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Modes From A Different Perspective

Brian Ritacco (79) · [archive]
Style: Theory/Reference · Level: Intermediate · Tempo: 120
Pages: 1

Modes From a Different Perspective

Imagine improvising over a rockin' blues Cm7 vamp. You, as lead guitarist step up and rip through a solo using the trusty C minor pentatonic. You toss in a few "blue" notes (Gb) to spice things up. But suppose you, and quite possibly the audience begin to find the minor pentatonic rather predictable. What then? At this point it's time to whip it out your modal knowledge. But what mode and why?

From my perspective, I find it easiest to think of a mode as a major scale. For example, the C Ionian mode is the same thing as the C major scale. Play the C major scale and you are playing the C Ionian mode. But suppose you want to play C Dorian or C Phrygian. What notes, or scale do you play to play a given mode? The purpose of this lesson is to give the guitarist a method of determining what notes to play for any mode.

Why think of a mode in terms of a major scale? For one reason: 1) you probably already know how to play a major scale in at least one position. Armed with this single piece of knowledge, you are prepared to enter the world of modes.

The "trick" is knowing what major scale constitutes a given mode in a particular key. For example, what major scale contains the notes found in the G Phrygian mode? If you know, stop reading now for there is no point going on. If you are somewhat unsure what to play read on.

Fortunately, the major scale/mode relationship is easy to figure out. However, it does take a little effort. First, I suggest getting The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1997). This book gives the step-pattern for the modes while holding the key constant. This is known as parallel modes. Here are the step-patterns (i.e. the distance from C to D on the guitar is a step, from E to F a half-step) in the key of C:

  • Ionian Mode: step, step, half-step, step, step, step, half-step. This results in: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, or the C major scale.

  • Dorian Mode: step, half-step, step, step, step, half-step, step. This results in: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C, which are the same notes as the Bb major scale.

  • Phrygian Mode: half-step, step, step, step, half-step, step, step. This results in: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, which are the same notes as the Ab major scale.

  • Lydian Mode: step, step, step, half-step, step, step, half-step. This results in: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, which are the same notes as the G major scale.

  • Mixolydian Mode: step, step, half-step, step, step, half-step, step. This results in: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, which are the same notes as the F major scale.

  • Aeolian Mode: step, half-step, step, step, half-step, step, step. This results in: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, which are the same notes as the Eb major scale.

  • Locrian Mode: half-step, step, step, half-step, step, step, step. This results in: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, which are the same notes as the Db major scale.


With this step sequence in hand, I suggest you use it to determine the notes and resulting major scale for keys you are likely to find yourself in, such as C, G, and D. You may want to brush-up on key signatures at this point.

Here is a cheat sheet derived from the step-patterns discussed above.

Key of C
  • Ionian or C major
  • Dorian or Bb major
  • Phrygian or Ab major
  • Lydian or G major
  • Mixolydian or F major
  • Aeolian or Eb major
  • Locrian or Db major


Key of G
  • Ionian or G major
  • Dorian or F major
  • Phrygian or Eb major
  • Lydian or D major
  • Mixolydian or C major
  • Aeolian or Bb major
  • Locrian or Ab major


Key of D
  • Ionian or D major
  • Dorian or C major
  • Phrygian or Bb major
  • Lydian or A major
  • Mixolydian or G major
  • Aeolian or F major
  • Locrian or Eb major


Here is how the cheat sheet works. If you want to play C Mixolydian mode, play the F major scale. If you want to play G Phrygian mode, just play the Eb major scale. If you want to play D Dorian mode, just play the C major scale.

This is the part where working all this out really pays off. Assume you want to play C Dorian over a Cm7 vamp. So, according to the cheat sheet you play the Bb major scale. Why the Bb major scale (C Dorian) over a Cm7? Because the chord Cm7 is composed of the root (C), a flat 3rd (Eb), a 5th (G), and flat 7th (Bb). The Bb major scale is, from our key of C perspective: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C. Notice how the C Dorian contains the same root, flat third, fifth, and flat seventh notes as the Cm7 chord.

Perhaps the C Dorian sounds like crud against the mood established by a Cm7 vamp, so try C Aeolian, or the Eb major scale. This scale is, from our key of C perspective: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. This scale has the desired root, flat third, fifth, and flat seventh, and has a flat 6th (Ab).

If that does not sound good, move on to C Mixolydian, or the F major scale. The only note differentiating C Mixolydian from the C major scale is the flat 7th (Bb). Because of this difference, C Mixolydian may work better over a C7 chord rather than a Cm7.

What the cheat sheet does is give you a quick way to determine what scale to play to be soloing a given mode. However, if you use the Bb major scale to solo over a Cm7, you may find that it sounds like the Bb major scale and not C Dorian. If this is happening, check to see what note you are starting your C Dorian solo with. If you start on Bb because that is how you learned the scale, it's going to sound like Bb. If you start on C you are much more likely to get that C Dorian sound. Remember, C Dorian is: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C. While the Bb scale is: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. Same notes, different feel.

Do you always have to start on C to get the C Dorian sound? No, but it is helpful to start out doing this because when playing a scale you tend to naturally accent the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th scale tones. So by starting on C you will tend to accent the desired notes. If you start on Bb you may accent notes that don't give the disired C Dorian feel to your solo. Eventually you will be able to start and end a solo where ever you want and still be able to generate the desired sound.

Some final thoughts. I recommend first trying the Dorian mode over a minor 7 chord, Phrygian mode over a minor chord, Mixolydian mode over a dominant 7 chord, and Aeolian mode (the natural minor) over a minor chord. Ionian and Lydian seem to work best over a major chord. Try using Locrian mode over a diminished chord.

I hope this has shed some light on modal playing.