Guitar Modes Lesson 1

There are tonnes of lesson all over the internet which spread the wrong approach to what modes are and how they work. This is the first of a few lessons covering the true nature and use of modes.

Ultimate Guitar
Good day!

I had a request on my first lesson to do a lesson on modes. As I previously said, I only started learning lead guitar in the last few months and since starting my journey I've never really gotten to what seemed to be a mammoth task of learning modes. However, upon further research and practice, I have found that modes is a powerful tool in any musicians musical vocabulary and shouldn't be underestimated.

Firstly, let's start on the reverse side of things, what are modes not? They are NOT the same scale, just in a different position on the guitar neck. However they can be, but this is not the essence of what modes are all about. This is what countless lessons teach and learning it this way will establish bad habits from early on.

There are many technical explanations of what modes are, but I'd rather consider modes as different flavors of each scale and using the best flavor to match the music you are playing with.

Let's get into the technical stuff, and I'll try and explain it in as practical a manner as I possibly can.

For the purposes of this lesson, let's use the C Major scale, and for the purposes of not confusing anyone I will use only ONE position of the C-Major scale.

The scale runs as follows:


The modes for the C-major scale are as follows:
C Ionian C D E F G A B C
D Dorian D E F G A B C D
E Phrygian E F G A B C D E
F Lydian F G A B C D E F
G Mixolydian G A B C D E F G
A Aolean A B C D E F G A
B Locrian B C D E F G A B

degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
It may seem as though the old myth about modes being the same scale starting on different notes is right, but that's not what the modes are about. From a technical standpoint, it's more about the position (or degree) of the notes in each mode.

So how do we apply these modes?

To master the concept, you will need to practice listening to your playing a lot because as I said modes are about what sounds good with what.

I urge you to practice the following while you read because this is where the core understanding lies.

Let's say we have a C-major chord playing and we want to use the C-major scale to solo over it. If you have the means, loop a C-major chord now and play each note of the C major scale starting with C over the chord. As the root of the scale is C we can say we are using the C-Ionian mode with the C note as the tonal center.

Now upon listening to each note, which of these notes would you say sound good with the C-major chord? I believe you will find that C, E and G all sound pretty good. A and D probably wouldn't be too hard on your ears. However, B and F may sound like they don't quite fit.

So why do C, E and G sound good? Well, the C-major chord is made up of C-E-G-C-E if you look at your fingering when playing it. The reason for the F sounding out of place is because in most cases the 4th (which is F) will clash with the 3rd (which is E). When I say 3rd and 4th I am referring to the table above and the C Ionian mode.

Let's use another example. Let's use the same principal with the E-minor chord. Keep in mind that the E-minor's relative major (for the purposes of using with the C-major scale) is G-major. So we will be using the G-Mixolydian as in the table above.

This time you will realize that the notes that sound good are once again those that tie up to the notes in the chord, namely E, B and G. In this case, even though we are using the key of C-major, the C sounds like the odd one out, because once again the 4th (which is now C) is clashing with the 3rd (which is B).

When taking into account all of the above you realize that modes are actually the relationship between a scale, and the chords in that scale.

Notice that we have not even touched on positions yet, but that is because modes are not relatively related to the positions on the neck. All the modes can be contained in one position on the neck as well. The notes you focus on are what matters though.

I will use position 1 of the major scale as an example. Once again we use C major. For the first diagram, let's assume you are playing over a C-major chord, and we use the C-Ionian mode.
The notes in brackets are the ones you will try and focus on, and will sound nice to end on. All the other notes are good too, but you will be better off using them as passing notes.

However, coming back to the E minor and G Mixolydian, in the same position we find that the notes to focus on change, but are still in the same position of the same scale.
See, that's not so bad.

This lesson covers only the basic as there are so much more concepts involved in understanding modes and using them to their full potential. I will touch on these in coming lessons, but the core concept I believe is contained in this lesson. There may be a magnitude of theory involved but in the end, it comes down to grasping the patterns between the modes and the chords. Remember, if you struggle with the names no one will ask you while on stage what mode you are using.

In the next few lessons I will cover finding the major scale from the mode you are using and also which modes work well with which chords. There are also a few shortcuts to use to find the notes you are looking for.

To conclude I recommend that you practice listening to what sounds good with what first. Once you have a good grasp on which scales to use with which chords, using modes can become a second nature without you even actually having to know about them. Because it comes down to how they sound.

Practice with a loop and listen. Another method, I saw Mark St James explain on YouTube that he learned from Joe Satriani, when you don't have immediate access to backing tracks or a loop, is to play the open E string, and just use your scales over it and listen to the notes that tie up nicely.

Good luck with modes.

7 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Essentially, chord tones sound nicer than non-chord tones. If you are playing the G mixolydan scale over an Emin chord (with no other context)you are more likely to hear an E phygian sound. In the end though: get a firm understanding of tonal harmony and modes are pretty much useless. Merely an overcomplication IMHO
    well i dont know how far you are with music .. i dont really know theroy .. just pretty basic stuff .. but modes , really got me out of the "minor bluesy" stuff that most people unwillingly sound like .. my ear always struck me back to that familiar sounding place .. using modes really opened a door for me..
    Jacques Nel
    I honestly couldn't agree with you more. I researched modes having heard how much using modes can advance your playing but in the end you realize that it's a long over explained topic with a single message: "Listen to what sounds good". I think the concept of explaining modes is done wrong in so many cases that it confuses some learning players, because I've read a lot of articles which just states e.g. when you start on fret 8 on C, it's Ionian, but start on D on fret 10 it's D Dorian. This causes such confusion because that's not what modes are about. But I digress, I won't spend my days learning each and every mode but rather listen to what sounds good. Instincts vs. Theory
    ^ Your article doesn't do much to help his situation as you do not cover the application of modes to an actual song. You hint that in the next article you'll tell use how to use certain modes over certain chords, which could simply result in using the major scale, not employing accidentals, and calling it 7 different names for no particular reason.
    Jacques Nel
    Hi, appreciate the input. That's true, and yes you are right but that is why I said lesson 1. You should know what something is and what it does before using it. That's why I said people should start training their ears. I will get to song application. I just take it one step at a time as I am also still learning about its application.
    Just as a hint, if your next article goes something like: We have a progression that goes C, Dm, G. And over this you use the C ionian over the C, D dorian over the Dm and G mixolydian over the G.... Please don't write it. It's incredibly wrong and only serves to add another bad modes article on the internet.
    Jacques Nel
    Thanks for the advice. That is actually the type of article I will be avoiding. Doing my best at the moment to compile a good application lesson, but thought I'd put a lot of time into it to expand the scope beyond reciting which modes fit which progressions.