Welcome to our complete guide to guitar modes and modal playing. Modes are scales that are derived from other scales (usually major scales). Modes are widely used in lead guitar improvisation.
There are seven modes of the major scale, each of which has its own distinctive sound.
Modes are formed from the notes of the major scale. The notes are played in the same order as a major scale, but each mode starts (and stops) on different notes (see the ‘Modes Of a C Major Scale’ diagram, below).
This page shows you how to construct and play modal scales on the guitar. Scale diagrams and tab are provided, so there’s no need to be able to read music.
- You can practice improvising with modes using specially-produced backing tracks from Guitar Command. Listen to sample tracks here: Modes Backing Tracks.
- Want modes and many more scales at your fingertips? Download our printable Guitar Scales Chart PDF eBook here.
The first part of this article explains what modes are and how they’re created. If you just want to play the scales, go straight to the Guitar Modes Fretboard Diagrams & Tab section.
Otherwise, read on for a complete guide to modes and modal playing.
Introduction To Guitar Modes
Although any scale can have modes, the terms ‘modes’ and ‘modal scales’ nearly always refer to the modes of the major scale.
How Modal Scales Are Built From The Major Scale
The diagram shows the modes of a C major scale. Below the scale, you’ll see how modal scales are created from the same notes, but with different start (and end) points.
- Notice that the D Dorian modal scale shown above uses notes from the C major scale (but starting and ending on the 2nd note).
- Therefore, the C Dorian modal scale would use the notes from a B flat major scale (because C is the second note in the B flat major scale).
- E Dorian modal scale uses the notes from a D major scale, and so on.
Guitar Modes 1 Octave Diagrams
The fretboard diagram below shows you one way of playing a 2 octave major scale. The green circles show the root notes of the scale.
Under the main diagram are the seven modes of the major scale. As you can see, they’re built using the same notes as those in the major scale.
Using the notes from the major scale diagram shown above, you can construct modal scales:
Guitar Modes Fretboard Diagrams & Tab
Now you know what modes are, let’s play some modal scales!
Below are all of the modes of a major scale. They are shown in diagram form and as tab with a root note of C.
When you are playing the different modes, try to distinguish the individual sound of each scale. Each mode should be thought of not as a part of a major scale, but as a new scale in its own right – with its own sound and uses in improvisation.
The Ionian modal scale is the same as a standard major scale.
The Dorian mode has a mysterious minor sound. It is often used in folk melodies. In jazz it’s used to improvise over the ‘2’ chords in 2 5 1 progressions.
Read more about the Dorian scale here: Dorian Scale Guitar.
The Lydian modal scale is the same as a major scale, but has a sharpened 4th note, giving it a slightly mysterious sound. It can be used by jazz guitarists to solo over major chords.
The mixolydian modal scale can be used to solo over dominant fifth chords. It is another mode that is often used in folk melodies.
Read more about the Mixolydian mode here: Mixolydian Mode Guitar.
The Aeolian modal scale is often used to improvise over minor chord sequences. It is also known as the ‘natural minor’ scale.
The Locrian mode, when played without accompaniment, sounds rather ambiguous. It is often used to solo over minor 7th flat 5 chords in minor 2 5 1 progressions.
How To Learn & Use Guitar Modes
Play each of the scales shown above a few times, and learn how they sound. You should eventually get to know each modal scale as a scale in its own right, rather than just as a major scale with a different starting note.
Modes In Traditional Music
Try inventing some melodies using the Dorian and Mixolydian modal scales. You may notice that these scales have a ‘folky’ sound. Many folk melodies are in the Dorian mode (What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor, Scarborough Fair, etc.) and the Mixolydian mode is widely used in Celtic music.
Modes In Jazz And Other Modern Music Styles
Modes are widely used in modern music, particularly in improvisation. The term ‘Modal Jazz’ is used to describe a whole genre of modal-based music. One famous example of modal jazz is Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue‘ album. Modes are also used in fusion and rock music.
Using Guitar Modes
Dorian scales can be used to improvise over ii7 chords (e.g. Dm7 in a C major song).
Mixolydian scales can be used to solo over Dominant chords (e.g. B9 in a song in E Major)
Locrian scales can be used to improvise over ii flat5 chords (e.g. Bmb5 in a song in C minor).
There are many ways of utilising modes in your guitar playing. We hope that after reading this article you understand what guitar modes are, and are excited to try them out in your own music.
• Improve your modal playing! We’ve produced a special album to help guitarists improvise with modes. Hear sample tracks here: Modes Backing Tracks.
• Learn more scales at our main Guitar Scales Page.
• Our downloadable Guitar Scales Chart Book features shapes for playing guitar modes in all positions on the fingerboard.