A Simple Way to Understand Modes for Guitar – Part 3

Practical Tips on How and When to Apply Each Mode to an Entire Song or Progression

The first and best clue will be the key of the song. The key of the song will control the major scale on which the available modes are built. If the song is in a minor key, then the relative major of that key will control the available modes. But remember, a chord progression can be in a particular key, but still never go to “1” or “root” chord for that key. For example, we could build a song using diatonic chords from the key of F Major, but not have an F chord in the progression at all. So in determining which mode to use we listen for the “tonal center” or home base of the progression – what one bass note sounds to your ear like it could fit over every chord in the progression or act as the root for the entire progression even if it’s not the root note for the key?

Here are some chord progressions that fit under each modal scale. Play through each progression and take time to apply each modal scale over the progression while you’re doing so. You may also wish to record each progression or have a friend play the progression, while you focus on applying its related modal scale to it. But I suggest that you also spend time playing the modal scale and progression together, so that you can clearly see how the notes of the modal scale fit into & over the diatonic chords of each progression. (The chords in parenthesis transfer these progressions to our study key of F Major and its resulting modes).

Ionian (normal Major scale – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7)

I – IV – vi – V – I … (F, Bb, Dm, C, F)

I – ii – IV – V – I … (F, Gm, Bb, C, F)

I – V – vi – IV – I … (F, C, Dm, Bb, F)

I – iii – vi – V – I … (F, Am, Dm, C, F)

Dorian (b3 and b7) – 2nd scale degree root (in F Major, that’s G)

i – IV – i – bVII – i … (Gm, C, Gm, F, Gm)

i – bVII – i – bVII – i … (Gm, F, Gm, F, Gm)

i – IV – ii – v – bVII – i … (Gm, C, Am, Dm, F, Gm)

i – bIII – IV – i – bVII – i … (Gm, Bb, C, Gm, F, Gm)

Note that I’m referring to the 1 chord of these Dorian mode sample progressions as Gm (i) , etc., but what is actually happening is that the Gm is the ii chord of F, and so our first Dorian progression could also be written out & understood as:

ii – V – ii – I- ii (Gm, C, Gm, F, Gm)

Notice that the actual chords of the progression did not change, just the numbering system. I’ve done this for a reason. Most of us learn songs based on how the chords relate to the first chord of the progression. If a songwriter or bandleader hands us a chord chart, they’ll usually just write out something like Gm, C, F with lyrics underneath. We’ve all seen those charts and any kind of basic chord/lyric tab you find on the internet is probably a form of this kind of simple chart. Most of us never see the full transcription of the song with key notation, staff lines & notation. So we may never realize that the progression starting on a particular chord is actually not constructed in the key of that first particular chord, but actually written in another key altogether. So to properly identify which modal scale to play, it’s also important to be able to recognize the relationships between diatonic chords from the perspective of the root chord of the mode.

(In the advanced theory section of each mode discussion below, I’ve charted out the chords in each mode from the perspective of the key on which the mode is constructed, so I recommend once you’ve read that section, as an exercise come back and adjust the numbering of each progression used in this sample progression section to coincide with the chord numbering for the key on which the mode is actually constructed. But for now, for purposes of working through and learning sample modal progressions, let’s just number the 1 chord based on the mode’s root).

Phrygian (b2, b3, b6, b7) – 3rd scale degree root (in F Major, that’s A)

i – bII – bIII – i … (Am, Bb, C, Am)

i – V7 – i – bII – i … (Am, E7, Am, Bb, Am)

i – iv – i – bII – i … (Am, Dm, Am, Bb, Am)

i – bIII – bvii – i … (Am, C, Gm, Am)

I – bII – I – bII … (A, Bb, A, Bb) (Major substitution for the I chord)

Lydian (#4) – 4th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s Bb)

I – II – I – II (whole step up then back – repeats) … (Bb, C, Bb, C)

I – II – I – II – #iv – V – #iv – V – I … (Bb, C, Bb, C, Em, F, Em, F, Bb)

I – vi – II – V – I … (Bb, Gm, C, F, Bb)

I – V – I – II – I … (Bb, F, Bb, C, Bb)

I – II – vii – I … (Bb, C, Am, Bb)

I – II – V – I … (Bb, C, F, Bb)

I – II – IV – V – I … (Bb, C, Eb, F, Bb) (Major substitution 1/2 step down for IV chord)

Mixolydian (b7) – 5th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s C)

I – bVII – I – bVII – I … (C, Bb, C, Bb, C)

I – vi – IV – V – bVII – I … (C, Am, F, G, Bb, C)

I – IV – I – bVII – I … (C, F, C, Bb, C)

I – ii – IV – bVII – I … (C, Dm, F, Bb, C)

(note – a Dom7 chord form I7 will often be used for the I Major)

Aeolian (natural minor scale – b3, b6, b7) – 6th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s D)

i – bVI – bVII – i … (Dm, C, Bb, Dm)

i – iv – v – i … (Dm, Gm, Am, Dm)

i – iv – V7 – i … (Dm, Gm, C7, Dm)

i – bIII – i – bVII – i … (Dm, F, Dm, F, Dm)

Locrian (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7) – 7th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s E)

i° – bvii – i° – bvii – i° … (E°, Dm, E°, Dm, E°)

i° – bV – i° – bV – i° … (E°, Bb, E°, Bb, E°)

i° – biii – i° – bII – i° … (E°, Gm, E°, F, E°)

i° – biii – bvii – i° … (E°, Gm, Dm, E°)


Roman numerals shown in capitals represent Major chords

Roman numerals in lower case represent minor chords

A circle following a Roman numeral means a diminished chord

Also, even though I’ve written these progressions to start and end on the 1 chord, you can simply skip the last 1 chord & cycle back to the beginning of each progression to keep them going for more practice.

Notice that the major modes – Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian – all use a Major chord for the 1 chord, while all the minor modes – Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian – all use a minor chord for the 1 chord. And that Locrian uses a Diminished chord for the 1 chord. Thus, the type of 1 chord the progression is based on is a big clue in determining which modes will work (but just keep in mind that sometimes progressions will not start on the 1 chord). If you have a minor progression using a minor chord form for the 1 chord – pick a minor mode to solo over the entire progression and adjust it as necessary to accommodate any “outside” chord tones!

© Beth Isbell 2010