The Definitive Modal Approach. Part Four

The Progression. Learn to compose complex modal progressions based on a starting point and a standard shift around any tonal centre.

Ultimate Guitar
The Definitive Modal Approach. Part Four
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and randomly self-aware chipmunks; welcome to the fourth part of the five part series: The Modal Approach. I am your host through the enticing, elegant and exhilarating modal world: Tom Colohue.

Hello and, of course, welcome back. Ain't you great?

This time around, we're going completely modal. We're leaving all of that tonal stuff behind. Pfft. Not worth our time. Compared to what comes next, that was all simple. Child's play. Piece of cake. Pie. A lovely bacon sandwich compared to a Thanksgiving dinner.

We've examined note stability, we recognise our modal notes and we already knew about the two most important pieces of theory here in the major scale and chord composition. Honestly, if you didn't know about all of this beforehand, you probably stopped reading at about part two, if not before. I feel that, at this point, you all know what you're doing. You're all ready for this. I believe.

It's modal compositions time. This is where we go from suggestive play to in your face modal interplay. From a nip-slip to group fetish porn. That's the range of the change here. We're doing things properly from now on, which means that accidentals from hereon in will become deliciously intentional.

Modal compositions require both forethought and dedication. Improvising a tonal or suggestive piece can be easy. If you ever try to improvise something modal, you're likely to encounter problems. You can't write a symphony on the fly - it'll just end up a cacophony.

Let's take our time with this one people. It's the big one. After all, there's no rush.

The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue

Part Four: The Progression

Modal Progressions

Right, so we start at the beginning. What makes a progression modal? The answer is simple: applicable use of the modal notes. We learned this in the last article. Know your modal notes and abuse them until the cows come home.

We'll start with Mixolydian once again, since it only contains one interval of difference from the major scale. When in doubt, always keep to the smooth and easy transitions to start with.
A Major
A B C# D E F# G#

A Mixolydian
A B C# D E F# G
These are the notes that we will be working with. In order to establish our tonal centre, we have a piece in A major. The tonal centre here is quite easily recognisable as A. Let's build a basic A major progression to work from.
0 0 2 0
2 0 3 2
2 1 2 2
2 2 0 2
0 2 x 0
x 0 x x
A  E  D  A
C# G# F# C#
Here we have three of the most well known chords coming together to form one of the most well known musical movements: the I - V - IV progression. Once again, simple and effective. We can build something great from here. It's a stable tonal progression within the confines of the major scale in order to establish our tonal centre.

Now let's make it modal. First, I'm going to make each of the chords four notes instead of three, in order to widen our options and so that it will offer a better chance to explain later. Then, we change the G# in the major scale to the G of the Mixolydian mode. Now, if these were still three note chords only the E chord would be affected and even then it would only drop to an Em chord. While this is in effect modal play, the affect would be small and largely unnoticeable. We're going bigger.

A7 Em7 Dmaj7 A7
3 0 2 3
2 3 2 2
2 0 2 2
2 0 0 2
0 2 x 0
x 0 x x
C# G F# C#
G D C# G
Now we've introduced the modal note of Mixolydian, and given it a chance to really present itself.

What makes this progression unstable? Two things.

1. You now have a progression containing the exact same notes as D major. Focusing on chords that contain the D note risks resolving.

2. Your root chord is now a dominant chord in order to illustrate the modal change while still holding the tonal centre. Dominant chords can be a wild and temperamental master.

Modes are only truly effective when they are wrapped around a defined tonal centre. In this instance, that tonal centre is A. However, the longer you use this modal progression, the more it's going to want to resolve away from the mode and back towards the major scale intervals present. Those belong to D major.

That said, if you play the progression you can hear the change. It doesn't sound like the major scale anymore. It sounds new. It sounds different and, after a while, don't you just think it would sound perfect if you finished it on a nice D? Don't do that. Before you reach that point, go back to your A major progression and into safety and stability.

Or resolve to D. That could work out too. Let’s have a look at Lydian next.
A Major
A B C# D E F# G#
A Lydian
A B C# D# E F# G#
Of course this is still only one note away from the major scale, but this note is in the other direction. You can see the D# being all infuriating there. If we start with the same 4 note A major chords, let's create a Lydian progression to show off what we can do.

Amaj7 Emaj7 D#m7 A7 
3 0 0 3
2 3 4 2
2 0 6 2
2 0 4 2
0 2 6 0
x 0 x x
A  E  D# A
C# G# F# C#
G# D# C# G
That's a D#m7 by the way. Nobody said Lydian was easy.

Some chords take a lot of effort to switch over and they can make modes quite difficult. A capo can be useful here or further examination of potential shapes. It can be quite useful to drop the 7th there or, in this case, the 5th. That would leave you with a xx1x22 chord. Much easier to use. As tempting as that would be, E is the 5th in A Major which as we know is a necessary note to maintain that Lydian style. Ask yourself, is this note adequately represented elsewhere? Fool around with it a bit and see how you feel afterwards.

Mixolydian has only one note of difference, and it's on a note that's quite commonly used. Lydian also has only one note, but can become quite tricky in certain circumstances. Let's look at Phrygian next.
A Phrygian
A Bb C D E F G A
The difference between A Phrygian and A major is quite enormous, isn't it? It would be a big jump to go from the A major progression we put together to a progression made from A Phrygian, but not to worry. This is where the minor scale can be our greatest friend. Phrygian has only one note of difference from A minor, that being its modal note, the flat second.

Let's make the same progression, but in A minor next.
Am Em Dm Am
0 0 1 0
1 0 3 1
2 0 2 2
2 2 0 2
0 2 x 0
x 0 x x
Simple enough, right? I - V - IV again? Wrong. This progression isn't going to give us the chances that we need in order to truly see that flat second in action since B, the major second of A, is only present once.

Let's change a chord so that we can show that modal change then.

Am Em C  A
0 0 0 0
1 0 1 1
2 0 0 2
2 2 2 2
0 2 3 0
x 0 x x
There we go. While there's no B present in C right now, there will be when we convert then to four note chords.

So let's make them modal, shall we?

Am7 Em7b5 C7 Am7
0 0 0 0
1 3 1 1
0 0 0 0
2 2 2 2
0 1 1 0
x 0 x x
A  E  C  A
E Bb G E
G D Bb G
How's that for volatile? Not only does this Phrygian progression contain no Bb in the root chord, but it also contains a dominant chord and a m7b5; two of the most dissonant and difficult chords to work with. However, it is modal and even though it contains all of the notes of F major, as long as your tonal centre holds, you will hear that modal taint. Due to the chords present though, let's not spend too long away from A minor, shall we? Damage limitation guys. Let's not start fights we can't win.

Looking at Locrian is a bad idea. Not always, but generally speaking. Locrian is a bitch. You have the basics so Locrian would be a good one to work out yourself. It's best to know that it's a very difficult one to work with though.

Modal Interplay

Once you've mastered the art of putting together your modal positions then all of this modes as patterns stuff that people are throwing around start to become useful. It won't help your phrasing and it won't help your understanding of any theory other than that of the modal sort but it's going to give you a hint for where on the neck is a decent place to start when you're relatively inexperienced and what to play what over.

If you take the suggestive play and note stability lessons from last time then you can effectively solo over modal progressions but just as long as you realise that the tonal centre must be upheld, even when you're in a bit of a tenuous position.

For example, if we're back in A Mixolydian we can do a little lick that starts on A and on the fourth chord (A7) you can end on that G. Since it is still the leading tone it will still lead nicely back to the root and thus strengthen the tonal centre as much as possible.

Poor note choice, focussing on a D for example, could also hasten the resolution to D major rather than back to A. Since A is the fifth in D your chosen tonal centre is a difficult one to play, making Mixolydian stronger for the progression than the solo that comes over it. One of the strongest modes when it comes to soloing over a modal progression is actually Dorian, since the note that the progression and solo would want to resolve to would be the leading tone for the modal play.

There are patterns everywhere. Abuse them.

This also serves as another example of why Locrian is a difficult mode to play with. Since the intervals point to a major scale that would be the leading tone of the modal play, the mode itself pulls much stronger towards the unwanted resolution. B Locrian wants to be C major.

Teamwork in Modes

The potential for modal interplay also opens up options in a band or layered recording scenario for multiple instruments or the same in repeated recordings. For example, the more obvious trick here would be to have a rhythmic guitarist supplying a modal progression while a lead guitarist would solo over it. The amount of planning is likely why many bands or artists choose to avoid this route. Ritchie Blackmore was a bit of a legend at it.

If you're writing and recording your own music with no assistance it can be easy to plan out your progression and your lead line smoothly. Sometimes a full band is more limiting than not. I've only met a few people who wanted to write modes with me.

A less obvious option is to involve the bassist. For example, having a bass line that features the modal note rather than a lead guitarist gives a more subtle strengthening of the core tonal centre, since the lower frequencies ultimately serve as the musical foundation on which the work itself is built. Another path might be to use the bass line as a pedal tone, holding the tonal centre while the guitar explores different modal options.

If you're familiar with counterpoint, you have the option of forgoing the typical rhythm/lead connection and just doing something fancy with modes but it requires planning. For a bass line to act as a pedal tone, the bassist has to be willing to cede any and all attention to the guitarists. With rhythm and lead the lead guitarist will always receive the credit for the unique sound and style that emerges as a result of modes, even when then rhythm guitarist has done more of the planning and, ultimately, might well have chosen the notes.

The Vamp

With modes, you will often hear about chord vamps. This is a repetitive progression, usually of no more than two chords, designed to create the modal sound while still holding tightly to the tonal centre. Often the first chord would be to establish the tonal centre while the second would be the modal one, giving an option to other band members of going slightly beyond suggestive play and into the realm of modes.

An example of this, plucked from the examples higher up, would be the following simple and repetitive vamp progression:
Am7 Em7b5
0 0
1 3
0 0
2 2
0 1
x 0
A E 
E Bb
So it's kind of a I - V - I - V thing. I mean, not really when you consider all the flair notes, but kind of. While it is inherently limiting when it comes to sound, style and options, it does supply a safe pathway into modes however basic and uninventive it might be. The vamp could offer you a fall back or a safe retreat into a simplified route that everybody is familiar with. If nothing else, it is safer to have a chord vamp than to linger too long in a modal setting.

Modes in Action

This is the part where it's up to you.

If you're a musician, then chances are that you have a musical instrument. This stuff is useless if you don't do experiments yourself so I want you to do just that with modal progressions. Consider how you might be able to incorporate Lydian using the information provided, or Dorian. Try and find a safe vamp for Locrian perhaps, and see what your options are from there. Have fun with it.

These articles are only short, and I'd love to include much more in them, but I have neither the time nor the imagination to think up hundreds of examples to concrete the facts into your minds. The facts are there, so explore what you know and find the path that suits you best.

There's only one article to come after this, exploring a question that might well have popped up in your minds. What if you want your tonal centre to change? What if you want to resolve to a different place? What if you want to play modally in one sense and then choose another mode for your next trip to the modal pathways? All of this will be answered in the final and most complex section of The Modal Approach.

Thankfully, I think by now you have everything you need to work through that with an absolute breeze. You see? It's not so hard after all, once all of the miscommunication has been stripped away. Pull the flesh away and the bones are still of use, even when they really don't seem to be. We've built a brand new body on those bones, and it's a beautiful one.

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to seeing you for the wrap up this time next week.

Take care.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

By Tom Colohue
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3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Seriously, amazing series. This is the first group of lessons on the site (that I've seen) by someone who actually knows how to use modes.
    Hi great lessons and thank you. I have been referring to this series since you started it, and I am now delving into this final part. You've clarified everything and you're entertaining to boot. Just wanted to give you some extended appreciation; even though it's from last year I'm getting lots of use out of your lessons - thanks again!