Guitar modes are widely used in improvisation, particularly in jazz and fusion. There are seven modes of the major scale, and they are formed by using the notes of the major scale, but starting and ending at different points, as shown below. Any scale can have modes, but unless specified, ‘modes’ or modal scales’ refer to the modes of the major scale.
Guitar Modes Diagrams
Play each of the following scales at the seventh position (i.e. the index finger of your fretting hand is positioned over the seventh fret), so that the first note of diagram 1 is the C on the 8th fret of the sixth (lowest) string.
Diagram 1 is a two-octave C major scale. Diagram 2 is a Dorian modal scale, because although it uses notes from the first scale, it starts and ends on a D. All the other modes are formed using notes from a major scale but starting and stopping at different points, as shown.
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 use in improvisation.
The scales in each of the diagrams above are shown below in guitar TAB and notation.
Guitar Modes Tab And Notation
Diagram 1 shows a 2 octave C major scale. In modal playing, a major scale is known as an Ionian modal scale, so the scale illustrated is a C Ionian modal scale. The Ionian modal scale is shown below in notation and TAB:
Diagram 2 shows a one octave scale, using notes from the C major scale, but starting and ending on D, rather than C. This is a D Dorian modal scale. Dorian modal scales are formed by starting on the second degree of a major scale, so, for example, a C dorian modal scale would be comprised of notes from a B flat major scale. The D dorian modal scale from the diagram is shown below in notation and TAB:
(Hear an example of a guitar solo that uses the Dorian mode, and play along to a backing track here: Improvisation With The Dorian Scale.)
Diagram 3 shows a one octave E Phrygian modal scale, formed by starting on the third degree of a C major scale.
Diagram 4 shows a one octave F Lydian modal scale, formed by starting on the fourth degree of a C major scale.
Diagram 5 shows a one octave G Mixolydian modal scale, formed by starting on the fifth degree of a C major scale. See guitar diagrams for playing the Mixolydian scale in other positions here: Mixolydian Scale Guitar
Diagram 6 shows a one octave A Aeolian modal scale, formed by starting on the sixth degree of a C major scale.
Diagram 7 shows a one octave B Locrian modal scale, formed by starting on the seventh degree of a C major scale.
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 they shave a ‘folky’ sound, and in fact 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‘.) Modes are also used in fusion and rock music.
Using Guitar Modes
Dorian scales can be used to improvise over IIm 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 IIm flat5 chords (e.g. Bmb5 in a song in C minor).
There are many ways of utilising modes in your guitar playing. This page is merely an introduction to guitar modes, and how they sound, and Modal scales and playing will be covered in more detail elsewhere on this site.
Read More About Guitar Modes
The Downloadable Guitar Scales Chart Book features shapes for playing guitar modes in all positions on the fingerboard.