3. Introduction to Modes


Rather than an in-depth look at modes, I just want to cover a few of the basic facts about them, demystify them a little for those not familiar and curious. This is because the application of modes can become a pretty deep subject, and much has already been covered. Simply put:

EVERY MODE IS JUST A MAJOR SCALE. The name of the mode is determined by which note is first.

THE MODES:                                              of C major scale (example)

Ionian     (begins on 1st degree)                         C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

Dorian     (begins on 2nd degree)                        D   E    F   G    A    B    C    D

Phrygian    (begins on 3rd degree)                      E    F   G   A    B    C    D    E

Lydian     (begins on 4th degree)                        F    G   A    B   C    D    E    F

Mixolydian  ( begins on 5th degree)                G    A    B    C    D    E    F    G

Aeolian    (begins on 6th degree)                    A      B    C    D    E    F    G    A

Locrian    (begins on 7th degree)                      B    C    D    E    F    G    A    B


That’s it. The only difference in the modes is on what note of the scale you begin, which is everything of course. This is one of the strange and beautiful things about music—the notes played matter less than where they ‘leave from and return to’, which is called the tonal center.  Note the Ionian mode is the same thing as the major scale itself.

Aeolian mode is also known as natural minor; there is no difference between the two.  However, playing the Ionian and Aeolian consecutively, even without chordal accompaniment, demonstrates clearly the difference in their sound. The Aeolian/natural minor has a definitive ‘minor’ sound compared to the major scale:

Ionian:  C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C


Aeolian:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

Played (both)

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Using modes to create lines over a chord progression expands the possibilities for scale use, and is preferable to the simple chord arpeggios and pentatonic scale runs that many players seem stuck with. In the first example below I will create lines over a chord progression using the major scale and the Mixolydian mode.

Chord Progression:     G   F   C   G

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The progression is diatonic to G major except for the F major chord. This means all the notes of the chords in the progression are in the G major scale except for F.

G   A  B  C  D  E  F#  G    (G major scale)

Since the construction of F major is F A C, and one of the chord tones of F major (the F) is not in the G major scale, it is said to be a non-diatonic chord.  If we rewrite the G major scale substituting F for the F# (7th degree of the G scale) it looks like this:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

Seeing there are no sharps or flats, we can rightly assume this is a C major scale, beginning on G. Therefore it is mixolydian mode. If I use C major over the G msjor and A minor chords, and the C mixolydian over the F, I can play freely through the progression.   Again, my approach will be:

G                                F                    C                          G

G major scale                   C mixolydian          G major scale               G major scale

(or major pentatonic)


I may well use major pentatonic (in place of major) also, since it is a 5 note derivative of the major scale anyway.  Also, I can use F major pentatonic over the F    (F   G   A   C   D), which is nice since it begins on F, the root of the F chord. This is especially useful if the duration of the F chord is short

In this example of the same progression (G F C G), the short duration of the F chord makes the F major pentatonic more viable:

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But if the duration of F is longer, using Mixolydian mode gives me the advantage of the 2 extra notes that the pentatonic doesn’t have.  This is usually my guide. Longer time on the chord, use a mode. Very short time, use a pentatonic scale, arpeggio, or stay away from the “offending” note, in this case F# over the F chord.

Herein lies my personal ‘guide’ to modal playing. I either use one over an entire progression, or change between them (or other scales) IF, and only if, I can do it gracefully. One needs to work within their limitations regarding this. Many fine players have no formal knowledge of modes, yet seem to easily maneuver over complex changes.  Working knowledge of triads, arpeggios, extended chords, 6th and 3rds add to the mix of the accomplished player. Modes are only as good as the skill of the guitarist. I strongly suggest learning one position of one mode at a time, getting very familiar with it in context (as with any scale) before continuing.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield