One of the best articles on modes is here. This is a great reference guide, and describes mode and how to use them very well. Read this first, because I don't want to repeat this, or take any credit for this work.
The shortcuts are pretty common, but to avoid confusion please refer to the following table:
b3, b6, b7: Flat. So b3 means flat 3rd in G, B becomes Bb.
#4: Sharp. In G, C is the 4th note, and becomes C#.
p: Pull off
h: Hammer on
7 chord: Chord played with the 7th, such as Am7
20b22: Bend. Bend from the fret before the b so it sounds like the one after the b.
What Are ModesThere is some history as to how the modes get their names, but the modes are just a way to communicate concisely between musicians. In C, a band member may ask me to try to solo in G or Lydian. It is easier to remember 7 names to describe the effect than every combination of each scale. They know the tonal feel they want, and this is what is important.
Simply modes are all the scales that have the root note of the parent scale somewhere in their scale. So in G, they are all the scales that contain the note, G. Seven notes, seven modes. Some modes share many notes of the root scale, and it these differences that give each mode a feel.
This maybe technically interesting, but not very helpful. The useful and important part is the feel that these modes create in the listener. Many talk of the Dorian, or Lydian feel; like we are all meant to know what this means. The best and possibly only way to know understand this is to listen to music that uses these modes.
Blues solos tend to use Dorian and Phrygian modes. Lydian creates a haunting feel, good for film scores. Frank Zappa makes a lot of use of the Lydian mode, listen to "Watermelon in Easter Hay" - addictive and haunting. The Internet is full of examples, and listening is the best way to learn.
The feel is created, simply, by playing a note the listener isn't expecting. When listening to a song, the listener's ears are trained to the song and many can often predict the next note; even if they haven't heard the song before. The modes play with this effect, creating tension or other feelings in the listener. For example, when playing a song in G, a Bb creates a minor feel. This is the 3rd note in G minor, this note is often called the "blue" note - the minor 3rd of the scale (coincidence?). Partly why we play power chords in rock: there is no 3rd note in the chord. Of course, some notes are just simply wrong, and we have a mode for that too, Locrian - this is the mode even jazz musicians avoid.
You will also read that the modes are scale that start at a different note in the parent scale, and this isn't wrong. In this way of thinking, the Lydian mode of G would be C Lydian, not G Lydian. This simplified view actually makes mode harder to understand. This is why warlordjoe92 claims it is the wrong way to learn, and he is right!
The following tables demonstrate this.
TablesThe tables have the mode name, the type of scale, the major / natural minor scale, and the notes.
Mode Type Scale Notes Relative notes
Ionian Major G /Em G ,A ,B ,C ,D ,E ,F#,G 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1
Dorian Minor F /Dm G ,A ,Bb,C ,D ,E ,F ,G 1, 2,b3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Phrygian Minor Eb/Cm G ,Ab,Bb,C ,D ,Eb,F ,G 1,b2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Lydian Major D /Bm G ,A ,B ,C#,D ,E ,F#,G 1, 2, 3,#4, 5, 6, 7, 1
Mixolydian Major C /Am G ,A ,B ,C ,D ,E ,F ,G 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Aeolian Minor Bb/Gm G ,A ,Bb,C ,D ,Eb,F ,G 1, 2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Locrian Dim Ab/Fm G ,Ab,Bb,C ,Db,Eb,F ,G 1,b2,b3, 4,b5,b6,b7, 1
Mode Type Scale Notes Relative notes
Ionian Major C /Am C ,D ,E ,F ,G ,A ,B ,C 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5 ,6 ,7 ,1
Dorian Minor Bb/Gm C ,D ,Eb,F ,G ,A ,Bb,C 1, 2,b3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Phrygian Minor Ab/Fm C ,Db,Eb,F ,G ,Ab,Bb,C 1,b2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Lydian Major G /Em C ,D ,E ,F#,G ,A ,B ,C 1, 2 ,3,#4, 5, 6, 7, 1
Mixolydian Major F /Dm C ,D ,E ,F ,G ,A ,Bb,C 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Aeolian Minor Eb/Cm C ,D ,Eb,F ,G ,Ab,Bb,C 1, 2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Locrian Dim Db/Bbm C ,Db,Eb,F ,Gb,Ab,Bb,C 1,b2,b3, 4,b5,b6,b7, 1
Mode Type Scale Notes Relative notes
Ionian Major F /Dm F,G ,A ,Bb,C ,D ,E ,F 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1
Dorian Minor Eb/Cm F,G ,Ab,Bb,C ,D ,Eb,F 1, 2,b3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Phrygian Minor Db/Bbm F,Gb,Ab,Bb,C ,Db,Eb,F 1,b2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Lydian Major C /Am F,G ,A ,B ,C ,D ,E ,F 1, 2, 3,#4, 5, 6, 7, 1
Mixolydian Major Bb/Gm F,G ,A ,Bb,C ,D ,Eb,F 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,b7, 1
Aeolian Minor Ab/Fm F,G ,Ab,Bb,C ,Db,Eb,F 1, 2,b3, 4, 5,b6,b7, 1
Locrian Dim Gb/Ebm F,Gb,Ab,Bb,Cb,Db,Eb,F 1,b2,b3, 4,b5,b6,b7, 1
Why Have Two Scales That Are the Same?G and Em scales share the same notes, but it is the natural way we would play the Em scale that makes it sound different. In most positions, base the scale around the E minor chord at different positions of the neck - not just the 12th. This is Aeolian mode of E major, and is the natural minor scale of G major.
Straying Off the Em PentatonicMost guitarists learn the pentatonic scale, which will get a groan from pianists who consider rock guitarists just randomly play the scale formed by the black notes on a piano, i.e. the party trick, chop sticks.
To play this on a guitar, locate the natural minor and play notes 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 - so for G major use the notes E, G, A, B, and D. This avoids the notes that don't go with the main major and minor chords in G. Ok for jamming. We can start by playing in the Em position on the 12th fret, and stray off the pentatonic by playing the C over Em and Am (13 on B) and F# (14 on E or 11 on G) over Bm. This means that we need to actually starting thinking about the chord the band is playing, and not just playing notes as fast as possible. When we are doing our fast alternate picking circus act, we do so with sympathy to the chord we are playing over.
We can starting using modes one note at a time. Most already do this by playing the Bb, whilst playing the Em pentatonic. To start out, you could practice with simple backing tracks, and play the mode associated with the chord being played. So, over Am you could play Mixolydian, which is C/Am. As you do this, try and stay in the same position of the neck for each transition.
When and How to Use ThemEach mode creates a certain feel, major modes work generally over major chords, and minor modes work generally fine over minor or 7 chords. We can't play just any note from the mode's scale, playing the G Phrygian b6 over the Em chord will sound wrong the b6 is Eb. It will sound great with B minor or as a transition to Em.
G Lydian adds a C#. This can sound terrible over the C major and A minor chords, except for Am no 3rd. It sounds interesting over G major and E minor, and fantastic in a transition to B minor. We could use G Lydian for chords G, D, Em, and Bm; therein lies a clue to how modes work with songwriting. When playing most blues we could use a mix of Dorian and Phrygian. Locrian is good for a transition, in order to create tension - although many shy away from this mode. We also need to think of the song we are playing, and the feel we are trying to create.
Practicing Soloing and Improvisation With Modes
A great song to practice the Lydian and Dorian modes is Joe Bonamassa's cover of "Jockey Full of Bourbon." The verse is in G# / Fm. The main chords are Fm and Cm7. The main solo is Fm pentatonic on the 13th fret, great solo, but not challenging. Here we could play the Lydian D# / Cm scale, the sharpened 4th (D) makes creates the effect, especially when we play over the Fm and Cm chords on the 8th fret. In this position, hammering from D to D# as a lead into a blues lick works well.
G: D , D# (7, h8) | On D: C (10)
G: D , D# (7, h8) | On B: A# (11)
B: G#, G (9, p8) | On G: D# (8) | On D: C (10)
G: D# (8) – slight bend and cut off before playing C on the D string
In main the solo, we can also use the Dorian mode, which seems a more natural choice over minor chords. When playing this listen to the effect of the b3 and b6 notes. Note that the b3 makes root chord minor (G# -> G#m) and b6 makes the 4th chord minor (C#-> C#m). In our case, we are playing chords 3 and 6 (Fm, and Cm). The b3 note is the 7th in Cm7, so great and b6 is a good transition note to Fm.
Going FurtherThe song also has a carnival feel to it, and we can use ideas from harmonic minor scales. Most scales have intervals of one or two semitones; the feel in a harmonic scale is created by an interval of 3 semitones and then a semitone. This is the feeling of move between major and minor, as we are playing the minor and major 3rd note. The melody this creates sounds like the tune played by an Indian snake charmer, which how many guitarists refer to it.
The intro has cues to this by playing the B and C, for example:
G: B , C , D# (4, 5, 8)
B: G#, F (9, p6)
The fade out part of the song let's us play a little more freely. To add interest, rather than flatten the 3rd, we could sharpen the 2nd and play the natural 3rd. The sharpened 2nd and flattened 3rd are the same note, but the effect is created by playing the natural 3rd.
D: G#, B, C (13, 16, 17, b13) | On D: F, D# (15, p13)
D: E , F (14, 15)
Sounds great, we can probably only play that once before reverting to Dorian and reinforce the melody with 1, 2, b3, 2, 1, 7, 1, 7, etc. What is important is that we keep the listener with us, and that it sounds interesting and great. Once we recognized the patterns and understand the tonal effect we are going for, it becomes natural.
We can also try mixing modes. A nice idea is to play the Phrygian mode over the C#m minor chord on 9th fret, and transition to the Lydian mode (F) before continuing with the Dorian mode over Fm on the 13th fret.
D: C , C# (10, 11)
G: G# (13)
B: C , D , D# (13, 15, 16, p13) – the D (#4) makes adds a Lydian feel
B: C#, C (14, p13)
G: G , E (13)
D: E (14 )- this is b6 from the G# Phrygian
G: G# (13) - slight bend, and then mute
D: F (15)
Also try adding notes from the Dorian scale, e.g. G#, A#, B etc.
Modes Aren't Just for Jazz or BluesIn "Tender Surrender," Steve Vai plays a lightning fast Cm7 arpeggio, which seems to have a wrong note. The song is in Em, but when he plays the B string part, he plays C#, B, C (On B: 9, 12, 13). The interval of skipping three semitones creates a harmonic minor or snake charming feel. He plays it so fast you can't really hear it, you are just left with the feel. The C# comes from the Dorian mode, or D major. Listen to interviews with Steve and his work with Frank Zappa.
If you are interested this part is as follows, and is played using alternate picking. A mix of legato sounds great for the last half.
E: 7 , 8
A: 7 , 10
D: 7-9, 10 (the A or 7 helps it sound more fluid)
G: 9 , 12 – also try 9, 11, 12 as a triplet
B: 9 , 12, 13
E: 12, 15
E: 15, p12
B: 13, p12
E: 19, 17, 15, 20b22
What's NextThe main reason for posting this was the 3 tables, and an explanation so you can create your own and understand how to start using them. Trying to answer the questions of why certain blues and jazz notes sound good when they shouldn't.
There are many other sources. Favorites of mine are masterclass YouTube videos by Guthrie Govan and Paul Gilbert. Guthrie is so humble and understated I think his ego was surgically removed, and Paul's excitement for music is infectious.
One tip Guthrie explains is that the most important thing is timing, rather than the right note. This is all very well for a jazz fusion guitarist; if you play a wrong note, just call it jazz!
Please comment if you find mistakes and I will correct, and accept the truth behind the joke "How many guitarists does it take to change a light bulb? 500. 1 to change it and 499 to say I can do it too, but faster."