What are Guitar Modes?

Guitar Scales

The following post talks about scales. If you really want to learn every major, minor and pentatonic scale for guitar (along with the chord-tone arpeggios), you’ll want to get my new ebook ‘Advanced Guitar Basics: Scales and Arpeggios’ (click the link for more!).

So, just what are 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 you start on different notes of the scale for each mode. 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 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 A major (for example), this would give me these notes:

A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A

With me so far? Now, if you start the above scale on the second note, B, you get this:

B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B

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 A Dorian (i.e. with the root note as an ‘A’), we would play these notes:

A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A

See, this makes a different scale altogether- which has nothing to do with any “parent scale”. “A” happens to be the second note of G major- so the above scale happens to have the same notes as G 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):

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”.

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 create a chord progression from any of the modes, you’ll just end up in a major key instead.

For example, the second mode of A major is B Dorian. This is the same notes as A major, just starting on the second note, “D”. If you tried to create chords from B Dorian you will get the SAME CHORDS as you would get with A 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 “B dorian”, your root note is B and you have these notes:

B C# D E F# G# A B

Every one of those notes relates back to the B root note, and there are no chords- just a scale. That’s the most basic way to understand modes. You might play that mode over a B minor chord (B, D and F#), or a Dm6 (B, D, F#, G#), but those chords are only emphasizing notes within the mode.

In the case of B Dorian, it’s the root (B), minor third (D) and the major 6th (G#), 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 entirely!

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