Guitar Modes Explained – A Complete Guide in Theory and Practice to Understanding Modes

One of the things I find hardest to teach to guitar students is modes. The concept of modes is actually not hard to understand, but it is a hard thing to explain in person. There are a few key concepts in modes theory that seem at first to contradict each other, or at least ‘get in the way’ of each other when trying to explain it in conversation.

In written format, or more specifically blog-style written format, the task of explanation becomes quite simple and easy. For example, I can quite easily mention the Ab major scale, or the Lydian mode, or mention that F Dorian and Bb Mixolydian are both derived from the same major scale (Eb major, that is) and provide linked text that allows the reader to explore further, without digressing to far from the main point, whereas in conversation, I probably would have lost the listener a few sentances in.

I have always thought that a written guide to understanding modes was needed and I finally got round to putting it all together. Here it is…

There are a few things to keep in mind when reading this guide.

Too Much Information

Firstly, I have kind of gone overboard with the amount of practical material contained. I have literally written out every position for every key, including keys that are almost never used, such as C flat major. Why? Well, because as I said before, a blog allows one to include things and link to it without it getting in the way and I thought I would take advantage of this and be extra thorough, just because I can. As a result, if you want to play G sharp Locrian in every position on the fretboard, including the open position, you can go to that page.

For What It’s Worth

Keep in mind that this guide represents how I approach modes. Having read a few bits and pieces about modes on various places on the internet, it is obvious that there are a range of opinions and approaches relating to modes and how to use them. Often, people get caught up in the semantics of it all and end up confusing the issue. If you read this guide thoroughly and give it time to sink in, you will understand modes regardless of which approach you then believe is the best. You can easily read up somewhere else on how greek modes were used in the 9th century and how to compose songs in that style if you wish, but this guide isn’t about that. What we are looking at here is how its use has evolved and what role it plays today in the guitarist’s repertoire. The irony is, if you understand modes thoroughly using this guide, you will be able to understand other approaches thoroughly because this approach gives you a sound knowledge of the fundamental principles. Read this guide and all will be revealed.

There is a bit of repetative content contained in the following pages. That is because (for example) the way that I have explained G Dorian, is the same way that I have explained A Dorian. Of course the individual musical notes used in these examples will differ, but the concept behind both of them is the same so I have basically duplicated content when appropriate and changed the relevent details that are specific to each key etc. Don’t worry about that too much now though, it will all become clear as you read.

Don’t Worry If You Don’t ‘Get It’ Straight Away

Although I have already self-assuredly proclaimed the thoroughness and value of this guide, it is important to remember that not everything has to ‘sink in’ straight away. There is quite a bit of information to take in and I have found through my own experience and through teaching others, that with modes, sometimes it’s not that you ‘get it’ or ‘don’t get it’, it just takes a while for it to sink in. You can easily be overwhelmed. Just like learning a new language, while you can understand something in concept, you just have to spend time with it before it sinks in and becomes second nature. The same is true with modes. The great thing about this guide though, is that when things are getting a bit too much on the theoretical front, you can simply just ‘play the material’. For example, when your brain is feeling fried, you can take a break from the theory and play over the 5 positions of E Lydian. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every detail as you are playing them, sometimes the best thing to do is just play. And the thoroughness of this guide makes that possible.

The Explanation

Firstly, to understand modes properly, you need to be familiar with major scales. You don’t necessarily need to know every key off the top of your head, but you need to understand what they fundamentally are and how to construct them. Major scales are the core foundation of modes and unless you understand them, trying to understand modes will be almost impossible. If you need want to learn about major scales, or brush up on your theory, read the following post on understanding major scales. For the purpose of this guide, I am going to assume that you are familiar with major scales.

How Do You Play A Mode?

The simplest and quickest way to play a mode is to play any major scale and start from a different note of a major scale. For example, if we were to play a C major scale, it would have the following notes

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

Now, if we were to start on the 3rd note and play through the same notes, we would be playing a certain mode (E Phrygian, in fact)

E – F – G – A – B – C – D

Of course we could start on any note and do the same. A, for example:

A – B – C – D – E – F – G

We have now just played A Aeolean.

Don’t worry just yet about where the names come from. For now, just know that a mode, in its simplest form is just a major scale that starts on any note of the scale.

Of course, in the above examples, we have used C major. We can use any key.

Whenever we look at the properties of any mode, we must compare it to its original key and use the original key as the kind of ‘master key’. This is very important. For example, to understand the properties of E Phrygian, we need to compare it to E major. To understand E Dorian, we need to compare it to E major. To understand E Lydian, we need to compare it to E major.

Got it? Here are a few more examples…

To understand Bb Lydian, we need to compare it to Bb Major. To understand Bb Locrian, we need to compare it to Bb Major.

Let’s go back to the example we did just before where we produced the mode of E Phyrgian by using a C major scale but starting on E.

E – F – G – A – B – C – D

Now this is where knowledge of major scales is important. The key of E has the following notes:

E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D#

Remember, to understand E Phrygian, we need to compare it to E Major. What we want to know is, what properties does E Phrygian have? It has a lowered 2, a lowered 3, a lowered 6 and a lowered 7. By ‘lowered’, it means that the note in question has been decreased in pitch by a semitone. So…

E Major has an F# as the 2nd note, therefor, if we lower the 2, it becomes F.
E Major has a G# as the 3rd note, therefor, if we lower the 3, it becomes G.
E Major has a C# as the 6th note, therefor, if we lower the 6, it becomes C.
E Major has a D# as the 7th note, therefor, if we lower the 7, it becomes D.

Therefor, we can say that the phrygian mode contains a lowered 2, 3, 6 and 7. Instead of using the word lowered, it is often referred to as ‘flat’. So for example, it is common to see the following:

The phrygian mode contains – b2, b3, b6 ,b7

This can be a little confusing, because if we look at E Phrygian (E – F – G – A – B – C – D) there are clearly no sharps or flats in the scale itself, but the ‘flats’ (or lowered notes) refer to the notes that have been altered, relative to the original key (in this case E major).

Notice I have said that the phrygian mode contains b2, b3, b6, b7. This means that it applies to every phrygian mode (A Phyrgian, D Phyrgian, F# Phyrigian). Even though we used the example of E Phrygian, you will get the same results no matter which key you use.

Lets do another example. A major contains the following notes:

A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#

If we want to produce the phrygian mode, we need to start on the 3rd note (C#):

C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B

We have just produced C# Phrygian. Remember, to analyse C# Phrygian, we need to compare it to C# Major. Lets look at the notes of C# major:

C# – D# – E# – F# – G# – A# – B#

If we look at C# Phrygian in the context of C# Major, we can see it contains b2, b3, b6, b7

Flat 2 – lower the 2nd note of C# Major (D#) to produce D
Flat 3 – lower the 3rd note of C# Major (E#) to produce E
Flat 6 – lower the 6th note of C# Major (A#) to produce A
Flat 7 – lower the 7th note of C# Major (B#) to produce B

This proves that you will get the same results no matter what key you use. Any Phrygian mode will always contain b2, b3, b6, b7.

That is a brief introduction to constructing modes, but we have only looked at 1 mode (Phrygian).

There are actually 7 different modes. This is logical, because there is a mode for each of the 7 notes of the Major scale.

The names of the 7 modes and their properties are as follows. I’m going to list them twice under two different headings. Don’t worry about what the headings mean just yet:

Parallel

Ionian (no notes are altered)
Dorian (b3, b7)
Phyrgian (b2, b3, b6, b7)
Lydian (#4)
Mixolydian (b7)
Aeolean (b3, b6, b7)
Locrian (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)

Derivative

Ionian (start on the 1st note of the major scale)
Dorian (start on the 2nd note of the major scale)
Phyrgian (start on the 3rd note of the major scale)
Lydian (start on the 4th note of the major scale)
Mixolydian (start on the 5th note of the major scale)
Aeolean (start on the 6th note of the major scale)
Locrian (start on the 7th note of the major scale)

Parallel vs Derivative

Hopefully by now, you have some comprehension of what a mode is. If you are slightly confused, it is most likely because of the  relationship between what is called the parallel approach and derivative approach.

In our above examples, we formed a certain mode, by effectively playing a major scale and starting on a different note of the scale. This is what is known as the derivative approach. It is called the derivative approach because it involves deriving a mode from another scale. For example, earlier, we derived E Phyrgian from the C Major scale.

But remember, each mode can be analysed in relation to its original key. For example, E Phrygian has a b2, b3, b6, b7, relative to E Major. This is, I believe, the confusing point. What we are now looking at is the parallel approach. Simply put, it means that once we know the properties of each mode, we can form any mode using the parallel approach as long as we are familiar with the major scale of any key. For example, suppose we want to construct D Lydian. The parallel approach tells us that the Lydian mode has a raised (or sharp) 4. Therefor, all we need to do to produce D Lydian is raise the 4th note of the D Major scale by 1 semitone.

D Major = D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#
D Lydian = D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#

Let’s do another example using the Parallel approach:

Suppose we want to play F Aeolian. The parallel approach tells us that the Aeolian mode contains a b3, b6 and b7.

F Major = F – G – A – Bb – C – DE
F Aeolian = F – G – Ab – Bb – C – DbEb

Using Both Approaches

The best way to really make sure that you understand both approaches and to prove that they actually support each other (not confuse each other) is to construct the same mode using the two different approaches. Let’s do a few examples. Let’s start with B Dorian.

The derivative approach tells us that B Dorian can be derived from another Major scale. Which one? Well, according to the chart above, dorian is constructed using the derivative approach by starting on the 2nd note of the major scale. Therefor, we need to play the major scale that produces B as the second note. It is A Major:

A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#

Therefor, to play B Dorian, we need to play the A Major scale and start on B. It looks like this:

B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A

Let’s construct the same mode using the parallel approach. The parallel approach says that we can produce B Dorian by playing the B Major scale and altering the scale so in the following way – b3, b7

B Major contains B – C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A#

If we lower the 3rd (D#) and the 7th (A#) notes, we get B Dorian:

B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A

As you can see, both approaches produced the exact same result for B Dorian.

Let’s try another example using both approaches. Suppose we want to construct Eb Mixolydian. Let’s start with the parallel approach first this time. The parallel approach says that to play the mixolydian mode, we need to alter the major scale with a flat 7 (b7). Eb Major has the following notes:

Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D

If we lower the 7th note (D), we get the following:

Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db

Let’s produce the same mode by using the derivative approach. The derivative approach says that we can construct the mixolydian mode by playing the major scale and starting on the 5th note. Which major scale produces Eb as its 5th note? The Ab major scale does.

Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – G

Therefor, if we play the Ab major scale and start on Eb, we get Eb Mixolydian:

Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db

Again, as you can see, both approaches have produced the same result.

This should give you a pretty clear idea of how modes are constructed, but in reality, true understanding is only experienced through practice and use of the modes. Lucky for you, I have gone to the trouble of writing out every mode, in every key, in every position! Yes, it’s a little excessive, but I really wanted to be absolutely thorough.

In this guide, each mode has its own mini lesson, which basically revisits the main points discussed in this post. Then, inside each mini lesson, you will find links to each different key of that particular mode, which in turn, is accompanied with a mini lesson.

Here are the 7 different modes (with links to each key inside)

Ionian Mode Explained
Dorian Mode Explained
Phyrgian Mode Explained
Lydian Mode Explained
Mixolydian Mode Explained
Aeolian Mode Explained
Locrian Mode Explained

Practical Use and Relationships With Chords

Understanding how modes are constructed is an important skill, but the ultimate goal is in knowing how to use them in a musical context. This involves an understanding of chord scale relationships and ability to use the material to produce musical output. When you have a good understanding of how modes are constructed, read the following lessons related to the relationship between chords and modes:

Functional Harmony – The Relationship Between Chords and Modes

How To Use Guitar Modes


 

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About Genaaron Diamente

I play guitar. I teach guitar. I like making music. I'm trying to build this site up to be a valuable resource for guitar students and teachers.

Comments

  1. Thanks to my mate Stevo for the correction!

  2. Awesome website! Using it as another way to explain modes to my Year 12 Music Performance class. Great work Gnaz!

  3. Lynne Cason says:

    I learned about modes in the time it took to read it and absorb it. Two to three hours! I’ve had a limited (9 mos of piano) amount of music theory too. I did have a guitar teacher for a short short time. Part of the reason I left him was he kept talking to me about modes without teaching them to me. He thought I knew what he was talking about and it was like another language. When I asked he couldn’t explain it. But you could and you did. So you have my gratitude and my deep appreciation for your skills of teaching.
    However, I now need to know the “why” once the the “how” is solved. Why were modes created, why would I choose to use a Dorian over a Lydian or Mixolydian? How would I use it in writing a song? What ways are they used?
    Please do finish this lesson as I’ve never had this explained to me so clearly before and I completely got it so quickly. I’m eager to learn the rest.
    Thanks sooo much!! Please email me when your website has it up. I’ve bookmarked you!
    Lynne

  4. Lynne Cason says:

    P.S. I forgot to ask also, why are modes only used in the major scale? Does it work for minor, or pentatonic or ect. . .scales? If not why not?

    Lynne again.

  5. Guitar Man says:

    Hi Lynne. Thank you for you kind words. I’m glad this lesson resonates with you. If you read how to use guitar modes that should give you a bit of an introduction to how modes are used. Modes can also be used with minor scales! Modes are often used with the harmonic minor scale and jazz melodic minor scale. Modes work best with 7 note scales because of they way that the notes from the scale can be used to form chords. The pentatonic scale for example only has 5 notes, so there are not a lot of usable chords that you can derive from it. I’ll hopefully get round to writing some posts about them soon!

  6. Hi — great site!

    But I think there’s a typo:
    1) If Phrygian=(b2, b3, b6, b7) and Locrian=(b2, b3, b6, b7) they are the same, right? Wikipedia has Locrian=(b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)

    I’m a total beginner so sorry if I’m just dense.

    Also the link to Aeolian -> Mixolydian page

    Again thanks for the great stuff!

  7. Guitar Man says:

    Cheers Matt. All fixed now!

  8. Something keeps him going miles and miles away says:

    Hey thanks for the content bro!!

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