The Right Way to Learn Modes

This is how you should see modes.

The Right Way to Learn Modes
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Alright, I've been seeing a lot of lessons on here about modes lately and they all give you the same bull, "To play Dorian mode all you have to do is play your G major scale starting and ending on an A." That's not really right, that would still just be G major.

Now listen, I'm not gonna take the time to type out all the mode shapes, patterns, boxes, whatever you wanna call them. If you haven't learned those already (even though they're just the major scale spread out over the entire fret board) then go look at one of the other mode lessons on here and come back to this later.

Alright, here we go... First of all I'm gonna give you the names of all the modes.
  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian
Now, I'm gonna give two lists. The first will be the way most lessons tell you to play the modes. The second will be my way which will give you the notes in each of them using G major as the parent scale (parent scale just means the plain old major scale you are using to derive the other modes from). Most lessons give you G Ionian, A Dorian, B Phrygian, etc. But these aren't the modes they're just shapes, because you're still using the exact same notes in every one of those. In other words, you're just playing G major all over the neck.

The Wrong Way

G Ionian (Major) (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1)

A Dorian (minor) (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A) (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2)

B Phrygian (minor) (B, C, D, E, F#, G, A, B) (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2, 3)

C Lydian (Major) (C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C) (4, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2, 3, 4)

D Mixolydian (Major) (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D) (5, 6, 7, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

E Aeolian (minor) (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E) (6, 7, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

F# Locrian (diminished) (F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) (7, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

See what I mean? Every one of these has the exact same notes, because they are all the exact same scale. Let me clarify something real quick before I make my version of this list... The list of modes I just gave you is not really wrong per se, it's just that most guitarists see that and think something like "So if I have a chord progression of G major, A minor, and E minor and I wanna play modally over it, I would play G Ionan, A Dorian, and E Aeolian." That's what's wrong with, and what I hate, about all the other lessons I've seen, they lead people to believe that modes are just a fancy way to refer to chunks of the major scale.

Here's What Makes Modes Different

G Ionian (Major) (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1)

G Dorian (minor) (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G) (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 1)

G Phrygian (minor) (G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G) (1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 1)

G Lydian (Major) (G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G) (1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7, 1)

G Mixolydian (Major) (G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 1)

G Aeolian (minor) (G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G) (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 1)

G Locrian (diminished) (G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G) (1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7, 1)
This is how you should see modes. Notice how if you base them all off G the differences between them become very apparent.

Now for the easy part. I'm now going to tell you how to use them... Let's say for example, you have the same chord progression as earlier (GM, Am, and Em) just three simple triads. Now, you could always just play it safe and noodle around with the G major scale for the entire progression, or you could play your newly learned modes!

Let me show you chord by chord.

For the GM chord, you could use any major mode (with G as the tonic of course). So, you could play G Ionian, G Lydian, G Mixolydian, or even some strange combination of the three over your GM chord.

For the Am chord, you could use any minor mode (this time using A as your tonic). So, you could play A Dorian, A Phrygian, A Aeolian, or combine the three in various ways over your Am chord.

The Em chord would work exactly like the Am did, except you would use E Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian instead of A.

If your wondering about Locrian, it goes with diminished chords and that's it, so if we had an F# diminished chord in our progression than you would just play F# Locrian. It gets better! If you're just using power chords (which aren't defined as major or minor) you can use any of the major or minor modes you want!

However, the more intricate the chords you use (using 7ths, 9ths, etc.) the less options you have on what modes you use, because you have to make sure the notes of the chord match with the notes of the mode. For instance, if you played a GM chord with a flat 7th, then you would need to play G Mixolydian would be your most likely choice of mode because it is Major and has a flat 7th. Get it?

Well, this is all I can think of to try to explain modes... It's kinda hard to explain without being able to sit in front of someone with a guitar and just show them haha. I hope this helps anyone out there confused about modes and why you should learn them.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Jimjambanx
    By changing the mode every chord you are essentially modulating every chord, which will just sound weird and messy. Modes aren't something we play, theyre something we hear. If your tonal centre is G in the key of G major, then you're playing the G major scale. If you start changing the tonal centre and mode every chord your going to clash with the progression, and you'll get some strange looks from your band members. If, however you played that same progression but your tonal centre was A, then you'd be playing A Dorian over the whole progression. Modes are also really useful for modal interchange. Rather than changing key when an outside chords comes along, just alter the mode to fit, keeping the same tonal centre. And that's essentially what you're describing here, but in a purely diatonic progression it's unnecessary and will just sound strange. Someone like Joe satriani can pull it off because in that case he's the centre of attention, but in a normal band scenario you need to play what's appropriate, not just what sounds the coolest/weirdest.
    macatom
    No no no, I'm afraid this is really misleading and will only confuse people who are new to modes. You give an example of a chord progression (G, Am, Em) that is in the KEY OF G MAJOR. You have to then consider this as the key centre when you are playing over the progression as a whole, and not just focussing on each chord as an individual entity. Yes, you can choose a mode for each chord but that mode MUST fit in with the key of the chord progression e.g. You cannot play a G Lydian mode over the G chord as the key doesn't have a C# note in it (the #4 and the most important tone of the Lydian mode). In fact, this will sound really odd as your next chord (Am) has a C Natural note in it... Now, you could argue that you are going for some outside dissonance here but that's not the point of your lesson. You say yourself, you're trying to make learning modes easier for people - to do that you need to be aware of the key. Otherwise everything else you are saying is pointless and it's only going to confuse people when they try and play these modes over a chord progression and are puzzled as to why it all sounds so "out"/crappy. This is the reason that people traditionally stick with the method of teaching modes that you are trying so hard to lampoon - it's a key centre approach that will get results because it sounds good.
    Funnyname99
    This will be a deal-breaker maybe, but.... Just punch some different modes into this scale generator, the notes for Dorian and Ionian are completely different. When people learn it the old way, they think they're playing in different modes, but they're not, they're just playing G major but starting further back. http://jguitar.com/scale?root=G&scale=Ioni...
    macatom
    You probably mean well but this is all nonsense and you're really going to confuse people with this sort of misinformation. By concentrating on fingerings and positions you are completely missing the point and you plain admit in another post that you don't really know what you're talking about. You need to HEAR the modes you are playing in relation to the chords that are supplied in the harmony. Stop with all of the overly complicated (and incorrect) explanations of how to "work out any mode" and, instead, focus on one mode e.g. A Dorian then practice simply improvising within one octave of that mode over a relevant chord progression (in this case try a really simple pattern repeating Am7 to D). And listen. Listen to what sounds good. Does it sound good? Yes? Then it IS GOOD. Stop confusing yourself (and more importantly confusing other unfortunate people who might read your ramblings) and focus on simple exercises and find what sounds good.
    Funnyname99
    My ramblings? A little cold I think. Your suggestion is to use one ounce of theory at a time and just whittle away until something sounds right. That's not very technical... It's very simple, just learn how to move the only fretboard pattern you need around depending on what sound/mood you want to create. Did you not open that link and change the modes as I suggested? it's not complicated; if you know your C major fretboard you can play any key and any mode in literally 20 seconds. Your suggestion below is to learn how each mode changes it's key one at a time and then play just that little bit very slowly until you have memorised the qualitative impressions it gives you, then you can move on and try a slightly different part or mode. How is that a more effective method? You have a very stone-age sounded approach to this and it doesn't seem useful.
    macatom
    You're correct about one thing; it shouldn't be a technical exercise. Modes should be understood, digested and HEARD. Learning numerous fingerings and shapes is completely pointless if you don't know how a mode should sound and under what circumstances you should try and use it. But sure, if you want to learn dozens of technical rules and patterns then go ahead. But don't be surprised if everything modal you try to play sounds completely stale and plain wrong. It's music, it has to sound good. Your suggestion that learning in small steps is somehow incorrect really shows that you view music as some sort of purely technical endeavour. Well, I'm afraid I can't help you if that's the case. Go print off as many patterns as you can and enjoy practising them endlessly with no musical reward. When you can play all 97 patterns I'm sure there'll be some sort of prize... Just don't expect anyone to want to listen to anything you play.
    janmichael_871
    thanks a bunch man this was totally helpful, i've been waiting for somebody to explain this to me the way u just did. to where i can better understand how to go about playing around with modes so i appreciate it. time to shred!
    macatom
    For me there is far, far too much over-complication when guitar players start trying to explain modes. A 17 paragraph explanation off-the-bat is only ever going to lead to someone feeling even more confused that when they first asked. If someone is just starting out with modes the best thing to do is pick one that you have heard, can identify and like the sound of. Lydian is generally really good for this as you can find it in lots of great guitar music and it FEELS really "modal" to someone just starting out with modes due to it's "out" raised 4th. For a more minor equivalent, start with Dorian. Now, to get the sound and feel under your skin (and your fingers) DON'T OVER-COMPLICATE by going off and trying to use all seven notes of the mode straight away... There are some pivotal tones you need to zone in on and so the secret is to start with simple pentatonics. For Lydian - take a normal major pentatonic scale and ADD THE IMPORTANT NOTE (a raised 4th). In a Pentatonic Major this will actually mean REPLACING the natural 4th with a raised 4th... You'll quickly hear that having both doesn't work in this context. For Dorian - do the same but with the Minor Pentatonic and ADD THE IMPORTANT NOTE (a raised 6th) Now, noodle around with these simple versions over some progressions that outline this modal example until you start to FEEL the sound and effect of that mode and how powerful those "extra" notes can be.
    R3ap3r_Tokyo
    You got the list ABSOLUTELY RIGHT (you should ALWAYS apply a different mode to the SAME root), but then you messed it up with the harmony part, as others have noticed. Still better than the wrong list alone, though.
    Funnyname99
    Yes, agreed, he's missed the point, by changing the mode, you change the chords that can be played under that mode. ie. in G Ionian (major) you can play a C major chord, but in G Phrygian that C has to be changed to a minor... In fact! The Gmajor has to become a G minor too! Now, I'll be damned if I know how to work out what modes to play over what chords, but I certainly know what chords I can play over which modes. (guess it's just figuring it out beforehand!)
    historicaljesus
    I had the modes explained to me in two different methods The Relative Method: Changing the tonic not the scale (What is labeled the wrong way) The Parallel Method: Changing the scale not the tonic (What is described in the article) Neither method is wrong
    jleblanc09
    so this was making sense until i read the comments section. until i leave class and have a guitar in my hand i wont really understand where the lesson was wrong but if anyone wants to help me out thatd be great. been trying to learn this for a while and still confused
    Funnyname99
    All major scales and 7 modes of those scales are the same fretboard patterns/positions, moved up and down the neck according to a simple equation: 1) play your major scale on one string, i.e. G major. 2) Count the modes as you count the notes up the scale... i.e. for Lydian (the 4th mode) you count 1, 2, 3, 4.. Look at the position of that fourth note on that scale. 3) count back all the frets to your starting G, (hint, it's 5 frets back to G from the fourth note of the G major scale) 4) take your entire G major fretboard (if you haven't learnt that then you're running before you can walk) and move it back (down) 5 frets. 5) These are now all the notes you can play in G Lydian, just work it around your G notes. Honestly.... That's it... Every Major key, every mode (including minor!)