For many guitarists modes are a mystery with much confusion about what they are and how they work. Modes form the basis for many guitar solos and melodies in a range of music styles so it’s a must to know your modes.
Modes and modal music have been around since medieval times. Gregorian chants from the 9th century used modes to give them a particular sound. In the 1950s and 1960s modes became popular due to their use in the “modal jazz” of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The use of modes in jazz in turn influenced rock musicians including The Doors, Santana, Jeff Beck and many more.
In music a mode is a scale starting on a note (or scale degree) that is not the first note (or root) of the scale. For example if you play the C major scale starting on D you are playing the D Dorian mode. The Dorian mode works well over a minor chord or key. In the case of D Dorian this is D minor.
D Dorian | Download
The modes looked at here are “modes of the major scale” and they all have Greek names. Below they are listed based on the C major scale with some of the chords and keys that they work with.
Major Scale / Ionian Mode
To start playing modes it is a good idea to first be comfortable with the major scale which itself is also known as Ionian mode. The first example is the C major scale in the 7th position which means that the lowest fretted note is on the 7th fret.
C Major/Ionian | Download
The major scale/Ionian mode and works well in songs in major keys from Bach to Bob Dylan to The Beatles. Check out the example of a solo over the chords of The Beatles “Let It Be” using the C major scale.
Let It Be | Download
Obviously all songs aren’t in a major key so what mode do you play in a minor key? For many minor key songs the natural minor scale or Aeolian mode is used.
The Aeolian mode is the notes of the major scale starting on the 6th scale degree. So using the notes of the C major scale the mode begins on A for A Aeolian. Here A Aeolian will work well for songs in the key of A minor.
A Aeolian | Download
Songs that use the Aeolian mode include:
- Black Magic Woman – Santana
- Autumn Leaves – Jazz Standard
- Nothing Else Matters – Metallica
- Achilles Last Stand – Led Zeppelin
- Since I’ve Been Loving You – Led Zeppelin
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
- Do I Wanna Know – Arctic Monkeys
The fret board pattern for Aeolian mode is shown below. This pattern and some of the other mode patterns on the guitar fret board contain the main minor pentatonic pattern (AKA minor pentatonic pattern 1). When I first learnt the mode patterns I thought of them as minor pentatonic patterns with 2 extra notes. So if you’re already familiar with the minor pentatonic pattern this is a great way to learn the mode patterns.
Have a listen below to the A Aeolian mode being played is part of the solo from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”.
Stairway To Heaven | Download
Another commonly used minor mode is the Dorian mode which starts on the 2nd scale degree of a major scale. So using the notes of the C major scale the mode starts on D for D Dorian. This mode was popularized by Miles Davis on his “modal jazz” album Kind of Blue. This mode is less dark sounding than Aeolian mode. Tunes that use the Dorian mode include:
- So What – Miles Davis
- Light My Fire (solos) – The Doors
- Riders On The Storm – The Doors
- Oye Come Va – Santana
- Another Brick in The Wall Part 2 (Solo) – Pink Floyd
D Dorian | Download
Like the Aeolian mode the basic fret board pattern for the Dorian mode is similar to the minor pentatonic mode with 2 extra notes.
Below is a sample of the solo from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” which uses the Dorian mode.
Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2 | Download
In Part 2 of Solving The Mystery of Modes we will look at the other 4 modes of Mixolydian, Phrygian, Lydian and Locrian and how they’re used on guitar.
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