The Mystery of the Modal Scales

The “Modes” (modal scales) seem to be a mystery to many players. Therefore I’m going to try and clear up some questions on this subject. This set of notes can propel you far forward in your guitar adventures!

Most of us know the “Major Scale“. It is an note sequence of Whole Steps (W=2 fret distance) and Half Steps (H= 1 fret distance). That sequence is WWHWWWH (see example #1). Play a “C chord”, then play example #1 forwards and backwards to get that sound in your head… this is an important thing to do right now. Once you can feel and get used to the sound… come back to this lesson. I set this exercise on 1 string so you can see the whole and half steps.

You can take a listen to it on a midi file: Click Here


C Major Scale

Now that you recognize the sound of Major Scale, I’m going to tell you that it also has another name: The Ionian Mode. The idea with the modes is that if you start with another note of the major scale and end with the same note, you change the “whole step/half step” relationship… and get another sound or “mode”.

The Dorian Mode starts with the 2nd degree. If we were to use our example, you get: D E F G A B C D. Our sequence is then WHWWWHW. Play a “Dm Chord” and play example #2.

You can take a listen to it on a midi file: “Click Here


D Dorian Scale

This gives us a new sound, and raises a question

Is it a new scale or just the same scale starting on the 2nd degree? It is both! One of my students just asked me this (even though I’ve heard this question from dozens of my students over the years). This is what I wrote him:

“The Modes are tricky. It seems you know enough about them to be dangerous. There are two schools of thought on this. One school… says it’s all one scale, therefore just relate it to the Major Scale (Ionian Mode). The other school of thought is that each mode has it’s own unique sound. They both have strong arguments, and I don’t think that argument will ever be settled. I myself tend to lean to the other. If you take chords for instance…. a “C6” and a “Am7” …. they share the exact same notes:

C6 = C E G A
Am7 = A C E G

Well.. which one is it? It depends on the function of the chord and which note is being played in the bass. There are several examples, but I will leave you with this one to think about.

The modes in my opinion function like these chords. If the chord progression is leading to a sense of resolve on the C6 chord… you are soloing with C Ionian (major) … and you are leaning your notes in that scale to support that chord. If the chord progression is leading to a sense of resolve on a Am7 chord … you are soloing with A Aeolian… and you are leaning your notes in that scale to support that chord. Does this make any sense to you? …….. The fact remains: you can do a lot with this set of notes! Therefore that is why it is on your list of things to do.”

Each note has its own modal name (I put the chord to play when playing the mode):

Take a listen to the modes played in order (Example 3) Click Here

C – C Ionian (start on the 1 st note)
Dm – D Dorian
Em – E Phrygian
F – F Lydian
G7 – G Mixolydian
Am – A Aeolian
Bm7b5 – B Locrian


C Ionian
Dm Dorian
Em Phrygian
F Lydian
G Mixolydian
Am Aeolian
Bm7b5 Locrian

I tend to take advantage of the “it’s one scale” idea, by learning 6 fingerings extremely well (example #3) that cover the complete fretboard. And, be able to switch the “root” which in turn switches the “mode”. Check out the fingering diagrams below.

The only way to really get the effect of a modal scale: is to play the accompanying chord, then play the mode.The Modal Scales and the Pentatonic (blues) Scales are your strongest working scales for soloing. You will hear musicians mixing Pentatonic and Modal Scale extensively: Carlos Santana, Kirk Hammit, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, George Benson, John Scofield, ….. all styles… they cover it! Therefore…. GO FOR IT! They are definitely worth learning.


Fingers 1
Fingers 2
The Modal Scales