole step
h = half step

Because we are starting on a different place within the whole and half step formula for each mode, we have to flatten or sharpen some of the notes in order to meet the demands of the formula. This provides the unique sound for each mode.


But there are other ways of viewing modes

Modes as Modified Major Scales

We can also understand each mode as a modified major scale. For example, the E Phrygian mode (h, W, W, W, h, W, W) can also be viewed as a modified E major scale with a flatted 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th as indicated in the Modified Major Scales (Modes) table below.

If this is easier for you to remember, use this method for understanding modes, but either way, you now understand how each mode is constructed and why.

Modified Major Scales (Modes)

Ionian 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Dorian 1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7
Phrygian 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
Lydian 1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
Mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
Aeolian 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
Locrian 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7

Note: for example; in C Ionian, 1= C, 2=D, 3= E and so on. These numbers are scale degrees.

Please understand that each note indicated by a flat symbol means the note drops a half step from the original major scale formula of W, W, h, W, W, W, h; as demonstrated in the table below showing the Dorian as a modified major scale.

Major Scale Spacing vs. Dorian

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Major Spacing W W h W W W
Notes D E F# G A B C#
Dorian Spacing W h W W W h
Modified Notes D E F G A B C
Modified Major (Dorian) 1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7

In the above table, the Dorian viewed as a major scale; would have the spacing between the 2nd and 3rd as a half step, but in the modified Dorian Major the scale must be modified to show a Whole step and therefore the original F# is flattened to an F in order to meet the demands of the spacing formula.


The most commonly used modes in jazz guitar

As all seven modes have a root, major or minor third, and (except Locrian) a natural fifth; arpeggios are really easy to remember.

Ionian Mode

As explained above, the C Ionian scale is simply the C major scale


Listen: C Ionian

Dorian Mode

The Dorian scale is a minor scale containing all the notes of the pentatonic (blues scale), with a major sixth and second added in. As such it occurs regularly in rock music.


Listen: D Dorian

Phrygian Mode

Modes with a half tone interval between the root and second note (Phrygian and Locrian) tend to have a somewhat Spanish feel to them. The Phrygian scale can also be remembered as a natural minor with this flattened second. It includes all the notes of the pentatonic scale; great for Jazz, but also Latin rock and metal!


Listen: E Phrygian

Lydian Mode

The Lydian scale is very similar to the natural major scale, however having a sharpened fourth.


Listen: F Lydian

Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian scale combines the natural third of the major scale, and the flattened seventh of the natural minor. Very commonly used in popular music.


Listen: G Mixolydian

Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian scale is the natural minor scale, with a flattened third, sixth and seventh. again very commonly used in rock and metal music.


Listen: A Aeolian

Locrian Mode


Listen: B Locrian

Summary

Play through each mode and determine what it sounds like to you and how you would describe it. Always accompany yourself with a droning note, example, E for E Phrygian, G for G Mixolydian and so on. You may need a friend or a recorder to assist you.

Print out the guitar modes reference sheet to remind you of the fingering for each mode.

  • We have learned that spacing between notes is critical in the construction of a mode.
  • Each mode starts on a different note and on a different position in the spacing formula.
  • Each mode sounds different evoking a different feeling (great for composers).
  • The Modified Major Scales (Modes) Table reveals the comparison of each mode to the major scale.
  • The C Ionian mode is just the CM scale. All other modes are a modified CM scale.

I hope this has provided you with a good introduction to understanding Modes, and by the way, you can now tell guitar player #1 what you really know.



About the author: Robert Weeks is a jazz music enthusiast and guitar player from British Columbia, Canada.

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