Modes – using the first two full shapes
So perhaps the simplest way to get a handle on modes is to understand when you’re working with a major scale, like G major, it has seven notes. These are:
G A B C D E F# G
When we emphasise the G as a point of reference, and play over a chord sequence starting and ending on G’s, it’ll sound really major.
If we take that same set of notes, but instead of going from G to G, we go from A to A, we get this set of notes, which we call A dorian:
A B C D E F# G A.
Now if we play using A as our point of reference, it sounds more A minor-y or “A Dorian” than G major. The reason for this (and always remember if the reason doesn’t make sense yet, just park it and know that you can still apply it in practice) is that the notes in the scale are not evenly spaced – as you saw when you played the major scale up one string, some notes are adjacent and others are spaced two frets apart. So when you start from a different point in the series, the order of spaces or intervals between each note changes a bit, and this changes the type of sound we get.
The thing to take from this is that whatever musical effect you create is much more about the relationships between notes and chords, and not the notes themselves individually. Compare it to food – if you eat flour on its own – not much personality, tastes bad. Flour in cakes – tastes sweet/like pudding. Flour in chicken pie – tastes savoury. The effect depends on what else is with it.
The shapes for the modes are merely ways to organise the notes in a form that we can easily recall, so that when we want that type of sound, we can recall that shape and we know that we’ll get that effect, rather than needing to painstakingly work out the notes and find them on the guitar each time. You already know this from playing pentatonic scales – and you can already distinguish just by listening between a major-feel solo and a minor pentatonic one. Your ability to group and categorise different types of sound is going to carry on expanding, and this equals great creative freedom as it means when you come to compose solos or melodies or songs, you will have a whole lot of different options at your disposal.
One other consideration when it comes to working on your lead playing that it’s helpful to start keeping in mind is that there are different levels of detail.
The scale or mode is quite a broad level of detail as it’s choosing the overall feel, the same way that choosing to play minor pentatonic immediately puts the sound in a resulting area of blues or blues rock. Then a lot of fun and artistry comes in with zooming in to greater detail with how you make phrases, what expressions (bending, vibrato, hammer on, slide) you apply to notes, etc.
How to work with this material:
-Play the G major and A Dorian shapes with a sequence of your choice at low tempo and focus on totally accurate picking. This helps build the capacity for speed and it gets synchronization between left and right hand really good. It’s harder to play the scale with a sequence than it is to play it up and down, so you’ll get it memorized without really trying. Sequences also give you melodic material.
Next – improvise in A dorian over the A progressions, and in G major over the G progressions. You give yourself some briefs – limit the length of your phrases to two or three notes, mix in short phrases with a fragment of a sequence, and aim to commit the root notes to memory.
Then you can try the backing track with four bars of G major sounding chords and 4 bars of A dorian sounding chords, and for one or two licks in each shape. Don’t feel like you need to fill all the space, you can start out just by playing one phrase in each.