Guitar Modes Backstory

Modes Are Modified Scales

Variety IS Expression


Modes are modified scales. The modes on a guitar can be used as an aid to improvising by adding variety to the notes played. Improvisation is an expression of your musical voice and it’s not about sticking to one mode.

Why Are Modes Important?

Modes are important because they help you learn how to play a solo in the same key (but while adding different sounds/colors). This is great for guitarists because it gives them more musical options. For example, if you’re playing in C major and want to play something more like jazz, then playing in D Dorian will sound better. Modes can be remembered by thinking of the major scale as an octave. The mode starts on the next note of the scale (either ascending or descending).  For example, if you start on D and end on D, but use the notes in C major (instead of D major) then you’re playing in D Dorian.

What Are Modes Called?

Guitar modes are similar to scales in music theory. A mode is a collection of notes, but with different intervals. There are seven guitar modes:

  1. Ionian (Major)
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian (Natural Minor)
  7. Locrian

Modes are similar to scales –  although they use the same notes as a major scale, they start on different degrees.  Dorian is the second mode of the Cmajor scale and it is usually spelled D-E-F-G-A-B-C.  Phrygian starts with an E note instead of a D note. Phrygian is the third mode of the C major scale and it is usually spelled E-F-G-A-B-C-D. Learning modes is a great way to start thinking about playing lead solos on the guitar.

The easiest way to understand guitar modes and how to use them is to listen and play along with a song. Start by finding songs that you like the sound of and then search for tablature or chords on your favorite online music resource.

There are 7 modes, each with their own sound. The most familiar ones are the Ionian and Aeolian modes (because they are the same as the major and minor scale respectively). Many guitarists already know how to play a major and minor scale. To play a song in the key of A, use the F# Aeolian mode for major chords and A Ionian mode for minor chords – that would be a suitable Quickstart approach.


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