Guitar Modes

Guitar Modes

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.

Music Modes

Modal scale use the notes of a major scale, but have different starting (and ending) 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.

2 Octave Major Scale Diagram

2 Octave Major Scale Diagram

Using the notes from the major scale diagram shown above, you can construct modal scales:

Guitar Modes Diagram

Guitar Modes Diagram

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.

Ionian Mode

The Ionian modal scale is the same as a standard major scale.

Ionian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Ionian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Guitar Modes Ionian Scale Tab

Guitar Modes Ionian Scale Tab

Dorian Mode

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.

Dorian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Dorian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Guitar Modes Dorian Scale Tab

Guitar Modes Dorian Scale Tab

Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian modal scale has a minor tonality and a ‘Spanish’ sound. It is often used by metal guitarists (see our Metal Guitar Scales page), and also in Spanish music.

Phrygian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Phrygian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Phrygian Modal Scale Tab

Phrygian Modal Scale Tab

Lydian Mode

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.

Lydian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Lydian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Lydian Modal Scale Tab

Lydian Modal Scale Tab

Mixolydian Mode

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.

Mixolydian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Mixolydian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Mixolydian Modal Scale Tab

Mixolydian Modal Scale Tab

Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian modal scale is often used to improvise over minor chord sequences. It is also known as the ‘natural minor’ scale.

Aeolian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Aeolian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Aeolian Modal Scale Tab

Aeolian Modal Scale Tab

Locrian Mode

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.

Locrian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Locrian Mode Guitar Fretboard Diagram

Locrian Modal Scale Tab

Locrian Modal Scale Tab

guitar modes backing tracks

Guitar Modes Backing Tracks by Guitar Command

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).

Conclusion

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.

Guitar Backing Tracks Modes

Guitar Modes Backing Tracks: Click image for details.

• 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.

guitar scales chart

Guitar Scales Chart Download – Click On Image For Details

7 thoughts on “Guitar Modes

  1. Pingback: Improvisation With Jazz Minor Scale | Guitar Scales

  2. John Guitar

    Good description of guitar modes, something I’m asked a lot about. Enjoyed the individual modes lessons too.
    John, Guitar Lessons in Vancouver

    Reply
  3. bapdovad salshal

    The shortest but clearest information that I am looking for. Thank you so much for this amazing tutorial about scales and modes. I’ve read many tut but was very technical that makes hard to understand unlike this simple information. It was very clear to me now.

    Impressive!!!!

    Reply

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