Skip to content
Notifications
Clear all

Problem with musical theory for guitar

Page 1 / 3

(@domusaurea)
Active Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

Hi all! I've been playing guitar for a while, but only now I started to study it in a more systematic basis. I have serious problems understanding the methodology used by guitarists to apply music theory. Please someone enlighten me!

Ok. I have classical music background (woodwinds), and I've seriously studied general theory and harmony for seven years. My problem is that I can't understand why there's such a heavy use of the modal system in guitar theory. Worse for my understanding, all mixed up with the tonal system. From what I know, most of the music we play is Ocidental tonal music; modes are another system altogether.

If C Ionian means a C major scale starting actually in C, why does it have to be "Ionian"? If I start a C major scale in E, why can't it just be a C major scale starting on the third note? Why do I have to put a modal name on it? I've never seen any other instrument with this kind of approach, only the guitar...

I'm sure it's just an issue of different approaches to learning. I've learned the same musical theory as guitarists, only maybe in a different way. Possibly anyone here that plays other instruments or have the same background as myself may better understand my concern. Any input will be helpful, though.


Quote
(@thectrain)
Estimable Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 126
 

They are used SO much because they can represent a shape on the fretboard. (ie C Ionian starting on E is E Phrygian) So if you memorize the different shapes of the modes you can play they C major scale starting on any note. Really the modes shouldn't be so closely associated with a shape on the fretboard but they are. So really a majority(exaggerating maybe) of guitarists aren't really using modes musically but rather as a way to get around the fretboard.


ReplyQuote
(@noteboat)
Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

I think the reason they're used (or at least talked about) so much by guitarists is pretty simple... guitarists as a rule are not trained musicians. It's rare for me to meet a guitarist who reads music well, or who understands harmony. The exceptions are usually jazz or classical guitarists.

So here are the under-educated guitarists trying to explain the sounds they make, and modes are easy to remember - as you note, they're the major scale starting on different degrees. Lacking the traditional music education, a 'theory' has sprung up around modes on the guitar. At least 50% of it (and I'm being very generous) doesn't make any sense. For example, some people will insist that when a chord changes, it changes the mode your in. Horsefeathers, as my grandmother used to say.

There are guitarists who understand modes and use them well. You'll usually find them in jazz clubs. When rock guitarists start talking about the use of modes, I now tend to nod politely and find someone else to talk to as quickly as I can :)

As you know from your classical background, modes are a curiosity, a minor diversion, from theory as a whole. They're applicable in early music - Gregorian chant, for instance - and in jazz, where it's akin to scale alterations. Over a Dm chord, a jazz guitarist may play the D dorian mode: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. That's just the natural minor with a #6 (or if you prefer, the melodic minor with a lowered seventh), so you get some unanticipated sounds - a good thing in jazz for generating new ideas.

A rock guitarist using the same notes over the same chord will usually put the tonal center in the wrong place, and end up playing an entirely different mode than they talk about. I'm sure that adds to your confusion.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


ReplyQuote
(@gary-j-foreman)
Eminent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 32
 

For example, some people will insist that when a chord changes, it changes the mode your in. Horsefeathers, as my grandmother used to say.

hi, please could I have a couple of (short and simple) examples of what you mean on this point, as I keep hearing from other players.., to like over a keys chords eg.(always C :( ) C Dm Em F G Am B dim that when playing over the C chord play C Ionian, play D dorian over the D chord, E phrygian over the Em chord etc etc.. I cant believe you always have to change the mode over each chord change myself and dont know if thats wright or wrong.

noteboat any advice is very welcome from me but I dont want to be accused of starting a big thread or debate like some of the modes threads already on the site if you know what i mean?.
:-)


ReplyQuote
(@noteboat)
Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

Well, there's already a dandy thread on this where I gave examples - but it is huge. If you're interested in following the whole discussion, it's in these:

Modal Keys
Mode Chord Discussion (really part 2 of the first thread)

For the quick examples... well, music can be thought of as several parts: rhythm, melody, and harmony. They work together, but each part is also independent... for instance, a C chord is a C chord whether you play it in eighth notes or quarter notes, and a C scale is a C scale whether you play it in eighth notes or quarter notes. Changing the rhythm doesn't change the melody or the harmony.

If you play notes C-E-G over an C major chord, they're notes C-E-G. If you play the same notes over an Am chord, they're still C-E-G, so changing the harmony doesn't change the melody. Likewise, if you play an Am chord against an A note, it's an Am chord... and play it against an F note, and it's still an Am chord.

Modes are a melodic construction - they have to do with the order of the notes played. So if you play a D dorian scale, it's a D dorian scale no matter what the underlying chord is.

When people tell you you can play C Ionian over C, D Dorian over Dm, etc., they're right - you can do that. The trouble is not one guitarist in a hundred actually does that... even though they think they do. What they're likely to do is play a melody in C Ionian or A Aeolian over the entire progression, and then talk a lot about how they used the various modes.

Even worse are the folks I referenced earlier in this thread, who claim that changing a chord changes the mode. Since melody and harmony are two different, and independent, elements, that simply can't happen. It's like saying a piece in C major will really be in G minor if you play it faster :)[/url]

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


ReplyQuote
(@undercat)
Prominent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 963
 

Moderators: Please explain why my post here was deleted.

Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life...


ReplyQuote
(@domusaurea)
Active Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

And so it goes on, adding to my confusion... Thanks for the explanations, noteboat!

So, what can I do then? Is there any online resource or a method book which is more suitable to my theory background? Should I look for a classical guitar player for more advice?


ReplyQuote
(@noteboat)
Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

What I do with my students is completely ignore modes until they want to learn jazz soloing.

From an improvisational standpoint, I usually work with scales in this order:

- pentatonic scale, to introduce basic improvisation
- blues scale, which is just the pentatonic with the addition of a passing note... gets into the idea of passing notes/weak tones
- major scale
- harmonic minor scale
- chromatic scale

Then we either do specific scales for tunes they want to learn (hungarian minor, for example) or scales for technical development, like the whole tone scale.

When I do start on modes, I treat them as scale alterations. I don't teach the Dorian mode as 'the C scale starting on the second step', because the result ends up sounding like a C scale. Instead, I explain the scale as the major scale with a lowered third and seventh. I don't talk about the relationships of the modes to the major scale... although it's an easy way to learn what modes are, it gets in the way of using them.

Early improvisation studies I keep in a single key - that way there's no confusion over changing scales. When we do start using different scales over a progression, I'll make it one that has a key change, like Ebm-Dm-Cm. That lets the student know right away when a scale isn't working anymore, which reinforces hearing the chord progression.

I'd look for a classical teacher if you're interested in learning classical guitar. As far as method books go, you've got a jump on the field with your background in other instruments... if you were my student, we'd probably be using the Berklee series by William Leavitt. That'll cover sight reading for the instrument, and in a sequence that will make sense with the theory you already know.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


ReplyQuote
(@undercat)
Prominent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 963
 

Good call Noteboat. I'll give this a whack and see if this mindset helps me apply them more effectively.

Thanks man.

Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life...


ReplyQuote
(@stratwrassler)
Active Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 17
 

Well, one of my favorite teachers told me the purpose of modes was "to confuse guitar players" Apparently many of us don't realize we've been confused, lol.

I never have, and still don't use "modes", other than to communicate with someone else who does.

Part of the problem is many guitar players (including me) begin approaching "lead" playing with a distorted mindset. We think if we can just learn which notes to play over a different chord or progression, then practice playing them up and down the fretboard as fast as we can, we will then become hot lead players.

Ok, so maybe a bit of a simplification or exaggeration, but someone be honest and admit I'm not the only one who has gone down this road at sometime? If I am, then go ahead, point at me and laugh..hahhahahh...

Looking back, a better approch would have been to learn how to compose short, simply melodies over given changes. Learn knowledge of scale and chord construction, counter-point, voice-leading etc. and apply it to composing these melodies.

Of course, mindless, technical excersises up and down the neck have their place. We need to train our fingers to get to the notes in our melodies without much thought and effort, at least that's part of my goal. I want to hear and enjoy the music I'm playing without giving a whole lot of attention to how I'm doing it.

As our bag of melodies we compose, learn to play with musical expression, and memorize, we can then apply them when the light shines on us and we "take" one with the band.

Peace
-Rick

Groove and Tone: If it don't got it, why play it?


ReplyQuote
(@greybeard)
Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5899
 

Noteboat is quite right - most guitarists don't really understand modes (I'm not being pious, I include myself, here). The odd thing is that every guitarist makes use of modes in almost every tune they play.
Anyone who uses the sequence Imaj, iimin, iiimin, IVmaj, Vmaj, vimin, viidim to harmonise with the major scale is using modes, whether they like it or not.
Build a chord from the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the major scale (let's use C, it's the easiest), gives you C, E, G - C major.
If we want to build a chord, based on D (the 2nd of the Cmaj scale and also the Dorian mode), we would normally take D, then a major 3rd above D - which is F# - and a perfect 5th above D - which is A (D - F# - A). However, to ensure that we can harmonise with the C scale (which doesn't contain an F#), we use the same triad formula (I - iii - V), but based on the intervals of the major scale. So we start with D (the Dorian mode) and move 2 positions further along the C major scale - to a 3rd (in the C scale) above D, namely F (not F#). We, then, take the 5th above D, which is A. D-F-A gives us Dminor.
Shifting along one position, to E (the Phrygian mode of C), we get E, then G (which is the "3rd" based on E as the "root") and B (the "5th", based on E as the "root". E-G-B is Eminor.

Continuing through the major scale will give you the sequence maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, dim.

In my mind, until you become a proficient Jazz guitarist, that's all you need to know about modes.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
Did you know that the word "gullible" is not in any dictionary?
Greybeard's Pages
My Articles & Reviews on GN


ReplyQuote
(@mattguitar_1567859575)
Prominent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 884
 

Reading threads like this make me realise two things!

1. I am NEVER going to get the hang of all this
2. I admire people that have so much.

I can't be the only one that reads this stuff and it might as well be in Chinese. To me, guitar playing and learning seems to go from

Here, strum this C chord! ok....strum strum..yup got it!

to...

Here, take your Sasquash mode, mix in a little Ionian this that and the other, and rock out man!

Totally dazed confused and outta here!

Matt


ReplyQuote
(@noteboat)
Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

You'll get the hang of it eventually, Matt. Just pick one thing that confuses you, work on that, and ignore the rest. Eventually it all comes together.

I think if the guitar had been my first instrument, I would have a real tough time with modes. There's too much written about them that doesn't make sense. My musical training in modes came about from two things, neither guitar based - first when I was in college, I had to write a paper about the history of notation. That meant learning about the Gregorian chants and church modes, since so many of the developments of writing came about to accomodate early church musicians.

The other factor was my improvisation teacher. I had a guitar teacher at the time who was working with me on picking techniques and scales and all that. I was also playing drums in the college jazz band, and writing some of their arrangements. I asked the band director (rather than my guitar teacher... I guess I had more respect for his musicianship) to hook me up with an improv teacher for guitar, and I ended up studied improvisation with a jazz/classical bassist. He got me into using modes as substitutions for other scales.

Rock guitarists try to use different modes over different chords, and you actually can do that. The problem is, a rock tune will generally stay in the same key. Your ear tends to make you play in the 'home key', and the use of the modes becomes... well, a horn player I know described a guitarist's ramblings on modes as 'mental masturbation'.

In jazz, it's different. Maybe you choose to start out in D Dorian over a Dm7 chord. That doesn't mean you'll be in C - four measures later you might be up against Ebmaj9. The modulations in jazz force you to think about the relation of a mode to the chord(s), not to the underlying major scale. And ultimately, they make you think about how the individual tones build the solo as a whole, supported by the harmony.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


ReplyQuote
(@gary-j-foreman)
Eminent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 32
 

I thought I had already replied with my thanks for your posts but after reading through again I obviously did not (sorry)- so thanks vv much :-)

Notebaot can you tell me please where I can buy your book in the UK.
Amazon.co.uk did not have it when I tried, and it looks like it is a very worthwhile purchase after reading your posts and knowledge. Do you cover aspects of modes in the book too?

Thanks,
Gaz.


ReplyQuote
(@noteboat)
Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4933
 

I give modes about 1 page in the book - pretty much all they deserve in a theory introduction. Modes aren't really a beginner topic, no mater what some of the guitar gurus say.

Greybeard from GN is my EU distributor, so I'm sure he can direct you to a local outlet.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


ReplyQuote
Page 1 / 3