What Is A ‘Mode’ Anyways?
By Jason Wilford
One of the most common problems I have seen with intermediate and advanced guitarists lies within their understanding of what ‘modes’ are, and how they are used. If you have read into, studied, and practiced the concept of modes, you fall into one of two categories:
1) You fully understand the concept of modes, and know how to properly utilize them
2) You THINK you know how modes work, but really have no idea how to use them (even if you think you do!)
Now, as you are reading through this, and you feel that you know how to properly use modes, humour me and keep reading, as you just might be one of those guitarists who fall into the second category listed above : )
Okay, so now we need to get started with going over the major scale, then we can slowly work our way into the concept of modes. If you do a quick search online regarding this subject, there is a lot of improper information out there. There are also a lot of guitar teachers who improperly teach this subject, so even if you have had guitar lessons and studied this subject with your teacher before, your understanding may be lacking a few pieces of information that need to be filled in.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to stick to the keys relative to G major, as I find it’s easy to relate to on the guitar. To refresh your memory, the notes in the key of G major are:
The notes in the major scale can also be given numbers so that you can compare other scales in relation to the major scale. Anytime a flat (b) or sharp (#) is added before one of the numbers, it is telling you the interval in relation to the major scale.
Below I am going to show diagrams for the 7 different possible 3-notes-per-string scale shapes that you can play within the key of G major, with the root notes on the 6th (low E) string. I’m choosing these shapes because they are quite symmetrical, and are the easiest shapes to create 7 completely different patterns. Take a look at the shapes so you can see that the notes used are exactly the same, but the starting fret will change in each pattern, and therefore the shapes will be different.
If we are playing anything in the key of G major, we can improvise or create a melody with any of the positions listed above. At the stage we’re at right now, the proper term for all of these positions is just that: positions. Most people will jump right into trying to call each of these shapes a ‘mode’, but I will get more into why that is wrong in a little bit.
Let’s start off by having you improvise over the following backing track, which is a vamp on G major in a rock feel. Feel free to use any and all positions that I listed in the diagram above.
So now that you have played a little bit with the ‘positions’, or ‘shapes’, of G major, I’m going to get more into how modes work and what they are.
A ‘mode’ typically refers to a type of scale, and to an educated musician, a modal name will provide them with a lot of information in regards to how they can play over a specific passage or chord progression.
Within the major scale, we can get 7 different modes. This is done by altering what we consider to be the root note of the scale, and re-organzing the order of the notes. For example, if we start the G major scale on second note (A), we get A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. We can call this the second ‘mode’ of G major, but it also has another name: Dorian.
The G major scale can be re-organized to start on any of the 7 notes of the scale, and each one has it’s own modal name. Below is a table that goes into detail for each of the modes:
A Dorian A-B-C-D-E-F#-GB
Aeolian (natural minor scale)E-F#-G-A-B-C-DF#
|G Ionian (major scale)
We can now take a look at all of the 7 the positions that we worked on before, and include a ‘modal name’ to go along with them. Take a look at the diagrams and see the names for each position, also noting the fact that the root notes have changed from being a constant G, to a different note for each position.
To delve into how we can utilize these scales properly, let’s take a look at the chords that belong to the key of G major. Triad chords (3 note chords) are built using scale tones 1-3-5, and 7th chords are built using 1-3-5-7.
If we look at the scale starting on G, we get the notes G – B – D, which creates a G major chord. If we want to create a 7th chord, we get the notes G – B – D – F#, which is a G Major 7 chord.
We can do the same thing starting starting on every note of the scale. This means if we start on A, we have to re-arrange the scale sequence starting from that note, and build the chord with the same formula. In this case, the notes would be A-C-E-G. This matches up directly with the chart above that outlines each mode. We’re essentially using the chord building formula using the notes of each mode above to build the chord that will go with it.
Below are all the triad and 7th chords that can be built with this formula within the scale.
GGmaj71-3-5-(7)G B D (F#)
|A C E (G)
|B D F# (A)
|C E G (B)
|D F# A (C)
|E G B (D)
|F# A C (E)
We’re now at the point where we can start to talk about proper use of the modes, as opposed to positions. We are really only playing a different ‘mode’ other than the major (ionian) scale if the chord root changes as well. For example, if we play the ‘dorian’ position over a G major chord, we are still only playing the ‘Ionian’ mode.
The understand this further, check out the table below to see which chords line up with which modes.
A Dorian A minor Am7
B Phrygian B minorBm7
C Lydian C major Cmaj7
D Mixolydian D major D7
E Aeolian (natural minor scale) E minor Em7
F# LocrianF# diminished F#min7(b5)
|G Ionian (major scale)
At this point, this still may be confusing to you, and you still may not understand what is different between modes and positions. That’s where this next step comes in. I am including backing tracks for each chord within the G major scale, so you can hear for yourself what the difference between a ‘mode’ and a ‘position’ is. To repeat it again, we are only playing a different ‘mode’ other than the G major (ionian) scale if we are using the proper chord that goes with it.
For example, many guitarists think that they are playing the ‘B Phrygian’ scale when they are just playing the G major scale position that starts on the 7th fret. It is only B Phrygian if we are playing a B minor chord underneath it as well. If we are playing a G major chord, it is still G ionian, regardless of the fact that we are playing what has been taught to us as a ‘mode’. This makes much more sense when you think of describing this to a piano or horn player: if you told them to play B Phrygian over a G major chord, they would look at you confused, not understanding why you’d want them to do all that extra work, to just play over a G major chord!!!
Try playing each of the modes listed in the second scale diagram over the corresponding backing tracks below. You should hopefully be able to hear the difference now between a ‘mode’, and a ‘position’. I will include some notes underneath about the significance of each mode, and which notes give the mode it’s unique flavour.
This scale is your traditional ‘major’ scale, which is used in everything from classical, to pop, to rock, and more. Examples: Minuet in G, Ode To Joy, Take it Easy by the Eagles… way too many to list
This is a minor scale, used by many guitarists, the most famous example being Santana (think Oye Como Va). The natural 6th is a great note to emphasize in this mode, as it is unique to this minor scale. Examples: Oye Como Va by Santana, So What by Miles Davis, Moondance by Van Morrison
This is also a minor scale, but with a more ‘middle eastern’ or ‘spanish’ feel to it. The flat second gives Phrygian it’s unique flavour. Examples: War by Joe Satriani, Wherever I May Roam by Metallica
This is your ‘natural minor’ scale, and therefore exists in many songs that you know and have heard. There is not much unique about this scale since it is used to often. Since it is the same as the natural minor scale, this is the most commonly used minor key. Examples: All Along The Watchtower by Bob Dylan, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (guitar solo)
This is the most minor sounding of all the modes. It might sound very weird and ugly to you, but it can be useful. Try to emphasize the b5 in the scale to bring out the Locrian sound. Examples: YYZ by Rush
So now that we’ve taken a look at the difference between positions and modes, I want you to practice and think about this as much as you can. What we have worked on in this first part of the article is only half the battle into understanding what modes are, but hopefully now you can truly hear the difference between them.
About the Author:
Jason Wilford is a Rock and Blues guitarist who teaches Guitar Lessons in Mississauga (Ontario, Canada).