A La Modal

Beginning guitarists (okay, almost all guitarists!) worry about a lot of things. They’ll hear a term and say to themselves, “Omigawd!! I don’t know anything about that!” and run off in a blind panic. Take these two big meanies: scales and modes. Just the mention of them starts people off, hoping against hope that these have nothing to do with the dreaded “circle of fifths!” I’m here to tell you that your anxiety is quite unnecessary.

We’ve got a lot of material here at Guitar Noise on both scales and modes. I’d highly recommend Peter Simms’ Mystery of Modal Scales for those of you just starting out. What I’d like to do with this column is to (very briefly) show you how to put together any modal scale yourself. Trust me, you can do this! It’s easy! Also, I’d like to explore a few of the practical applications when it comes to modes. And if you’re not careful, you may learn two easy songs – Green Day’s Warning and that old Desmond Dekker reggae classic, The Israelites. I guess that means we’ll need this:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

First, though, try to put everything out of your mind. Everything. We’re going to start from scratch and, while this may be old hat to you, it never hurts to go over it again. I should add, at this point, that you might want to read the first part of my article Scaling The Heights so that we’re all on the same page as far as definitions are concerned.

I’m very tempted to quote the words of Guitar Noise Forum member Helgi Briem, who often tells people (and I’m paraphrasing here) that as long as you know your major scale inside and out, you’ll be fine. When it comes to modes, that’s certainly true! All of our modes come straight from the major scale.

For the sake of explaining this relatively quickly, we’re going to use the C major scale. No flats and no sharps. Here it is.

C major scale (also called the Ionian mode):


The thing to be aware of here is that what makes any scale a scale is the pattern of intervals between notes. All major scales start out with the root (called “I”) and then the second note (“II”) is a whole step up from the root, the third note is another whole step up from that. The fourth note is only a half-step up from the third. The fifth, sixth and seventh notes are all whole steps again and a final half-step leads you back to the root. This is why people often write out the pattern of a major scale as “WWHWWWH” where “W” means “whole step” and “H” indicates a half-step. I personally don’t like this because unless you remember to include the root, you have no starting point. Technically, that scale should start at D, no? So, just to make me happy, let’s rewrite this as RWWHWWWH.

Getting back to business, let’s stay in the key of C major but start with the D as our root note instead of the C. This scale would be


This is a Dorian scale. What makes it a Dorian scale is the new set of intervals. With D as the root, the scale would read: RWHWWWHW. It is this pattern of whole and half steps that defines the Dorian scale. You might also see that, except for the root, we’ve simply shifted the pattern of the major scale up to the second position. Thinking about this in terms of intervals, as Peter notes in his article, is important. The intervals, as we said, define the scale.

Because, in this instance, you started with the D note, it is a D dorian scale. You can see that (since there are still no flats or sharps) it is still, technically, in the key of C. But because our root is D, that is where the “modal center” or “home” is.

If we start with E, we would have an E Phrygian scale


Are you with me so far? If we start with the F it’s called an F Lydian scale.


Now let’s start with G. This is a G Mixolydian


We’ve now reached the A note (and this is where it all gets really interesting). This is an A Aeolian scale. It is also the A natural minor scale.


Finally, let’s start with B, the seventh note of the C major scale. This is the B Locrian scale:


Now, if you noticed, I put Roman numerals along with the scales. These correspond to the notes of any scale. So if you have any major scale (and remember to keep the intervals between the notes the same):


Scales chart

As you can see (and might guess), a lot of figuring out scales is actually working backwards. If I’m playing a G dorian scale (G because the scale starts with the G note as the root), I take a look and see that “dorian” starts with the II note of any given major scale. What key is it in? It has to be in the key of F because G is II in the key of F. Being in the key of F, which has one flat (Bb), then a G dorian scale will look like this:

G A Bb C D E F G

Let’s try another one. Let’s compose a D lydian scale. Okay “lydian” starts on the IV, so I need to figure out which major key has D as the fourth. You’re right, it’s A. A has three sharps (F#, C#, G#), so a D lydian scale must look like this:

D E F# G# A B C# D

So you can see why Helgi’s axiom of learning one’s major scales is so important. When you learn one major scale, you’ve actually learned seven different modal scales! And if you’ve caught onto the fact that I tried to point out to you in Scaling The Heights, then you know that if you’ve learned one major scale (in a particular position), you’ve actually learned them all! This means that you’ve also learned all your modes. Amazing, no?

Remember, though (and you knew this was coming, right?), that it’s one thing to know where and what the scales are and another to have practiced them well enough to be able to have them, no pun intended, at your fingertips. Still, I think that it’s important for everyone to know that learning these is not beyond you, not by any means!

Okay, now that we know what modes are and how to get them, is there a point to all of this? Well, let’s suppose that you’re playing a song in the key of A major. Now let’s also suppose that you’re doing a solo while the song is simply switching between an A and a D chord. Well, instead of relying solely on your A Pentatonic scale, you could liven things up a bit by using the D lydian scale for your solos.

The reality, though, is that most guitarists never worry about this. Seriously. What the majority of people do is figure out which key is the relative (or natural) minor of the major and then use that scale for a staging point for the lead. And, more often than not, they’ll use a Pentatonic scale instead of a full one. There’s that “pentatonic” thing again! If you want to learn more about those, go back and read the second half of Scaling The Heights.

In spite of this penchant for pentatonics, there are times when knowing your modes can be very useful. Let’s look at a few examples which will, hopefully, allow you and your ears to appreciate the often subtle differences modes can make in your playing.

Let’s start with something I’ve already shown you in an earlier Easy Songs For Beginners lesson. Click over on the article on Cat Stevens’ Wild World and look at the first and third lines of the chorus. You’ll see (and hear on the MP3s) a descending C major scale. This is probably the most obvious example that I could ever point out to you, except if you listen to the melody of the Christmas carol, Joy To The World, which is also nothing more than a descending scale (which key? depends on what key you happen to know the song in!).

As you study more solos, you’ll be amazed to find that an unbelievable number of them (and we’re talking mostly about rock, metal, folk and country music here) use one of six scales – Pentatonic (major or minor), Major, Minor, Blues, Dorian or Mixolydian.

The Mixolydian is a favorite in rock and metal because a lot of songs have chord progressions going from the root to the flatted seventh (actually IV of IV – see the old column Scales Within Scales) to the fourth. In the key of A, for example, that would be A to G to D. Since the G note is not part of the A major scale (G# is), many guitarists would use an A minor pentatonic (A, C, D, E, G) and work the C note as a “blue note.” But you don’t always want that sort of thing. Sometimes you want the C# and the G. So what do you do? The easiest thing to do would be to work off of the A Mixolydian scale:

A major scale
A mixolydian scale

You can see that the A Mixolydian gives us the notes we want; we get the G without having to lose the C#, which puts the “major” in A major! In Green Day’s song, Warning, the bass and guitar double on an ascending and descending A Mixolydian scale, and it’s this repeating of the scale throughout the song that gives the music such a powerful hook:

Example 1
Bass and lead guitar line

The riff that is played between the verses (and which starts the first two lines of the last verse) is also pulled from notes of the A Mixolydian scale:

Example 2

Believe or not, that is the entire song, music-wise! All you’ve got to do now is get all the words and you can play it. Or I can provide that for you as best I can (and I take no responsibility for these not being the right lyrics, okay?):

Warning lyrics 1
Warning lyrics 2
Warning lyrics 3

Finally, I’d like to demonstrate to you how powerful a modal scale can be, especially when used with a bit of thought. In Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites, he starts out with the song with the time honored I – IV – V progression (note: for the sake of our lesson, I’ve transposed this song down a half-step to A (the original recording is in Bb) – since we’ve been working in A in Warning and because of our quick look at Wild World, I think you’ll understand!), so our chords are A, D and E. Let’s look and listen:

Example 3 line 1
Example 3 line 2
Example 3 line 3
Example 3 line 4

Whoa! Someone went and threw in an ascending C major scale into the middle of that! Did you hear it? You better have! I took the liberty of playing it over and over again at the end of the MP3! Now, this switch from A to C might seem like a crazy thing to do, but let’s remember our modes. The C major scale (Ionian mode) is, note for note, the same as the A Aeolian mode (or natural minor scale). So what the songwriter has done here is to briefly switch from one mode to another and right back again. See for yourself:

Example 4

One thing I want to point out here, if for no other reason than I think it’s both very clever and the main reason this works so well, is that he starts the A Aeolian scale on the C, which is the third note of that scale. This is why you hear it as a C major scale. And it’s also the reason why it resolves so well. In a major scale (actually in most scales, but that’s another story!), we’re very used to the final resolution being a half-step, B to C in this case. Our ears like this sort of thing, no lie. And what our ears do for us do here is add an additional half-step, C to C# (the all-important third again!) to comlpete the resolution back to A major and make us feel we’ve returned home after a bumpy, albeit brief, trip.

And that’s all there is to this song. Here’s the complete transcription (although, again, I have to stress that I am going from memory here and I know that I may have the lyrics wrong – or at least, not quite right!):

The Israelites 1
The Israelites 2
The Israelites 3

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson and, more importantly, I hope that it puts many of you at ease where your fears of modes are concerned. What I’m hoping to do in our upcoming future columns is to go back to where I left off and look at the basics of lead playing. We’ll look at various techniques used in soloing and analyze a few of them. When you can see how they’re put together (a bit of a scale here, a chord arpeggio there, maybe a slight change of mode), you’ll probably find that you can a lot of things you previously thought you couldn’t.

As always, please feel free to write me with any questions. Either leave me a message at the forums page (you can “Instant Message” me if you’re a member) or mail me directly at [email protected].

Until next time…