If you’ve been getting familiar with guitar scales, you’ve probably heard the word “mode” come up at least once. In fact, modes are derived from the major scale, and once people realize that, it’s like a lightbulb turns on, and everything makes sense. In this article, I will cover everything you need to know about the modes on guitar and bass and demystify them for you.
Table of Contents
What Are Guitar Modes?
Modes are a set of seven different scales that are all based on a specific part of the major scale. Because of this, modes aren’t something that is exclusive to guitar; rather, it’s a Western music theory concept that can be applied to basically all instruments that use the 12 basic pitches.
In order, the modern diatonic modes are listed as follows:
I. Ionian (same as the Major scale)
VI. Aeolian (same as the Minor scale)
After the seventh one, it just repeats again, because then you’ll have reached the octave.
All of these names originate from Ancient Greece, and the Roman numerals here correspond to their scale degrees.
Take a look at this C-major scale to see where the scale degrees line up:
The C-major scale has no sharps or flats, and it’s simply C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Because of this, it is easy to work with, and it makes explanations much clearer for beginners, so we’ll be working with the C-major scale, also known as the Ionian mode, and building off of that.
Depending on where you start in relation to the C-major, this dictates the mode you’re using; for instance, if you start at D, which is the 2nd scale degree, and play D-E-F-G-A-B-C, you are playing the Dorian mode now.
It’s still in the key of C-major, but this new starting point gives it a different flavor, and all of them have a distinct sound to them. Phrygian and Lydian, in particular, are often cited as favorites to many guitarists.
I will be covering each mode based on the key of C, and will be including tablature for each of them, so even though these examples here are built from C-major, you can take the shapes from each of the modes and apply them anywhere you’d like, just like you would with the major and minor scales.
For example, even though we’re going to be using D-Dorian, you can move up a whole step, use the same shape, and it will still be a Dorian mode, but it’s become E-Dorian this time – same mode, just a different tonality.
I will also provide you with the formulas for how each of the modes is built based on whole and half-steps.
With that said, let’s dive in, recapping with the first mode!
I. The Ionian Mode
As mentioned earlier, the Ionian mode is identical to the major scale, and its the foundation for the 6 other modes. You’ve heard this mode a million times in your lifetime already, even if this is the first time hearing this name.
The Ionian mode is referred to as roman numeral “I” because it is the tonic and the initial starting point.
The notes of the C Ionian are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (Octave)
To build the Ionian mode, for use in any key, the formula and shape are the same as the major scale, and it goes like this:
Root → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step (Octave)
II. The Dorian Mode
Dorian was briefly mentioned earlier and explained as well, like the Ionian, you’re already acquainted with this one.
The Dorian mode, or II, is the second of the major scale modes that you’ll start to become familiar with. Because we are basing everything off C-major, we will be using D-Dorian, because D is II, in that key.
The notes of D-Dorian are: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D (Octave)
To build the Dorian mode, for use in any key, use this formula and shape:
Root → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step (Octave)
III. The Phrygian Mode
Phrygian is a favorite to a lot of guitarists because it has a strong, Spanish flavor to it, and it has a dark sound to it and is used for a lot of metal riffs, similar to the Harmonic Minor scale.
The Phrygian mode (III) is assigned to the 3rd scale degree, and in the C-major scale, you will be using E-Phrygian.
The notes for E-Phrygian are: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E (Octave)
To build the Phrygian mode, for use in any key, follow this formula and shape:
Root → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step (Octave)
IV. The Lydian Mode
Lydian is another favorite, and I personally think it sounds very pretty and lively. It is most commonly used in film scores and various other soundtracks, so you’ve probably heard this mode many times and weren’t aware of it.
The Lydian mode (IV) comes from the 4th scale degree of the major scale, and therefore in the key of C, you’ll be using F-Lydian.
The notes for F-Lydian are: F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F (Octave)
To build the Lydian mode, for use in any key, refer to this formula and shape:
Root → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step (Octave)
V. The Mixolydian Mode
Mixolydian is very similar to the Ionian mode’s shape, except that it has a flat 7th, which gives it a little bit of an interesting twist to it. Instead of having that leading tone going to the octave in the Ionian, the flat 7th, it has a minor scale (Aeolian) quality, if you play it linearly.
The Mixolydian mode (V) comes from the 5th scale degree of the major scale, and if you base it on C-major, it will be G-Mixolydian.
The notes for G-Mixolydian are: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G (Octave)
To build the Mixolydian mode, for use in any key, check out this formula and the shape for it:
Root → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step (Octave)
VI. The Aeolian Mode
Just like how the Ionian mode is identical to the major scale, the Aeolian mode is the same as the minor scale that you may already be familiar with.
The Aeolian mode (VI) comes from the 6th scale degree of the major scale. If you are already familiar with the concept of relative minor keys, you probably already have a leg-up and know how to find it. If you use C-major, your relative minor scale is A; therefore, in the context of modes, you’ll have A-Aeolian.
The notes for A-Aeolian are: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A (Octave)
To build the Aeolian mode, for use in any key, the formula and shape are the same as the minor scale:
Root → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step (Octave)
VII. The Locrian Mode
Finally, the last of the 7 modes is the Locrian mode, which admittedly, isn’t that popular compared to other ones, especially Phrygian. Unlike Phrygian, this one has a flat-5th, which can make it sound even darker. If you compare it to the Aeolian mode, this has a flat-2nd and a flat-5th. Overall, it’s an interesting but unusual scale that you should try playing around with.
The Locrian mode (VII) comes from the 7th and final scale degree before coming full-circle again. If you use the key of C-major, you will be assigned with B-Locrian.
The notes for B-Locrian are: B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B (Octave)
To build the Locrian mode, for use in any key, the formula and shape go as followed:
Root → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Half Step → Whole Step → Whole Step → Whole Step (Octave)
“How Do I Use The Modes On Guitar?”
When trying to apply the guitar modes, there are a few ways you can use them effectively. Let’s take a look at some of them below:
Match The Scale Degrees
The first way is to play them over the chords that have the same scale degree that the modes come from. For example, playing an E-Phrygian over an E-minor chord, if you’re in the key of C will make perfect sense, since they are both derived from the 3rd
However, when chords are labeled based on their scale degree, such as when listing out a chord progression, major chords will be capitalized whereas minor chord will be in lowercase text, so if you see an “iii” you know that it’s a minor chord, but if you see an IV, you know it’s major.
What the chord actually is will depend on the key you’re in, but an “iii” and an “IV” in the key of C is an E-minor chord and an F-major chord, respectively.
The perfect mode to use for that F-major chord would be the Lydian because they’re both from the 4th scale degree.
Secondly, you can use modes based on chord tones, but this will require to know how chords are built and what notes the chords are using. It’s not really more advanced, but it’s just another aspect of music theory that will take some more memorization.
One of the most fundamental ways of doing this is through the use of triads, which are very common chords that consist of three pitches. Your major and minor chords are examples of triads.
If you are unfamiliar with triads, I recommend reading my guide to how triads are made because it will help make the subsequent sections easier to follow along with.
Nonetheless, if you already have an understanding of these, for this method, take a look at a chord that you want to play over. If you’re in the key of C, and you’re working with a D-minor chord, the primary notes you will want to pay attention to are D, F, and A, as these are what make a D-minor triad.
Automatically, you know that you can use a D-Dorian mode by default, but F-Locrian and A-Aeolian will also be harmonious, too, as long as your starting notes are D, F, or A.
This is very similar to improvisation techniques people use when soloing over chord changes. If you know the notes of the chords, you know what notes will work when you play over a specific one.
Major or Minor?
Thirdly, you can also try to be a little less specific and base them solely on the tonal qualities of the scale and the chord. It will take a bit more experimentation, but you can create some really cool ideas.
For example, since the Lydian mode retains a lot of major scale qualities, namely because of the major 3rd and 7th intervals, you could effectively use it over any major chord, provided that you’re at least in the right key.
Now, if you play an F-Lydian over a C-major chord, it still sounds very pretty, and also quite unique as well. The F note being played on top of a C-major chord turns it into a pleasant Cmajor-add11 chord.
Even if you aren’t playing all those notes personally, in the context of the entire music, if those notes are being played simultaneously, you are still creating a chord.
I think this is one of the most fun parts about modes, and I encourage you to play with them to see what interesting ideas you can come with.
At the end of the day, there are no rules in music – theory can make things demystified and help us take out a lot of the guesswork. If you like the sound of the mode you’re playing, you can do whatever you want with it.
You don’t even have to be in the right key – and many players have come up with incredible guitar licks that were atonal and technically not in key.
What’s most important is that you find your own voice, because this is what drives innovation.
Knowing the theory is useful, and I’ve provided some way to make the guitar modes work without fail, but try experimenting and bending the rules a bit too!
Learning the Modes In All Keys
In this article, we covered the modes based on the key of C major, but it doesn’t take much to learn the modes everywhere. They all follow the same rules and patterns that we covered, thankfully.
It will just require a little bit of thought, and with repetition, you can start to memorize things over time!
For instance, if you’re in the key of D major, and you wanted to play a Mixolydian mode, you can figure out that A-Mixolydian is the one that you need to use. You can list all of the notes out, and since you know that Mixolydian comes from the 5th scale degree, you would be able to quickly tell that A is the tonality that you need.
From here, you can use the shapes you learned today, or you can verbally list out the notes as you play. You can play the same note in many different places on the fretboard, and this fact alone means that there are several different ways you can play the same mode – there isn’t just one shape to pick from, which is why there are so many great scale books that guitarists can enjoy and learn a lot from.
Also, here is a cool poster chart on Amazon that you can reference that has all of the possible ways you can play a particular mode with a fretboard diagram alongside each of them. This can help you visualize things better, too, and see all of the directions you can go in, anywhere.
I also like that it has additional scales on it that you can study, as well. The harmonic minor is one of my personal favorites! The pentatonic and blues ones are quite essential, too; if you want to learn more about these, take a look at my guide to creating blues licks.
Hopefully, by reading this guide to the modes on the guitar, you have gained 7 new items in your bag of tricks. You never know when one of them will come in handy!
If you are interested in adding more to your arsenal of guitar concepts, I recommend checking out my article about exotic guitar scales where I talk about a few exciting ones that you implement right away.
As mentioned before, the modes originate from Ancient Greece, and they have an important role in Western music; however, there’s a whole different world out there when it comes to scales. The ideas from the East are unique and can be a game-changer in your guitar playing!
Please keep in touch for more music theory articles like this one and the others I have on my site. Music education can be quite powerful, and might just be what you need to keep your practicing and playing fresh and exciting.