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