What are Guitar Modes?

Now, I’ve been putting off doing this subject for a long time- mostly because there is so much confusion about modes, and many false teachings surrounding them. The problem for you guys (as learners) is that you’ll get one person claiming that theirs is the only way to understand modes, and then you’ll have someone on the other side telling you a completely different story and insisting just as strongly that their way is the “correct” way to understand modes! So, just what are guitar modes?

(scroll down for links to lessons on each individual mode)

I’m going to do this series because I guess I opened the whole “modes” can of worms when I wrote about the natural minor scale, because that scale has the same notes as the major scale, but starts from a different point. If that concept seems confusing to you or you don’t understand it, then you probably wont understand modes either. Sorry, but it’s best you learn things in the right order, rather than jumping straight to the advanced stuff (like modes).

The way I see modes is simple- and I’m not going to try to disprove anyone else’s “theories” about the modes of the major scale or anything like that. I think that’ll just add to the confusing, conflicting accounts! No, what I am going to do is explain the basics of modes and their practical use in music.

How do you make a mode?

You may have read before about modes that you start with a major scale (any major scale) and then the modes are created by starting and finishing the scale on different notes. This is true, but it’s only half the story! You see, you can play the A major scale (for example) from the third note- C#- for one octave (C# to C#), which would give you these notes:

C# D E F# G# A B C#

but all you’ve really done is played the A major scale, starting and ending on a different note. You have not created a mode.

In order to fully understand this, we need to look at what’s really happening here. We start with the major scale, which (as I talked about on the major scale page) has a specific series of intervals (note distances) built off the root note.

Those intervals are:

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

A tone is two frets, and a semitone is one fret. So, in C major (for example), this would give me these notes:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

With me so far? If not, I suggest going back to read about the major scale on that page. Now, if you start the above scale on the second note, D, you get this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

The important thing that has happened here, though, is not that we’ve started from a different note, but that the order of intervals between the notes has changed. We now have a different scale, with this pattern:

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone

A different series of intervals means it’s a different scale. If we wanted to play C dorian (i.e. root note is now C), we would have these notes:

C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

See, this makes a different scale altogether- which has nothing to do with any “parent scale”. “C” happens to be the second note of B flat major- so the above scale happens to have the same notes as B flat major- but that’s the only way that it is related.

If you follow this pattern for every note of the major scale, you get these modes (in order):

Ionian
Dorian
Phrygian
Lydian
Mixolydian
Aeolian
Locrian

Modes are not “Keys”

That’s right! Using a mode to play a solo or write a piece of music doesn’t mean you’re in that “key”. Do you understand how to harmonise a scale? Well, when you harmonise a scale you’re creating the chords for the key that that scale is in.

For example, if you harmonise the C major scale, you’ll get the chords for the key of C major- but (as I mentioned before) the A natural minor scale has the same notes as the C major scale. So if you harmonise the A natural minor scale you’ll have the same chords as with C major. Therefore if you use those chords you’re still in C major.

If you want to create a chord progression in a minor key, have a look at the Harmonic minor scale. You see, in order to create a “minor key”, you have to use slightly different chords.

How does this relate to modes? Well, with modes none of this applies. So how is it related?! Well, the “modes of the major scale” are built off the different notes of the major scale- and so there are 7 modes to each major scale AND each mode has the same notes as it’s “parent” major scale. Therefore, if you try to harmonise any of these scales, you’ll just end up in a major key instead of using a mode.

For example, the second mode of C major is D dorian- which is the same notes as C major, just starting on the second note, “D”. If you tried to harmonize D dorian you will get the SAME CHORDS as you would get with C major- and so you would no longer have D dorian, but you’d be in C major.

It’s a Different System

In order to understand modes, you need to break away from this concept of being “in key”. Modes are modes, and keys are keys- they’re just two totally different systems for music. Modes were invented by the ancient Greeks- before chords were invented. So “chord progressions” never apply to modes. If you want to play something in “D dorian”, your root note is D and you have these notes:

D E F G A B C

Every one of those notes relates back to the D root note, and there are no chords- just a scale. That’s the most basic way to understand modes- even though you might have that mode played over a D minor chord (D, F and A), or a Dm6 (D, F, A, B), those chords are only emphasising the important notes (or sounds) of the mode. In the case of D dorian, it’s the root (D), minor third (F) and the major 6th (B), so any chord (or two chords) with those notes in will give you the right sound. There is no “chord progression”.

Sorry, a bit of a long post. The point is: what are guitar modes? They are not keys, and they don’t have chord progressions! Those two things came after modes were invented and are part of a different system. As I said before, if you don’t understand the natural minor scale and how it relates to the major scale, you’ll be lost with modes, so I suggest you read up on that first!

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