The Modes of the Major Scale: Theoretical and Guitar-Oriented Approach

This lesson contains both the theoretical aspect of the modes and the form they take on your guitar.

Ultimate Guitar
So, when I was learning the modes myself I was quite confused about how to actually play them. Through practicing, however, I discovered I could relate a scale pattern to a mode.

So let's look at the modes from a theoretical point of view (I strongly recommend you memorise the order, as well as the quality of each mode):
  • Ionian Mode (major scale): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (Major)
  • Dorian Mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 (Minor)
  • Phrygian Mode: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (Minor)
  • Lydian Mode: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (Major)
  • Mixolydian Mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (Major)
  • Aeolian Mode (natural minor scale): 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (Minor)
  • Locrian Mode: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 (Diminished)
The quality of each mode is determined by the 3rd.

So just boring theory stuff, right? Nope! It's time to grab your guitar now and actually see how you can play them! Start and end on the same (lowest) note, 6th string to the 1st.
  • The 1st position of the major scale is the Ionian Mode.
  • The 2nd position of the major scale is the Dorian Mode.
  • The 3rd position of the major scale is the Phrygian Mode.
  • The 3rd position of the major scale, starting and ending one semitone higher than before is the Lydian Mode.
  • The 4th position of the major scale is the Mixolydian Mode.
  • The 5th position of the major scale is the Aeolian Mode.
  • The 1st position of the major scale, starting and ending one semitone lower is the Locrian Mode.
So, there you have it, the modes. This helped me a lot to learn them. I hope it does the same for you! You see that you really do nothing special on the guitar itself; you just play the patterns you already know slightly differently. Once you've got them down, jam along with a backing track of your choice, to really hear and feel the mojo of each mode. Good luck!

P.S. This is my first lesson post, don't eat my head off!

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Is there a mistake in the numbering of the modes above? You had both the Phrygian and Lydian as the 3rd position of the major scale, Mixolydian as the 4th, etc. Doesn't sound right.
    To play the Lydian mode, simply start and end on the 3rd position of the major scale, but one semitone higher than you normally would. For example, to play F Lydian, you would head to the 3rd position of C Major, but you would start on the 13th fret, which is F, not 12th, which is E.
    If you do not discuss how to apply modes, you're just listing scales for no particular reason.
    I think you're wrong, and here's why. I posted this so learning modes can be a little easier to people who don't know them yet. And besides, I do advise jamming along with a modal backing track towards the end. I did, however, forget to say thst major modes work over major chords, minor modes work over minor chords, and the Locrian mode over diminished chords, I'll give you that. But I don't think that this lesson is pointless.
    ^ You're describing CST which is fine, but your approach without any further explanation could result in playing the major scale with no distinction. This possibility is extremely likely as you are explaining modes as "positions" of the same scale.
    Been playing guitar for years, and after reading these lessons here. I have realized I will never get it. Nothing but a waste of time and money. Anybody want to buy a used Gibson?
    You don't get modes so you stop playing the guitar? Let me tell you, modes are way over emphasized. Guitarists are the only musicians obsessed with modes. There's a lot of misinformation everywhere about "the guitar modes" (I hate that term - because it's just incorrect - but that's what some people tend to call them) and that's what makes them really confusing. I wouldn't suggest learning about them yet. They aren't that important. You could learn the same scales by just learning the major and minor scale and how to use accidentals. Because modes can be seen as variations of the major and minor scales. Don't pay attention to the fancy names and stuff like that. Just learn to use accidentals and you can pretty much play any mode without even thinking. If you the chords and the key center, just play the key scale and emphasize chord tones. If there are chords that the scale doesn't fit perfectly over, add accidentals. Modes did confuse me in the beginning but once I understood that they are just variations of the major and minor scales, they started making a lot more sense. They weren't just scales with fancy names any more.