Fretboard Fundamentals – Guitar Modes You Already Know

Andy | April 7, 2016 | 2 Comments

Most guitar players have, at some point in time, heard of guitar ‘modes’, or ‘modal playing’.

For some, the concept of guitar modes is confusing or daunting. Frequent questions include, ‘Where do I start?’, ‘How do I use modes?’, and ‘Do I have to re-learn all my scales?’

‘You may already be using guitar modes and not even know it.’

The good news is that you may already be using guitar modes and not even know it. Curious? Read on!

Guitar Modes – A Definition

First, let’s start with a definition of modes.

In Western musical theory, modes are generally referred to as scales having certain tonal characteristics which are used to create a tonal quality, where a scale is an ordered sequence of notes that starts with a root or tonic (first tone) as its reference point.

Simply put, a mode is a scale that creates a certain tone or flavour used to create a type of melody.

The C Major Scale

Tje C Major Scale – the Base of Ionian and Aeolian Guitar ModesLet’s take the C major scale, which many of us learned as our first scale (see diagram to the right).

The major scale contains 8 notes, with 7 unique notes and the 8th being the root or tonic note played to resolve the scale. So the C major scale contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, and ends with another C note.

This scale is defined as a major scale because of the distance between the first note, C, and the third note, E (a major third interval) – more on this in a future article.

The First Mode You Already Know Is the Ionian Mode

Typically we learn to use the C major scale to play over a major chord progression, for example C – D minor – F. The type of melody this creates has a major tonal quality.

Here’s the good news! If we compare the distance or interval between each note in the C major scale and the C Ionian scale, they are identical, both having the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The major scale and Ionian scale can both be used to create a major type of melody or flavour.

‘[The intervals] in the C major scale and the C Ionian scale … are identical’.

So, with no relearning and using a scale you already know, you are already playing modally. As the C major scale is also C Ionian, we have our first mode.

Another Use of the C Major Scale – the Aeolian Mode

Let’s use the C major scale to add another mode to our new modal tool kit.

‘Take the C major scale … play starting from the note A … you are now playing … A Aeolian.’

The A Minor ScaleTo do this, take the C major scale we know, keep the exact same note structure and shape, but now play the scale starting from the note A, found on the 5th fret of the low E string, as the root note of the scale (see diagram to the right).

By doing this we have now changed the order of the notes to A, B, C, D, E, F, G. By making this small change you are now playing the A natural minor scale, or, to give its modal name, A Aeolian.

Both these scales are defined as minor scales because of the distance between the first note, A, and the third note, C (a minor third interval).

If you play the A Aeolian scale over the chord progression of A minor 7 – F – G, you will hear how the Aeolian mode creates a great minor-sounding melody or tonal quality over these chords.

Why Can’t I Just Use C Major?

You may be asking yourself, “Why can’t I just use C major to play over both major and minor chord progressions?” To this I would answer, “You can, but you would be missing an important step.”

If you take this approach, you will play and hear everything from the point of view of the C major scale. The notes will fit over both a major and minor chord progression, but the melody will be based around C major.

The Modal Difference

The difference in playing modally is the ability to play and hear the mode from its root note, as we have discussed here with the C Ionian and A Aeolian modes.

‘[When playing modally], you will hear and create much clearer, better-defined melodies.’

Yes, they have the same underlying scale, but when you play them from their own root note, you will hear and create much clearer, better-defined melodies by using the using notes in the context of the mode you are playing in.

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This article only touches the surface of guitar modes, with the whole study of modes and modal playing going much deeper. Hopefully this has helped to break the ice on the subject, given you some ideas of how to start playing modally, and encouraged you to look more into the overall subject.

Until next time …

David MinnsDavid Minns – Orange County, California–based professional guitarist & instructor; MI Honors Graduate in 1992. Read more at virtualosoguitar.com.

Category: Guitar Theory

Comments (2)

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  1. Matt Picone says:

    I just tested this in Excel and it works 😉

    Aeolian C
    Dorian G
    Ionian D
    Locrean A
    Lydian E
    Mixolydian B
    Phrygian F#
    Aeolian Db
    Dorian Ab
    Ionian Eb
    Locrean Bb
    Lydian F
    Mixolydian C
    Phrygian G
    Aeolian D
    Dorian A
    Ionian E
    Locrean B
    Lydian F#
    Mixolydian Db
    Phrygian Ab
    Aeolian Eb
    Dorian Bb
    Ionian F
    Locrean C
    Lydian G
    Mixolydian D
    Phrygian A
    Aeolian E
    Dorian B
    Ionian F#
    Locrean Db
    Lydian Ab
    Mixolydian Eb
    Phrygian Bb
    Aeolian F
    Dorian C
    Ionian G
    Locrean D
    Lydian A
    Mixolydian E
    Phrygian B
    Aeolian F#
    Dorian Db
    Ionian Ab
    Locrean Eb
    Lydian Bb
    Mixolydian F
    Phrygian C
    Aeolian G
    Dorian D
    Ionian A
    Locrean E
    Lydian B
    Mixolydian F#
    Phrygian Db
    Aeolian Ab
    Dorian Eb
    Ionian Bb
    Locrean F
    Lydian C
    Mixolydian G
    Phrygian D
    Aeolian A
    Dorian E
    Ionian B
    Locrean F#
    Lydian Db
    Mixolydian Ab
    Phrygian Eb
    Aeolian Bb
    Dorian F
    Ionian C
    Locrean G
    Lydian D
    Mixolydian A
    Phrygian E
    Aeolian B
    Dorian F#
    Ionian Db
    Locrean Ab
    Lydian Eb
    Mixolydian Bb
    Phrygian F
    Aeolian C

  2. Matt Picone says:

    I like your answer to “Why Can’t I Just Use C Major?”
    It’s best to learn modal fingerings “cold,” even though it takes real discipline not to cheat!

    I read an article years ago that suggested playing through modes in alphabetical order (“Aeolian, Dorian, Ionian, Locrean, Lydian Mixolydian, Phrygian) shifting the key by a 5th with each new mode. When you get back where you started, you will have played every mode in every key (84 scales!)

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