A Simple Way to Understand Modes for Guitar – Part 1

I’ve had a real breakthrough in understanding and explaining modes, and I’m sharing! I sincerely hope that this article makes it easier for you to understand this typically frustrating concept, and make it easier for you to apply to your guitar playing and actually know when & how to apply it when improvising or creating a solo. So, let’s get started:

How to Build Your Own Modal Scales Using Diatonic Chords

Basic music theory says the diatonic chord progression built from notes of its parent major scale is I ii iii IV V (or V7) vi & the vii chord is diminished … or, 1 Major, 2 minor, 3 minor, 4 Major, 5 Major, 6 minor, 7 diminished – all built in order on the notes of the major scale.

So play those chords in key of F major … F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, Edim.
These are the “diatonic” chords in the key of F major. The root, 3, and 5, of each diatonic chord will consist ONLY of notes from its major scale.

Now, just play the top 3 (big strings) of each chord – i.e. turn them all into power chords – F5, G5, A5, Bb5, C5, D5, and then an E dim chord only using top 3 big strings (0120XX or since this time our chord is rooted on the 12th fret of the big E string 12 13 14 12 X X). Ok, with me so far? Good.

Now we start with the fact that the major scale is played over the I chord, in this case F. That is … F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, (F)

The major scale is the first mode – the Ionian Mode! Your first mode!

(Since I don’t have the ability in this program to include diagrams of the fretboard or tab to give you scale patterns, here’s a link really helpful site that will do just that … in this case, for the Ionian mode … I love the fact that they include a sweep pattern version for each modal scale!)

The second mode or Dorian Mode only uses notes from the F major scale – our main key for purposes of this article … so the second note of the F major scale is G. If we create a scale starting with G (but only using notes from the major scale of F) and ending on G, we get the G Dorian scale, or second mode of the F major scale.

Here’s a good simple way to look at it, and will make it easier to construct any modal scale on the fly by simply remembering what key the song is in (or the major scale on which the mode you’re working in is constructed) & the diatonic chords based in that key (in this case, F major):

As to the Gm (or G5) chord, play the F (or F5) below it & the Am (or A5) chord above it – starting with the G root on the third fret of the Sixth string (or Big E string) play up to the octave of it – the G (5th Fret) on the fourth string (i.e., the D string) – in other words, let’s build a seven-note scale from the sixth string root to the fourth string root (i.e. * an 8 note scale if you include the root again at the top of your scale) – but use only the notes available in the Gm chord or the adjacent diatonic chord below it (F) or the two chords above it (Am & Bb) … Voila! You’ve just built a scale from G to G, sounding in and utilizing the G Dorian Mode (the Second Mode of F Major)!

Now, let’s repeat this process for each diatonic chord up the scale – using only one or two fret moves (half or whole steps). And you should include the notes that are available and easiest to access from the diatonic chord you’re working with and the two diatonic chords located immediately above and below it that chord, creating the easiest path from the sixth string root note to the fourth string root. And, to make it even easier since we’re on the three lowest strings, you only need to use power chords (root, fifth, root).

(*Note – When you get to the final vii(dim) chord, the formula is R b5 R, so you’ll have to make that one minor adjustment – hint: it’s the 6th string root diminished chord form we discussed earlier in this article! Once you master this concept, you can then try to work out the same idea for the adjacent smaller sets of three strings each in order, this time using the full chord shapes for each diatonic chord – not just power chords like in this example which is just designed to get you started.)

What you’ll notice is that you’ll necessarily have to adjust the major scale normally associated with each root note you’re working with to accommodate the notes in the diatonic chords above & below the one you’re focusing on … which “alters” their normal major scale to fit into the F major scale & corresponding diatonic chords from the F major scale. The combination of playing such a modal scale over a progression which is centered around the diatonic chord on which it is built is what gives each “mode” it’s unique sound & flavor!

The result of working through this process are the creation of modes!

A Closer Examination of Construction of Modal Scales

While each mode is built on the notes of the exact same major scale and its diatonic chords, in this case F Major, because each mode has a different scale degree as its starting and ending point, often called their “tonal center,” they each have their own unique flavor and sound. (Remember, we already covered the Ionian Mode of the F Major scale above).

2nd scale degree root – Dorian (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G)
(notice this scale differs from G major by substituting a b3 & b7)

3rd scale degree root – Phrygian (A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G, A)
(notice this scale differs from A major by substituting a b2, b3, b6 & b7)

4th scale degree root – Lydian (Bb, C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb)
(notice this scale differs from Bb major by substituting a #4)

5th scale degree root – Mixolydian (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C)
(notice this scale differs from C major by substituting a b7)

6th scale degree root – Aeolian (D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D)
(notice this scale differs from D major by substituting a b3, b6 & b7)

7th scale degree root – Locrian (E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E)
(notice this scale differs from E major by substituting a b2, b3, b5, b6 & b7)

(Note – Each mode is named based on the first note of the mode scale, so even though all these modes in this example are in the Key of F Major, the modes would be named F Ionian (or the F Major scale), G Dorian, A Phrygian, Bb Lydian, C Mixolydian, D Aeolian, and E Locrian. …. This method of naming the modes is really important to remember!)

Modes are simply an alteration of the major scale of the root note to accommodate diatonic chords from the key of the song that you’re playing over (or choosing to work with for a particular segment of the song). More simply, all the modal scales must include all the notes of the major scale on which the mode is constructed – and only those notes! In this case or key that we’re using for study purposes in this article, the major scale on which our modes are based & must always accommodate is F.

© Beth Isbell 2010