Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 6

Modes

Modes are probably the single most confusing element of music for guitarists. There’s a ton of mis-information out there, which just makes things worse. But they’re not that difficult to understand and use if they’re approached properly.

What we think of today as “modes” are simply scales. Several of them are very old – the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes were used in Gregorian chants written over 1500 years ago. At the time, they weren’t called “modes” (at the time, a mode was actually a rhythm!), but the word was first used in the 6th century by a theorist named Boethius in translating some 1st century Greek music theory. About 300 years later, a monk named Hucbald applied the term to the already existing church scales, and we’ve called them “modes” on and off since then.

The church modes were simply considered different scales that composers could use in creating chants. There wasn’t any relationship between them, and no one thought of them as the same notes. That changed in 1547, when a guy named Heinrich Glarens (or Henricus Glareanus as he called himself in Latin) realized that the four church modes and two secular scales – the major and natural minor – made use of the same notes. Glarens created all the confusion by organizing the six scales this way:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = the major scale
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = the Dorian “mode”
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = the Phrygian “mode”
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = the Lydian “mode”
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = the Mixolydian “mode”
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = the natural minor scale

Since the four church scales had Greek names, Glarens decided the major and minor scales should also have Greek names; he called the major scale the “Ionian mode” and named the natural minor the “Aeolian mode”. He also theorized that there should be a scale which started with B:

B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

Glarens called this one the “Locrian mode”. That’s pronounced “luh-cree-in”, “lock-ree-in” or “low-cree-in”; I use “lock-ree-in”, but I’ve heard different theory professors use all three… I suppose it depends on where you went to school! He quickly discarded the scale as useless in practice, but it remained a part of music theory.

On to how to use them… I first encountered a mention of modes in a book on rock guitar in the early 70s, accompanied with a brief explanation of Glaren’s classification and a few exercises. They seemed interesting, but it wasn’t enough information for them to actually be useful to me. Then I headed off to college, and modes were covered in a music history class – we had to learn the names of them, again by Glaren’s system: test questions included things like “which mode begins on the third note of a major scale?” I tried my best to use them on my guitar, but they really didn’t sound different from other scales.

Then I took improvisation lessons from Paul Zibits, who still teaches – he’s currently with California State University at Long Beach. I told him the problem I was having, and he told me I was doing it wrong – I was focusing on a related scale – trying to play F Lydian while I was thinking in C major, the “related” major scale. Since modes are scales, and scales relate their pitches to the key note, I needed to be thinking in F, not C. That’s the whole trick!

So let’s start by looking at the F major scale and the F Lydian scale:

F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F = F major
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = F Lydian

The only note that’s different is the B. Looking at Lydian as a scale formula, it’s 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7. All you have to do to play a Lydian scale is to take a major scale and raise the fourth note! Here’s how it would finger in second position:

(2)-(3)-(5)
(3)-(5)
2-4-5
2-4-5
(2)-3-5
(2)-(3)-(5)

And in fifth position, with a shift on the third and fourth strings:

5-7-8
5-7-8
4-5-7
4-5-7
5-7
(5)-(7)-8

I’m sure you can apply this logic to the other positions of the major scale.

The Mixolydian mode works out the same way:

G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G = G major
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = G mixolydian

This means the mixolydian scale is 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7, or the major scale with a flatted 7th. Here’s G Mixolydian in 2nd position:

1-3-5
3-5
2-4-5
2-3-5
2-3-5
(1)-3-5

There are two important things to take away from our look at modes so far:

1. Modes are just scales. If you’re going to relate them to something, relate them to a scale with the same key note; any other approach is extra thinking at best, and musically misleading at worst.

2. There’s no such thing as a “modal fingering”. We’ve already seen that in 2nd position you can play in C major (C Ionian), G Mixolydian, or F Lydian. We can actually play almost ANY mode in this position, and that’s going to be true anywhere on the guitar. If you’re thinking in fingerings, you’re not thinking in sound – so your results will probably seem mechanical.

Time for one quick detour – when I say you can play “almost” any mode in this position, some will be easy, some hard, just like the many varieties of the major scale fingering. The ones that will be impossible will be the ones that are “related” to Eb major. Because of the guitar’s tuning, none of the 2nd fret notes (F#/Gb, B, E, A, C#/Db, F#/Gb) are in the Eb major scale (Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb). I call this the “guitar’s gap”; each major scale has exactly one position (and possibly its octave) with no notes.

The remaining modes could also be compared to the major scale, but the ones that are left all have something in common – a flatted third. (The Ionian mode is the major scale, and the Aeolian mode is the natural minor; we’ve covered both of those earlier)

D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D = D major
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = D Dorian
1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7

E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E = E major
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = E Phrygian
1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7

B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#-B = B major
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = B Locrian
1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7

Since each of the remaining modes has a b3, I find it easiest to treat them as alterations of the natural minor scale.

D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D = D natural minor (relative to F major)
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = D Dorian

Compared to the natural minor, Dorian has a raised sixth. So if you want to play in A Dorian, just take the A natural minor and raise the sixth – make all your F notes sharp. Here’s fifth position:

5-(7)-(8)
5-7-8
5-7
5-7-9
5-7-9
5-7-8

Or you could shift on the fourth and third strings:

5-(7)-(8)
5-7-8
4-5-7
4-5-7
5-7
5-7-8

Next up is Phrygian:

E-F#-G-A-B-C-D-E = E natural minor (relative to G major)
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = E Phrygian

Compared to the natural minor, Phrygian has a b2. To play in A Phrygian, think in A minor, and flat the 2nd (B):

5-(6)-(8)
5-6-8
5-7
5-7-8
5-7-8
5-6-8

The final mode, Locrian, is the only one that requires changing two notes from the natural minor:

B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A-B = B natural minor (relative to D major)
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = B Locrian

There are two ways you can approach this one, mentally… you can either alter two tones from the natural minor scale, or if you’ve got the other modes down cold first (which I’d recommend), you can alter ONE note from the Phrygian – simply play Phrygian and flat the 5th. Here’s how A Locrian will shape up in fifth position:

5-(6)-(8)
6-8
5-7-8
5-7-8
5-6-8
5-6-8

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 19 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

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