Fighting Back Against Modal Misconceptions. Part 1

Think you fully understand the concept of 'Modes'? Check this article out to see if you truly know what modes are and how to use them.

Ultimate Guitar

One of the most common problems I have seen with intermediate and advanced guitarists lies within their understanding of what modes' are, and how they are used. If you have read into, studied, and practiced the concept of modes, you fall into one of two categories:

1) You fully understand the concept of modes, and know how to properly utilize them.
2) You THINK you know how modes work, but really have no idea how to use them (even if you think you do!)

Now, as you are reading through this, and you feel that you know how to properly use modes, humour me and keep reading, as you just might be one of those guitarists who fall into the second category listed above : )

Okay, so now we need to get started with going over the major scale, then we can slowly work our way into the concept of modes. If you do a quick search online regarding this subject, there is a lot of improper information out there. There are also a lot of guitar teachers who improperly teach this subject, so even if you have had guitar lessons and studied this subject with your teacher before, your understanding may be lacking a few pieces of information that need to be filled in.

For the sake of this article, I'm going to stick to the keys relative to G major, as I find it's easy to relate to on the guitar. To refresh your memory, the notes in the key of G major are:


The notes in the major scale can also be given numbers so that you can compare other scales in relation to the major scale. Anytime a flat (b) or sharp (#) is added before one of the numbers, it is telling you the interval in relation to the major scale.

So now that we have the notes established, Let's take a look at some of the possible ways we can play this series of notes on the guitar neck.

Below I am going to show diagrams for the 7 different possible 3-notes-per-string scale shapes that you can play within the key of G major, with the root notes on the 6th (low E) string. I'm choosing these shapes because they are quite symmetrical, and are the easiest shapes to create 7 completely different patterns. Take a look at the shapes so you can see that the notes used are exactly the same, but the starting fret will change in each pattern, and therefore the shapes will be different.


If we are playing anything in the key of G major, we can improvise or create a melody with any of the positions listed above. At the stage we're at right now, the proper term for all of these positions is just that: positions. Most people will jump right into trying to call each of these shapes a mode', but I will get more into why that is wrong in a little bit.

Let's start off by having you improvise over the following backing track, which is a vamp on G major in a rock feel. Feel free to use any and all positions that I listed in the diagram above.

So now that you have played a little bit with the 'positions', or 'shapes', of G major, I'm going to get more into how modes work and what they are.

A 'mode' typically refers to a type of scale, and to an educated musician, a modal name will provide them with a lot of information in regards to how they can play over a specific passage or chord progression.

Within the major scale, we can get 7 different modes. This is done by altering what we consider to be the root note of the scale, and re-organzing the order of the notes. For example, if we start the G major scale on second note (A), we get A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. We can call this the second 'mode' of G major, but it also has another name: Dorian.

The G major scale can be re-organized to start on any of the 7 notes of the scale, and each one has it's own modal name. Below is a table that goes into detail for each of the modes:

G Ionian (major scale)G-A-B-C-D-E-F#
A DorianA-B-C-D-E-F#-G
B PhrygianB-C-D-E-F#-G-A
C LydianC-D-E-F#-G-A-B
D MixolydianD-E-F#-G-A-B-C
E Aeolian (natural minor scale)E-F#-G-A-B-C-D
F# LocrianF#-G-A-B-C-D-E

We can now take a look at all of the 7 the positions that we worked on before, and include a 'modal name' to go along with them. Take a look at the diagrams and see the names for each position, also noting the fact that the root notes have changed from being a constant G, to a different note for each position.


To delve into how we can utilize these scales properly, let's take a look at the chords that belong to the key of G major. Triad chords (3 note chords) are built using scale tones 1-3-5, and 7th chords are built using 1-3-5-7.

If we look at the scale starting on G, we get the notes G B D, which creates a G major chord. If we want to create a 7th chord, we get the notes G B D F#, which is a G Major 7 chord.

We can do the same thing starting starting on every note of the scale. This means if we start on A, we have to re-arrange the scale sequence starting from that note, and build the chord with the same formula. In this case, the notes would be A-C-E-G. This matches up directly with the chart above that outlines each mode. We're essentially using the chord building formula using the notes of each mode above to build the chord that will go with it.

Below are all the triad and 7th chords that can be built with this formula within the scale.

Triad Chord7th chordFormulaNotes
GGmaj71-3-5-(7)G B D (F#)
A minorAm71-b3-5-(b7)A C E (G)
B minor Bm71-b3-5-(b7)B D F# (A)
CCmaj71-3-5-(7)C E G (B)
DD71-3-5-(b7)D F# A (C)
E minor Em71-b3-5-(b7)E G B (D)
F# diminished F#min7(b5) 1-b3-b5-(b7)F# A C (E)

We're now at the point where we can start to talk about proper use of the modes, as opposed to positions. We are really only playing a different 'mode' other than the major (ionian) scale if the chord root changes as well. For example, if we play the 'dorian' position over a G major chord, we are still only playing the 'Ionian' mode.

The understand this further, check out the table below to see which chords line up with which modes.

G Ionian (major scale)G MajorGmaj7
A DorianA minorAm7
B PhrygianB minorBm7
C LydianC majorCmaj7
D MixolydianD majorD7
E Aeolian (natural minor scale)E minorEm7
F# LocrianF# diminishedF#min7(b5)

At this point, this still may be confusing to you, and you still may not understand what is different between modes and positions. That's where this next step comes in. I am including backing tracks for each chord within the G major scale, so you can hear for yourself what the difference between a 'mode' and a 'position' is. To repeat it again, we are only playing a different 'mode' other than the G major (ionian) scale if we are using the proper chord that goes with it.

For example, many guitarists think that they are playing the 'B Phrygian' scale when they are just playing the G major scale position that starts on the 7th fret. It is only B Phrygian if we are playing a B minor chord underneath it as well. If we are playing a G major chord, it is still G ionian, regardless of the fact that we are playing what has been taught to us as a 'mode'. This makes much more sense when you think of describing this to a piano or horn player: if you told them to play B Phrygian over a G major chord, they would look at you confused, not understanding why you'd want them to do all that extra work, to just play over a G major chord!!!

Try playing each of the modes listed in the second scale diagram over the corresponding backing tracks below. You should hopefully be able to hear the difference now between a 'mode', and a 'position'. I will include some notes underneath about the significance of each mode, and which notes give the mode it's unique flavour.

This scale is your traditional 'major' scale, which is used in everything from classical, to pop, to rock, and more. Examples: "Minuet in G", "Ode To Joy", "Take It Easy" by the Eagles... way too many to list


This is a minor scale, used by many guitarists, the most famous example being Santana (think "Oye Como Va"). The natural 6th is a great note to emphasize in this mode, as it is unique to this minor scale. Examples: "Oye Como Va" by Santana, "So What" by Miles Davis, "Moondance" by Van Morrison.


This is also a minor scale, but with a more 'middle eastern' or 'spanish' feel to it. The flat second gives Phrygian it's unique flavour. Examples: "War" by Joe Satriani, "Wherever I May Roam" by Metallica.

This is the lightest of the 3 major modes, and is often heard in slower passages. Try to emphasize the #4 (#11) in this mode. I like the sound of Lydian over a Maj7 or Maj7(#11) chord. Examples: "Simpsons Theme Song", "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac.

The mixolydian mode is the most minor sounding of the 3 major modes. Examples: "Fire On The Mountain" by The Grateful Dead, "Sweet Home Alabama", "Sweet Child O' Mine" (intro & verse).


This is your 'natural minor' scale, and therefore exists in many songs that you know and have heard. There is not much unique about this scale since it is used to often. Since it is the same as the natural minor scale, this is the most commonly used minor key. Examples: "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, "Stairway To Heaven" by Led Zeppelin (guitar solo).


This is the most minor sounding of all the modes. It might sound very weird and ugly to you, but it can be useful. Try to emphasize the b5 in the scale to bring out the Locrian sound. Examples: "YYZ" by Rush.

So now that we've taken a look at the difference between positions and modes, I want you to practice and think about this as much as you can. In the upcoming second part of this article I will be going over how to build progressions within each mode, which in essence will give you the power to utilize these modes properly. What we have worked on in this first part of the article is only half the battle into understanding what modes are, but hopefully now you can truly hear the difference between them.

Jason Wilford teaches guitar lessons in Mississauga, (Canada)

Check out the Pro Guitar Studio website for more free resources, and to find out how you can become a better guitarist.

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    Not bad at all. I would probably illustrate the difference between positions and modes better by playing the same scale position for all examples but changing the underlying chord to show the difference.
    I like that 'scales' has been reworded to 'positions' to avoid confusion concerning the scales vs modes debate, but I hope this series really gets into detail, because the introduction likely lost a lot of readers from the off, and people are consistent in disagreements concerning modes. People support what they think is right, regardless of whether or not it is.
    When will people ever learn... Modes died with the advent of equal temperament. Do a little research and you'll understand why modes are outdated and completely irrelevant.
    Outdated? Well, I've got a couple of favourite songs written in Lydian... The Kill by 30 seconds to mars, Emily by From first to last, Apology by Alesana. And I like Lydian MUCH more than Major. But if you just use Major and Minor... go ahead...
    That's just the thing. It IS in a major key. There is no difference between the Lydian mode and the corresponding major scale and only one note difference between the Lydian mode and it's parallel major. Do you really think that sharping one fourth in a melody is going to completely change the key of a song?
    I don't understand your point. It seems like you've missed the point of changing the tonic.
    Please clarify if I'm misunderstanding what you mean when you say, "changing the tonic" but if you are talking about playing the G major scale on the 3rd fret, then sliding up and playing A Dorian on the 5th fret then there wasn't a key change, you just played the G major scale starting on a different note. You played the same exact notes.
    I mean that if you play a song in a mode of D major, you've changed the tonic to something other than D. Your example is correct in that there is no key change, which agrees with the article. However, if the chord structure of the whole song is modal, then the tonic is changed and it is a different key.
    "Do you really think that sharping one fourth in a melody is going to completely change the key of a song?" Sharpening the fourth in the melody would change the underlying chords, so yes. If you extended the harmony of the I chord to the 11 it would be sharp, changing the harmony. As would the 9 in the iii chord, the 7 in the V chord (as you should know, really important) the 5 in the vii chord and so on.
    Literally thousands of songs are written with modes, starting with every song that's minor. Rock guitar has made this even more prevalent.
    "One of the most common problems I have seen with intermediate and advanced guitarists lies within their understanding of what modes are, and how they are used." sounds like the article writer doesn't know much better
    Sigh...No. You are not changing modes every time you change chords. If I was playing over the progression GMaj7,Em7,Am7 D7 I would not be playing in the Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian modes. If I played that succession of "modes" I would simply be targeting chord tones. I would be playing in the key of G Major. All those chords function withing the KEY and have nothing to do with modes. Those chords are actually the standard pop progression. You can hear it in (nearly) every 50s song, Baby by Justin Bieber and countless other hits. None of those songs had anything to do with modes.
    "Sigh...." No need to be a DICK about it.
    Sigh...You're right. Not necessary. It's just that when it he said "1) You fully understand the concept of modes, and know how to properly utilize them. 2) You THINK you know how modes work, but really have no idea how to use them (even if you think you do!)" I thought it might have some good information. But it turned into a standard "modal misunderstanding".
    No, it's not wrong. It's just another (more detailed) description. Instead of a D-Mixolydian scale at the last chord you could f.e. play the part of D-Major that occurs in A-Major too and in the next chord change the key to A-Major. (sounds delicious imo ) It's easier too compare these to cases when you say that the key changes with every new chord. (the chord scale theory of jazz) For songs that never change the, let's say, "notes in use" (like in such pop songs) it's just not necessary to talk about modes, but you COULD do so (either way, nobody does). When you play something like G, Em, Am, D C, D, Em, Bm then you might say that you change the key too C-Lydian at the 5th chord. But why? Just because a even number of bars were played (let's assume that you change the chord every bar) (is it right to say: sb. plays bars? :/ ?), we've got a dominant and we are now waiting for the tonic but get something else? Why not change the key after an odd number of bars? Why not after every dominant? Why not at EVERY new chord? You could also say that a chord and a scale is kind of the same thing. You just don't play every note of the corresponding scale at every chord. (Sorry, if my english isn't that good; for me this is really hard to explain in a foreign language... )
    No, what I was saying is you do not need "modes" at all. Target the chord tones. In the example above the key is G Major. Not D Major or A Major or C Lydian (Which isn't a key.) The progression posted above is I,vi,ii,V,IV,V,vi,iii in G Major. There is no need to use any other scale other than G Major. You can, of course, use accidentals whenever you want. You could play a bunch of random chromatic crap but, because of the harmony, the key will stay G Major no matter what you play over it.
    It sounds like you're saying that because you still hear G major when hearing one of its modes, that everyone else does as well. I don't think that's true.
    You still hear G major because you're still in G major. Modal is not tonal. You don't change "modes" when you change chords.
    I don't still hear G major, because I'm not still in G major, I'm in one of its modes, so the tonic isn't G. I already know you don't change modes when you change chords.
    To clarify, which example are you referencing? Because G Em Am D is a 6 2 5 1 in G, and all other chords are also in G.
    I'm sorry. I think I'm realizing that you and I are on different subjects. I'm talking about song construction using modes (for example, every time a song is written in a minor key, you are using a mode), while I'm guessing you are talking about improvising over chord changes. The person I originally replied to said we don't need modes, even though thousands of songs are constructed with them.
    Without a modal harmonic context it's not "using modes", it's simply using accidentals, just like Metallica.
    It would all be so much easier for people if we change the word from "modes" to "contexts"
    To be very honest, the misconceptions about modes are as well rooted among the general musician populace (and even among some supposedly educated people) as the actual concepts of their 'correct' usage. As such, the meaning of the word is probably getting lost, the line between the conventional usage of the term (which is what most knowledgeable people consider correct) and the myriad concepts the term has come to represent nowadays is getting blurred. Thus, the misuse of the term modes has made the question regarding what is correct usage of modes almost unanswerable as so many people have different ideas. If the internet is any indication, I expect the various meanings of 'modes' end up being accepted just as certain grammatical errors may end up becoming an accepted part of a language. From my experience, to understand the basic 'traditional' idea of modes, there are two lessons that anybody could ever need to clarify their doubts regarding modes: i) This article by Joe Satriani: al-theory ii) The 'Modes: No More Mystery' lesson video by Frank Gambale
    doubt you'll see it all the way down here, but well written. this is incredibly similar to how i introduce my students to modes.
    Maybe a stupid question, but if I understand this correctly, everytime a chord changes (for example from Gmaj to Amin) I also change the mode from G-ionian to A-dorian? It doesn't sound wrong to me if I play the A-dorian mode over the the Gmaj chord, I only have to accent the G-note, instead of the A-note, which is the root for the A-dorian (again, if I'm correct).
    steven seagull
    in short no, you don't. More often than not changing chords has no effect on the tonality of the piece.
    I understand the different modes contain the same notes, but they have different root notes. I'm getting lost at the point of changes modes over chords and I couldn't find a lesson yet where that's explaint.
    I think I'm right in saying that you don't need to worry about chord changes, only the root chord.
    It's all a matter of how you look at it. When you play over a G chord, you can look at it as playing G Ionian/major. When you play over an A minor chord (if we're still in the key of G) you can still look at it as playing G Ionian/major, OR you can look at it as playing A dorian. Looking at it that way can help some people, including myself. You haven't changed keys when you go to an A minor chord, so there's technically no "change of mode." But in an improvisational setting, it can be easier for some to think of playing A dorian over the A minor chord, instead of playing G major over the A minor chord. Because if you're thinking "A dorian," then you're thinking of "A" as a temporary tonic, which works because it's the root of the chord. Again, there is no key change, change of mode, change of tonality etc. But simply thinking in a relative mode may (or may not) help with improvising, or whatever it is you're doing. Hope this helps. Please don't flame me.
    Regardless of whether you change positions or not, changing the underlying harmony (chord) changes the mode you are playing. However, it is a good idea to change positions to one you recognise as 'belonging' to the chord as it helps promote new ideas you wouldn't have thought of in the other position and makes chord tones much easier to find and emphasise. Also, getting used to playing this way will let you jump over key changes without a second thought (jazz anyone?) and use alternative scales to those that belong to the key you're in. Eg. try using a G Phrygian dominant over a G7 chord instead of a Mixolydian, this will create a more 'outside' sound that still fits with the piece.
    In relation to the backing tracks, if you want to really have a modal vamp, it has to embody the mode you're representing. If you don't, you're going to end up in a major or minor key, no ifs or buts. So in relation to: A dorian backing track - an A minor chord. This is in A minor. There is zero emphasis on the major 6th which forms part of the mode. B phrygian backing track - a B minor chord. This is in B minor. There is zero emphasis on the flat 2nd which forms part of the mode. C lydian - over a Cmaj7 chord. This is in C major (as in, it resolves to C major). There is zero emphasis on the #4 which forms part of the mode. D mixolyian - over a D7 chord; CORRECT! The 7th is integral to the mixolydian mode. F# locrian - over a dim chord; CORRECT! For the reasons above. E aeolian - over E minor chord; CORRECT! But how come you're trying to pass the other ones off as modes when it's exactly the same? Exactly the same? Exactly the Same? Let that sink in for a bit. If you expect us to create a mode by a simple change of notes over a minor chord, what was the chord before we started playing over it? Why does it somehow change the entire harmonic context of the song? If a dog barks during this chord, does it change it into locrian? Those plain minor chord vamps are in the minor key, and if you play an outside note, it's an "accidental". For some reason you call it a mode though. That's strange, but incredibly common on the internet.
    The melody or riff you create using the mode will create the sound for you. Metallica isn't using a minor(b9) chord when they're playing in Phrygian, and you don't absolutely need to extend your major7 chord up to a #11 to achieve the sound of the Lydian mode. To play Dorian you don't need to play a minor6 chord... These can all be emphasized, of course, but that wasn't my goal here. This lesson is the first part in a series, intended for readers who are just getting acquainted with modes.
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's my understanding of the modes... Let's say you have a simple repeating chord progression with the chords GM and Em. You could always noodle around with the GM scale. OR you could use G Lydian and G myxolydian over the GM chord, and for the Em chord you could use E dorian, E phrygian, or the usual E aeolian. Using them like this would mean that you are not simply playing the GM scale starting from different points. The modes are just there do give you some different flavors for your solos. That's what I do with them anyway *shrugs*.
    Which example are you looking at? Because the G Em Am D is clearly a 6 2 5 1 progression in G
    Somewhat new to the whole idea of modes, but this seem to 'shred' some light on it for me in a nut shell, dumbed down (for someone like me), if i play the POSITION of a G Major scale over the chord of D Major, im in fact playing the mode of D Mixolydian?? is that kinda the jist of what all this was saying?
    That's a good place to start, and exactly what this first part was all about... in part 2 I will go deeper into the concept of modes, aside from just looking at single chords.
    Stellar job on the examples. I'm afraid I'm not sure what misinformation you are trying to clear up. Perhaps by some miracle I've learned it correctly in the first place?
    You probably did get lucky and understand the concept properly then. What I am getting at here is many guitarists think they are playing 'Dorian' when they are in fact just playing 'position 2' of the major scale. I see this way too often, so this article is aimed at trying to clear that up.
    If I want to play G-Dorian, I start with the dorian mode on G (E-string, third fret) and shift the entire scale back? I found out E-aeolian equals G-ionian, so the difference is which mode you start with, if I'm correct.
    J-Dawg158 is right. There is a reason why people stopped using modes 400 years ago. They are major scales that start on different notes.
    Really? Modes are prevalent in just about every kind of music today.
    If you think that, then you have very little knowledge as to why western music started using the major-minor system.