Modes for Dummies

author: timbo63 date: 10/03/2013 category: scales
rating: 5.4 / votes: 7 
Modes for Dummies
Following is how I approach playing in different modes. This is how I came to terms with modes and it may help you. Think of this as a plan or strategy for how to add new notes to your soloing - a way to add spice to your playing. I'm going to first introduce some background to my method of looking at scale positions based on the root notes of the low E string, and then use that framework to change modes at a given fret position. Throughout this tutorial, I'm going to use the note and chord names in the keys of C-major/A-minor. Sometimes it's easier to follow with a real example and when you understand how to play within one key, you can easily play in any other. I constantly frame my mental approach as if I were playing in the key of C, but shifted left or right, but that strategy is not necessary to use for what follows.

Section I, Background - Scales And Positions

In this introduction, I'm going to show how I mentally keep track of the different solo positions for playing in the key of C based on the root note on the low E string. In each scale position, an "c" shows chord notes while "x" shows other notes within the key of C. 0) open position, Em-chord in key of C.
 c x - x   (trebel E string)
 c x - x                    
 c - x                      
 x - c x                    
 x - c x                    
 c x - x   (bass E string)  
This is the first scale position you probably learned and the TAB to play this scale would be:
-----------------------------0-1-3--------------
-----------------------0-1-3--------------------
-------------------0-2--------------------------
-------------0-2-3------------------------------
-------0-2-3------------------------------------
-0-1-3------------------------------------------
1st fret) open position, F-chord in key of C.
 x c - x
 x c - x
 x - c  
 x - x c
 c - x c
 x c - x
Of course, this is the same scale position as Em, but with the notes from the F-chord highlighted instead. Note that the A note on the second string is highlight even though it's not normally part of the bar F chord - this shown for the mental image while soloing from this position. 3rd fret) G-chord in key of C.
 - c - x  
 - c - x x
 x - c x  
 x x - c  
 c x - c  
 - c - x  
This position is important for understanding blues playing, but more on that later... 5th fret) Am-chord in key of C.
 c - x x  
 c x - x  
 c - x    
 x - c - x
 c - c x  
 c - x x  
or if you prefer:
   c - x x
   c x - x
 x c - x  
   x - c  
   c - c x
   c - x x
7th fret) Bm-5-chord in key of C. (I'm going to skip this one) 7th fret) C-chord in key of C.
 x c - x
 - c - x
 x - c x
 x - x c
 c x - c
 x c - x
10th fret) Dm-chord in key of C.
 c - x x  
 c - x x  
 c - x    
 x - c - x
 x - c - x
 c - x x  
The above are just snippets of the different scale positions, and there are many ways you could mentally chunk the scale up. It's important to learn the scales relative to the root notes are on the second string as well, but let's keep it simple for now.

Section II, On to Modes

Here we'll will make a transition from scales to modes. Modes always conjure up the the idea of cool jazzy sounding solos. You know there's something cool going on, but how to get your head around it? The classic introduction to modes explains that it's just changing the starting note of the scale. Sort-of. If you start a scale on a different note, it just sounds like you started it on a different note - nothing jazzy about it. Or a trivial example is that if you soloed with the the C-major scale while the song went through all of the C-major chords (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B-5), you just played in *all* the modes. But that didn't sound that interesting. You just played all the modes but there was nothing cool about it. The trick is it's not about changing starting notes, it's about changing the other notes that aren't called out in the chord being played. You have some flexibility in picking other notes and that's where the modes come in. It's really about the context. If the bass is playing some note in the key of C only, now we have some context. If we were playing the C scale while a D note was playing on bass, it would sort of imply the Dm-chord. If an E note were be played, it would feel like Em-chord. In each case, the listener is combining scales with root notes and the two are merging in time to create a certain feel, just for the duration of that measure. The solo notes combine with the chord to create the overall sound. This is a trivial case where the band is only playing one note (ugh). Well what if the bass player was outlining an E-major chord (changing the G to G#) and we kept playing that C scale (implying Em chord). Ugh - probably a lot of tension when the thirds collide. So we need to realize that modes aren't a license to play any scale against any bass note or chord. So we really need to come up with scale patterns that fit what the rest of the band is playing. I'll introduce a rule now (learn the rules first, then break them!). You need to know if the song, *at that time*, is using a major or minor chord. Then pick one of the appropriate scale positions (i.e. "modes"). Note that in the scale position diagrams above, we outlined three minor chords (Am, Dm, Em) and three major chords (C, F, G) each with a different scale pattern.

Minor Chords

Let's say that we're in a song in the key of C, and the bass player (or keyboard, another guitar, etc) is playing Am. In the old days, we'd jump to the fifth fret and starting thinking of those C-major/A-minor notes shown above at the fifth fret. But we don't have to! We could easily pick the notes from the Dm scale (shift the 10th fret pattern but play it at the 5th fret) or the Em scale (open or 12th fret scale style, but played at the 5th fret). Now that will add that spice you're looking for. I'll show below what the scales look like when they're moved to the 5th fret so that their root position is back at the 5th fret (i.e., with an A as the root note) Original Am scale:
-----------------------------5-7-8--------------
-----------------------5-6-8--------------------
-------------------5-7--------------------------
-------------5-7-9------------------------------
-------5-7-8------------------------------------
-5-7-8------------------------------------------
Now switch to the Dm scale style while everyone else is playing Am:
-----------------------------5-7-8--------------
-----------------------5-7-8--------------------
-------------------5-7--------------------------
-------------5-7-9------------------------------
-------5-7-9------------------------------------
-5-7-8------------------------------------------
Or switch to the Em scale style while everyone else is playing Am:
-----------------------------5-6-8--------------
-----------------------5-6-8--------------------
-------------------5-7--------------------------
-------------5-7-8------------------------------
-------5-7-8------------------------------------
-5-6-8------------------------------------------
In each case, you can see that you switched one note from the original scale style to move it to the new position. My favorite is to swap out that pesky F (6th fret on B-string) to be an F# (7th fret on the B-string) while the song has an Am. You're playing a 6th note instead of a diminished 5th note which is hard to make pleasing. So the idea here is, while playing against an Am chord, play notes from one of the other keys that use that minor chord. You can do this in any position (I just happened to be using Am at the 5th fret) and any key. For example, if the song had a Bm chord, you could play the notes from a Bm scale, Em scale, or F#m scale. If the notes you're adding aren't sounding good, don't play them. Side note, unrelated to modes: from playing bass, I decided there are really no "bad" notes. If you play transition notes on the bass, you can tastefully play a "wrong" note (here I mean not-in-key) as a passing note that transitions you into a solid in-key note. So outside of this modal thinking, pick a "wrong" note that's adjacent to a more proper note and slide or bend into that correct note. And if you just accidentally hit a wrong note, slide or bend and make a confident expression that you did that purposefully for the effect. :)

Major Chords

The same thing can happen with major chords. While the band is playing a C-major chord, you could play the notes from C-major, F-major, or G-major. I find that it's note quite as easy to play the F-major notes, because your now implying a C7 chord. The b7th of a 7th chord is a strong feeling, so it's not something you can easily change. That is, you can't normally be wishy-washy on whether you're implying a happy C-maj7, or a stark sounding C7. That said, in a blues context, you can or should play all the chords as dominant 7ths (I may write a separate tutorial on my take on blues scales, which took me >20 years to figure out for own understanding). So let's leave that for another day. So the band is playing a C chord, and you're playing at the 6th fret, playing C:
------------------------------------7-8-10-------
------------------------------8-10---------------
----------------------7-9-10---------------------
---------------7-9-10----------------------------
--------7-8-10-----------------------------------
-7-8-10------------------------------------------
You could also be playing the notes of the key of F at this position while the band plays a C-chord:
------------------------------------7-8-10-------
----------------------------7-8-10---------------
----------------------7-9------------------------
---------------7-9-10----------------------------
--------7-9-10-----------------------------------
-7-8-10------------------------------------------
Or playing the notes of the key of G at this position while the band plays a C-chord:
--------------------------------------8-10-------
------------------------------8-10-11------------
----------------------7-9-10---------------------
---------------7-8-10----------------------------
--------7-8-10-----------------------------------
---8-10------------------------------------------
In each case again, you only changed one note from the original scale position. If you want to study it, you changed the B to a Bb (changing from a maj7th to b7 when changing to F scale) or you changed an F to an F# (4th to diminished 5th when changing to G scale). So in summary, there are three "safe" scales to use when the band is playing a C-chord. That's because there are three different keys that the C-major chord shows up in. If you want to think of it as lying, go ahead. When people hear the F-major scale notes over a C-chord, they mentally are thinking "oh, this sounds like an F-major part of the song", but when the other chords come along and it goes back to the C-major feel, you tricked them and the listener feels the shift. For a while, the F-major notes over the C chord didn't sound bad. If you think about it, it happens all the time in F-major songs. So you can think of this as tricking the listener by temporarily changing your solo over the C chord to give it the feel that was in a different key. The C-chord in a song in the key of F has the b7th that creates a certain type of tension absent in the other cases, but you can use that to your advantage.

Strategy in songs

Well, now how do you use this in a song? You can stay in safe pentatonic land, but when you want to branch out, think about the other corresponding notes that are in the adjacent keys. It helps if you know the chords that are going on at that time and can make a mental effort about when to switch to these other scales, but if not, just experiment when the mood hits you. Keep what is working and discard what doesn't. If the song is in they key of C, just think about adding the notes from the keys of F and G and you can cover all six main modes!

Rules for extended chords

Up until now, I've been using trivial examples of simple chords with a major or minor third. If the chord is really a minor 7th (m7), then you're in luck, all of minor modes also have the same b7 note. If you have more complex chords than that, well, things can get complicated and it may limit which modes still sound good. At this point, you might just approach things a bit more chromatically (i.e., use all the notes in the scale and keep what works). For major chords, if the chord is a major 6th, you're in luck - all three major modes have a major 6th! OK, but how many songs have a 6th? In reality, you're more likely to have b7's and that ends up limiting you to one mode. If you get inclined, you can map out the chords of interest and compare to the different modes and other advanced scales. At that point, your note choices are really about knowing how each note sounds relative to that chord and probably less reliance on these mode diagrams. Summary, for complex or extended chords, you'll need a lot of fast mental thought process or better, just a good ear for what's working in the song.

One more thing

In the examples above, I showed how to swap the notes in Am to create Dm and Em feelings. And how to switch the notes in C to create the feel of F and G in the following section. Well, if you move the root notes around, you'll see that you can use the same swaps in the different positions (use my Am example for C major, and use my C major example for A minor). When I said Am gets Dm scale and Em scale, those notes work the same as C-chord gets F scale and G scale. You can use the same note swaps in any position. The swaps for major chords are the same swaps used with minor chords (one less thing to memorize!). Regardless of where you are on the fretboard, you can switch one of two notes and create the "other" two related modes.

Mode names

Last but not least, lets introduce the mode names if you're curious, and how they correspond to the patterns I used above.
  • playing Am-style scale over Am chord - Aeolian
  • playing Dm-style scale over Am chord - Dorian
  • playing Em-style scale over Am chord - Phrygian
  • playing C-style scale over C chord - Ionian
  • playing F-style scale over C chord - Lydian
  • playing G-style scale over C chord - Mixolydian (I left out the whole Locrian discussion - it would seem to be the least important mode and not useful for a place to start).
  • More timbo63 lessons:
    + Inversions for Rock Guitar Chords 02/12/2014
    + Harmony Vocals for Guitar Players The Basics 01/08/2014
    + Using 11th Chords Chords 01/07/2014
    + How to See All Chords as Variations of Two Patterns Chords 11/12/2013
    + Scales for Blues Playing Scales 11/11/2013
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