A Simple Way to Understand Modes for Guitar – Part 2

Using Modes to Specifically Outline Single Chords

Any of the modes can be played over their corresponding chord in the diatonic progression for the key for the song you’re playing, or it’s common extensions. And the modes are often used this way to outline an individual chord when soloing. For example:


Mode — Basic Triad – 7th – 9th – 11th – 13th (i.e. the available extensions)

Ionian — Major triad Maj7 Maj9 Maj11 Maj13

Dorian — minor triad m7 m9 m11 m13

Phrygian — minor triad m7 m7b9 m11b9 m11b9b13

Lydian — Major triad Maj7 Maj9 Maj7#11 Maj13#11

Mixolydian — Major triad 7 9 11 13

Aeolian — minor triad m7 m9 m11 m11b13

Locrian — diminished triad m7b5 m7b5b9 min11b5b9 min11b5b9b13


Notice from this chart that when you are playing over a Major, Maj7, Maj9 chord – you have two primary modal choices that fit – Ionian and Lydian. If the fourth (or 11th) of the chord is raised, Lydian may work better, but in most cases, your primary choice should be the Ionian mode, which is the parent major scale.

On the minor side, for a minor m7 m9 m11 chords you also have two primary modes to choose from – Dorian or Aeolian. So if the chord is Major and particularly if its extension contains a major 7 note (as opposed to a b7 note), you should consider playing either the Ionian or Lydian mode over it. If the chord is minor (& the chord or progression does not contain a b9), you should consider playing either the Dorian or Aeolian mode over it.

Mixolydian mode is an often used variation of a major sounding mode used primarily to emphasize Dominant 7 ( b7) chords. It emphasizes the whole step (two frets) below the root of the chord in the Major scale on which it is constructed, and it differs from the I and IV chords, since there is only a 1/2 step (one fret) below their roots to the next Major scale note. Think about it, there is a major 7 note 1/2 step (one fret) below the I of the I chord, and there is a major 3 note 1/2 step (one fret) below the 4th degree of the scale which forms the root of the IV chord; … but, the 5th note degree (V) of the standard major scale is always a whole step (two frets) above the 4th note/degree of the scale, so it makes sense to incorporate that significant one fret v. two fret difference when constructing our modal scale on the root of the V chord from the 5 of the major scale a whole step (two frets) down to the 4, or in mixolydian mode, we would say from the 1/root to the b7.

Phrygian is a minor sounding mode used to emphasize a flat 9 (or flat 2) note in a minor chord, or a 1/2 step move from the i or I chord to a II chord.

Locrian is the diminished mode used to emphasize a diminished chord, i.e. where the fifth is flatted (b5). You see this most often in jazz.

The modes are often used in this chord specific way to outline an “outside” chord that does not fit the diatonic chords of the key of the song or the key on which the mode primarily being used over the song or progression is based. In this event, we would pick a mode based on the root of the “outside” chord. For example, since we’re in F Major, if an A Major chord is inserted (instead of the diatonic A minor), it has a Major 3rd, instead of the expected minor 3rd, so we might use a major mode rooted on the A to outline the unique flavor of that “outside” chord – perhaps A Ionian (i.e. A major) or A Lydian (constructed in E major), or even A Mixolydian (constructed in D Major) if the progression lends itself to the sound of a Dominant), since all three of those major modes contain a C# (the major 3rd of our A chord). Choosing one of the three major modes of the root to play over any Major chord would nicely emphasize the Major 3rd of that chord.

Similarly, where the “outside” chord is a minor chord, we might want to consider the natural minor mode constructed from the relative Major of the root of the minor chord; for example, if the “outside” chord was a Dm, we might look at D Aeolian mode constructed in the key F Major. Or perhaps D Dorian mode, since D is the 2nd degree of the C major scale and Dorian is also a minor sounding mode. Or even D Phrygian, the other minor sounding mode (constructed in Bb Major), if we were looking for a more exotic flavor emphasizing the flat 9 (Eb note) which occurs in that particular mode. Notice that all three of these minor mode scales – D Aeolian, D Dorian, and D Phrygian – all have the minor 3rd or b3 of our Dm chord (F) in them, even though they are all constructed from and relate to completely different major scales.

When the modes are used in this chord specific way, we generally should strive to pick a mode which picks up any chord tones “outside” the main key of the song, but yet maintains the overall mood of the song or progression, unless we are purposefully trying to create tension to be resolved later in the progression.

Remember, some modes are major and some modes are minor. The Dorian, Phrygian & Aeolian modes are minor sounding modes. The Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian modes are Major sounding modes. (The Locrian mode obviously sounds diminished!). So if you’re trying to decide which mode fits the chord, or even the entire song or progression, you’re playing over, if it’s a minor chord, or even an entire song in a minor key, then it’s mostly likely going to be one of the three minor modes – Dorian, Phrygian or Aeolian.

If it’s a Major chord, or a Major key song, then most likely it’s going to be one of the three Major modes – Ionian, Lydian, or Mixolydian. That certainly helps narrow down your choices on which mode to use! And chances are once you get it down to just the three minor modes or the three major modes, as a practical matter only one or two of the remaining three choices is going to best work over the song progression anyway!

(Note – there are some excellent charts demonstrating this major & minor mode grouping concept at this website )

Finally, the unique sound of each mode is created by the interaction of its parent major scale (i.e. the major scale from which it is constructed) against the chord or chords that it is being played over! It does not matter where you start or stop the scale. In other words, you do not need to start & stop on the root note of the mode. You can even skip notes or play licks using only some of the notes of the modal scale. All that matters is the application of the modal scale over its parent diatonic chord or a progression or song which sounds as if it revolves around that diatonic chord. For example, if we play G Dorian mode of the F Major scale over a Gm chord, you can start on any note of the scale over that Gm chord and resolve to any note of the scale & still get Dorian. However, if you play G Dorian mode of the F Major scale over an F chord, and you play from G to G trying to make it Dorian, it will instead produce an Ionian sound and be in Ionian mode. Simply playing from the second degree of F Major (G) to its octave will not produce Dorian mode unless you’re doing so over a Gm chord or a progression which emphasizes the sound of and/or resolves to the Gm Chord; if you play it over an F chord, you get Ionian. It’s not where you start or stop that produces a mode, but the interaction of scale against chord! Or, if you’re just playing with a bass player, against the root note of the chord.

In the next article of this series, we’ll talk about the much more confusing and complicated scenario of when to use a mode over a longer progression or sequence of chords, or even over an entire song.

© Beth Isbell 2010