Guitar Lesson - Mode Mysteries

- By Mike Beatham

It's true that most guitarists ignore the theory side of things, and it's no surprise - the majority of sites and books out there don't exactly make it look..."fun".

OK, so it can never really be fun, but for those guitarists who actually care about progressing, it's essential to know theory. A good place to start is by learning the 7 modes on your guitar. This lesson article will introduce them. You can then use the free resource that follows if you wish.

The best way to think of modes are as scales. These scales, like the pentatonic or major scale can be mapped out on the fretboard. Think of the modes as "flavours" of the major and natural minor scales.

The 7 modes are, in order:

1. Ionian - this is just the "major scale", but it's also the first and most important mode in western music.

2. Dorian - a flavour of the natural minor scale

3. Phrygian - a flavour of the natural minor scale with a Spanish flamenco feel

4. Lydian - a flavour of the major/Ionian scale

5. Mixolydian - a flavour of the major/Ionian scale built around dominant 7th chords.

6. Aeolian - the natural minor scale the other minor modes are based around

7. Locrian - the odd one out. Diminished scale.

Now, the reason we have a particular order for these modes/scales is because when you put them together in that sequence using the intervals of the major/Ionian scale, you get one big scale. Let me explain...

Say you wanted to solo over the E major chord. You could just select the first mode, Ionian, because it's a major mode. You need to find the root note of the E major chord (E) and start whatever mode you want to solo over it from that root note (of course, you don't have to START the solo on the root note, just make sure you start on a note that's within that scale - the SCALE starts on the root note).

Because we've chosen Ionian, the intervals of that scale are as follows...

1 W 2 W 3 H 4 W 5 W 6 W 7 H 1

W= Whole step (2 fret interval) H= Half step (1 fret interval)

What's interesting is you can use the note intervals of WHATEVER mode you're playing and use each note as a starting point for the next mode in sequence - e.g....

If you were playing Dorian over a minor chord, the next mode is Phrygian - because it's the next mode, it starts on the 2nd note of Dorian!

If you were playing Lydian over a major chord, the next mode is Mixolydian, so because it's the next mode, it starts on the 2nd note of Lydian.

So What Does This Mean?!

It means once you know which "flavour"/mode you want to solo over a chord, you can follow the sequence of intervals in that mode and suddenly, all the other modes in sequence at those intervals become part of that same flavour and scale!


- Play "A Dorian" over the A minor chord
- The 2nd note in A Dorian is a whole step higher, so it's B
- The mode after Dorian is Phrygian
- Therefore, you can play B Phrygian over AAA minor and it will sound like Dorian!!!

This is the relationship between the modes and their intervals that many guitarists fail to see, they just learn the boxed mode shapes and don't realise how they all tie in together.

It's all about the intervals...

- Learn the intervals of each mode (e.g. we looked at 1st mode Ionian's intervals above)
- Learn the order of modes, so you'll know which mode applies to each note in each mode (this does take some time)

e.g. picking a random one out the air... What mode starts (has its root note on) on the 4th note of Phrygian?...

- Phrygian is the 3rd mode
- the 2nd note of Phrygian is the root of ttthe next mode, Lydian
- follow the order of modes to the 4th noteee...

The answer is: Aeolian

I know, I know, it's kind of obvious why a lot of guitarists just cannot be bothered, but I promise you, learning the modes is so so beneficial because not only will you learn to add "flavour" to the same old major/minor lead guitar, but knowing this also leads onto being able to write songs at the snap of your fingers and have a visual map of each mode scale all up the fretboard - no more box playing!

So do invest some time into learning the modes and how they work. You'll only understand how important they are once you learn them! It's weird that way!

Mike Beatham runs a free easy to follow guitar lessons site. For clear mode diagrams and audio plus other guitar theory lessons, visit

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