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Modes Part I - Introduction


Modes are the cornerstone of great guitar playing. A thorough understanding of the theory and application of modes will not only enhance your ability to improvise lead solos, this understanding will enhance your knowledge of all aspects of musical organization.

In order to begin working with the concept of modes, you must have a firm grasp of all the materials covered in previous theory lessons. It is especially important that you are completely familiar with the major scale and how the major scale translates into intervals. Furthermore, it is important that you understand triads and 7th chords and how these chords are arranged within the chord scale.


This lesson is divided into four parts:




Modal theory is very simple once you understand it, and yet, this simple concept has been the cause of more confusion than any other musical principle in existence.

For most musicians, the terms scale and mode are interchangeable. While there is a certain amount of truth to this perception, understanding the difference between a scale and a mode is essential.

A scale can be defined as a series of notes, arranged by order of pitch, between a root and the octave. Theoretically, any combination of notes between the root and octave could be considered a scale. On the more practical side, there are a finite number of note combinations that have gained acceptance in western music. Eastern music, on the other hand, tends to be more open-ended as far as the note combinations that are considered acceptable.

A mode can be thought of as a way of manipulating the notes of a scale in order to generate a greater variety of sounds. The focus of this lesson is on the modes of the major scale. Modal manipulation of scales other than the major scale is covered elsewhere.


The major scale in the key of C consists of the notes: C D E F G A B C

The major scale is also composed of the intervals: R 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Any combination of notes that deviate from the major scale will yield a different interval structure. The interval structure is what gives the scale its characteristic sound quality or mood.

Now, when you play a scale from the root up to the octave, the ear arranges the sound of the scale according to the note you started on and the resolution of the notes at the octave. The same thing happens when you descend from the octave to the root. If you change the pitch of the root note to D and keep the interval structure intact, the ear hears that you played the same scale but from a higher pitch.

Thus, so long as you do not deviate from the interval structure, you can transpose the scale higher or lower, and the sound quality of the scale remains easily recognizable. But if you change the interval structure, the resulting scale will have a different sound quality or mood.

This is where modes come into play.

Modes allow us to generate an interval structure that is different than that of the major scale and therefore, produce a unique sound quality.

Modes are derived by taking a scale and starting and stopping on a note within the scale other than the root note.

For example, if we take the C major scale (C D E F G A B C) and start and stop on the D note instead of the C note we get:


We are still playing the notes of the C major scale, but starting and stopping on the D note makes it sound as though D is the root note. You may have to play the scale several times this way before you will begin to hear D as the tonal center. It's imperative that you do not play any wrong notes at this point, or the effect will be lost.

Now, once the tonal center is established as D, we arrive at a new scale sound. The scale no longer sounds like C major, because our ear is hearing resolution to D.

If we compare this new scale to D major, we find that it is different from that scale as well.

The notes of the D major scale are: D E F# G A B C# D

Our new scale contains F natural and C natural which are two very important tones in the scale. Altering the 3rd and 7th tone of the scale changes the sound dramatically.

This new scale is called D Dorian mode. D is the root note, Dorian is the classification for this new sound and mode means that we start and stop on a note other than the root of a parent scale.

The important thing to understand at this point is that this new scale is a "D" scale and not a "C" scale. Most people, when they first learn this stuff, assume that they should use D Dorian as a substitute for C major. This is not exactly how it works. Instead of thinking of this new scale as having anything to do with C, think of it as having only to do with D.

This will get you understanding the theory behind modes much faster.

Now if we compare the D Dorian mode to the D major scale we find that Dorian has this interval structure:

1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8

The interval structure of a scale is very important. This is what defines the sound characteristics of the scale. The interval structure also dictates how and when a scale can be used.

Try this experiment:

Play one octave of the D major scale, at the 10th fret, starting off your index finger, like this:



Now, flat the 3rd and 7th intervals to make the scale D Dorian mode, like this:



The two scales sound completely different. (Again, you may have to play the Dorian scale several times to get used to the new sound.)

Now, play this MIDI file and practice switching back and forth from D major to D Dorian.

D pedal tone



At this point, there are two things to remember:

1 - D Dorian (D E F G A B C D) has the exact same notes as C major (C D E F G A B C). The only difference is which note within the scale you use as the root.

2 - D Dorian (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8) has a different interval structure than D major (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8). These two scales have a completely different sound.

If these two points are not clear, go back and read through this lesson again.

Now, to get the Dorian mode, we took the major scale and used the second note within that scale as the root and thereby created an entirely new scale. That is the concept of modes in a nutshell.

If we do the same thing with the third note of the C major scale, we get the E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C D E).

Compared to the E major scale (E F# G# A B C# D# E), E Phrygian has this interval structure: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8.

Notice that we compared the E Phrygian mode to the E major scale just as we compared the D Dorian mode to the D major scale. Any new scale must be compared to the major scale starting from the same root as the new scale in order to understand the interval structure of that new scale.

E Phrygian mode, played off the index finger, at the 12th fret looks like this:



Play this MIDI file and practice switching between E major and E Phrygian mode:

E pedal tone



The remaining four modes of the major scale are extrapolated in the same manner as we have already seen. Therefore, I am simply going to list each from their respective root notes along with the resultant interval structure and leave it to you to work out the fingerings:

  • F Lydian mode - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8

  • G Mixolydian mode - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8

  • A Aeolian mode - 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8

  • B Locrian mode - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8


Here are MIDI files for practicing the remaining modes:

F pedal tone

G pedal tone

A pedal tone

B pedal tone


This lesson is divided into four parts:

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