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What am I doing?

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New Member
Joined: 14 years ago
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Normally, when I am jamming or playing a to a track, I can figure out the key relatively easy and have no trouble playing over it. But I don't feel I know the extent of what I am doing as much as I should. Here's an example:

Say I'm playing to a track thats in A maj. I solo using all natural notes except F, C and G are sharped. I ocassionally through in accidentals, associated from how I am hearing the phrases in my head.

So, technically, that means I'm playing a Amaj scale, If I'm correct: Because the notes I'm usually hitting are all natural notes except F, C and G sharped.

But my playing never sounds exclusively major? Depending on how I phrase, I can change the feel and sound very easily. Many people tell me my playing is very modal, but I never even scratched the surface of what they are at all. All I know is that steve vai uses a lot of lydian :lol:

Can anyone try and give me a very basic explanation of modes, and if is not modal playing, what i am doing exactly?

Active Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 4

Hey Brian,

I'll start with the relationship between a key and a scale. Since the concept of key may be abstract, I like to say that a scale is the structural representation of a key. So if I am playing in the key of A major then everything that I do has a direct relationship to the A major scale: A - B - C# - D - E - F# - G# - A. The notes that I choose to play are either in the scale or not in the scale. The notes that are in the scale are said to be diatonic and the notes that are not in the scale are said to be chromatic.

Let's say that I take a solo while in the key of A major using only the notes from the scale and emphasizing the note A as a tone of resolution. (This means that I will end on the note A whenever I want to sound like I am ‘finished'). In this context, it will sound very much like I am playing in the key of A major. Now let's say that I play the following line in my solo: C# - C - B - A - E - F - E. Both the C and F are chromatic notes while the others are diatonic. It will still sound like I am in A major, but the deviation from using only diatonic notes will be detected, thus serving to make the solo a bit more interesting to the ear. Musicians use these two note relationships frequently and to various degrees when playing in a key. The diatonic usage serves to ground the solo while the chromatic usage spices up a solo. (The prefix chromo is of Greek origin meaning ‘color').

In regard to modes, there is one concept that you want to keep in mind that will simplify the topic – same collection of notes; different tonic. First, let me define tonic. Very simply, tonic is the first note of the scale, the note for which the scale is named. Therefore, the note A is the tonic of the A major scale. It is also important to know that all of the notes in the scale can be named several different ways. One other way is by using numbers that refer to each note as a scale degree. In the A major scale A is scale degree 1, B is scale degree 2, C# is scale degree 3, D is scale degree 4, E is scale degree 5, F# is scale degree 6, and G# is scale degree 7. When I play this collection of notes emphasizing the A as tonic it could be said that I am playing the Ionian mode, its structure being the scale built from scale degree 1 of a major scale. Well if you think about it then you will see that you can also build a scale from scale degree 2: B - C# - D - E - F# - G# - A - B. This is the same collection of pitches as the A major scale, only now the B is emphasized as tonic. This ‘new' scale is the structure that represents the second mode Dorian. As an exercise, play a solo to a backing track in the key of A major using the notes of the A major scale while emphasizing the note A as tonic. At some point switch the emphasis to the note B. Your solo will take on a different character or quality of sound. There are seven modes that can be generated from the major scale. Here they are in order based on A major:

A Ionian – A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
B Dorian – B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A, B
C# Phrygian – C#, D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C#
D Lydian – D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D
E Mixolydian – E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E
F# Aeolian – F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#
G# Locrian – G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#

While this explanation is fairly thorough, it is by no means all-inclusive. I hope it puts you on the path of understanding and prompts you to explore. Remember that theoretical concepts are just that – theory. You will not complete the picture until you make them part of your practice. So… practice, practice, practice!!! 8)


Famed Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 3995

Recently it was a very interesting thread on scales and modes. I understood a lot of things that I knew many years agod by reading some posts: