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Modal Theory for Guitar Players - Part 1


The fact that you are holding this in your hands suggests that you have got to the point in your explorations of, and curiosity about the guitar that the next step is the modes. Maybe it's because you have read somewhere that Steve Vai loves the Lydian mode, or you have listened to music by Frank Gambale and wondered what he was up to. Whatever the reason, the material you have here should set you on the road to opening up new ways to express yourself, to get different sounds into your melodies and harmonies.

First off you need to know that this material alone will not have you ripping exotic solos up and down the fret board, smoke and fire on your fingertips. It will take the same process and work that has brought you your level of chops with the pentatonic, major and minor scales, arpeggios and your own licks. What it will do is give you the information you need, and the backing tracks so that you can practice and familiarise yourself with the patterns of the modes, and get used to the sounds.

Ultimately it's down to the time you put in and your motivation to go beyond what you find within these pages. But if you're serious about learning the modes, you knew that already. Anyone promising you a quick fix, whether conscious or subconscious, is at the very least pulling your leg.

The second thing you need to know is that a certain facility and knowledge is assumed. If you find yourself flailing in a sea of non-comprehension it is hopefully only because you're not ready to move on to this stage of learning, and you need to tuck this back under the bed and give yourself a little more time with the basics. You could ignore the theory section altogether. It's up to you what you want to do with this now it's yours, but hopefully, if you do ignore it now, perhaps you will come back to it and then it should make some sense and help you with other aspects of using the modes.

Let's start with the good news. There are 7 modes built on the major scale and you already know two of them. The major scale is a mode itself, called the Ionian, and the minor scale is another mode, called the Aeolian. So, more than a quarter of the work is done. If you thought that getting to grips with those two scales wasn't too complicated, then you should get on fine with the other material here. If you are in a state of experience where playing the major and minor scales in 5 positions on the guitar neck, in any key, is not something that you are familiar or comfortable with, back this goes under the bed. Although both of these modes will be covered you really should be worrying about the basics at this point. Any half way decent book about playing the guitar, or song writing, should provide you with the information to get these two modes under your fingers. For the rest of you, let's go.

The Modes

Before we get to anything even remotely like playing a scale, we need to have a think about the theory to understand where these modes come from. It is not essential to understand this to learn the modes, you could just learn the patterns, but, knowing some of the theory should help you to know when the modes could be employed, why they sound different etc. There are seven modes, named Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The reason why there are seven modes is because each mode is built on a different tone of the major scale and there are 7 different tones in the major scale. If we take the scale of C Major as an example, so we don't have to worry about sharps and flats, this should be clearer.

As you are probably aware, the C Major scale consists of the following tones:


If we think of the major scale as a mode, then what we are saying is that if we start on the tone C, and then play all seven tones of the C Major scale, we are playing C Ionian. The same is true for any other major scale. If you start on the tone B and play all 7 tones which make up the B Major scale, you have played B Ionian.

Another way to think of this is to consider the way in which this scale is constructed. All major scales are constructed with the same distance between pairs of tones. Again, considering the C Major scale, the distances between the pairs of notes is:

Note Pair.......Tone distance............Fret distance

C to D..........a whole tone (T)...........i.e., 2 frets)

D to E..........a whole tone (T)..........(i.e., 2 frets)

E to F..........a semi-tone (S)...........(i.e., 1 fret)

F to G..........a whole tone (T)..........(i.e., 2 frets)

G to A..........a whole tone (T)..........(i.e., 2 frets)

A to B..........a whole tone (T)..........(i.e., 2 frets)

B to C..........a semi-tone (S)...........(i.e., 1 fret)

So, we could say that the structure of any major scale, or Ionian mode, is


We can check this. You should check this on your guitar neck to convince yourself that it is true, but here we'll do it on paper. Let's say we want to construct the G Major scale.

Knowing that all major scales are constructed using the formula T T S T T T S, and starting on G we would get the following:

G up a whole tone to A

A up a whole tone to B

B up a semi-tone to C

C up a whole tone to D

D up a whole tone to E

E up a whole tone to F#

F# up a semi-tone to G

Producing the scale

G A B C D E F#

Do this with other major scales just to check that there's no trickery here. If you didn't know that the G Major scale has an F# in it, back under the bed this goes and find a theory book!

Ok, so we can think of the Ionian (from now on the Major scale will always be referred to as the Ionian, as we are thinking in modes here) as having a particular structure. The next theoretical step we'll take is to build the other modes on the notes of the Ionian, and then look at their structures in exactly the same way. Taking C Ionian again, and only using the tones of this mode, consider the following.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on C


We are playing C Ionian.

Now we'll look at the other modes, remembering that as we are building them on the tones from C Ionian, these are the only tones we can use, i.e., C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on D,


We are playing D Dorian.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on E,


We are playing E Phrygian.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on F,


We are playing F Lydian.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on G,


We are playing G Mixolydian.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on A,


We are playing A Aeolian, also known as the minor scale, which you know.

If we take all the notes from C Ionian, and only those notes, and we start on B,


We are playing B Locrian.

If you know your Ionian modes, then you will have instantly seen that the scales we are producing in this way are not the same as the Ionian modes you know. For example, the G Mixolydian we have built does not have an F#, which the G Ionian does and the F Lydian we have built does not have a Bb in it, which the F Ionian does.

Noticing these differences means you have noticed one of the key aspects of the modes. The reason why, for example G Mixolydian does not sound like G Ionian is because the relationship between the notes has changed, the pattern of tones and semi-tones between the notes has changed and as such the tones in the scale are different. These changes in the relationships are what give the modes their characteristic sounds and determine why they can be used in some instances, and not in others. But more of that later.

You could now start comparing some of your modes. For example, you could play a D Ionian, and then play D Dorian and compare the sounds. You'll probably hear that your Dorian sounds slightly more 'minor'. Part of the work you need to find time to do is to start to hear these differences, but when we get to the playing part of this package you'll be doing that anyway, so just hold on one moment. The next thing we will do is look at the structures of each of the modes, again using as our base example C Ionian. Below you will find each of the 7 modes built on C, starting with C Ionian, the others built on the tones which make up the C Ionian mode (C, D, E, F, G, A, B).

Starting Tone.....Mode Name.....Mode Notes...Mode Structure

C,.....................C Ionian........CDEFGABC......T T S T T T S

D,.....................D Dorian........DEFGABCD......T S T T T S T

E,.....................E Phrygian......EFGABCDE......S T T T S T T

F,.....................F Lydian........FGABCDEF......T T T S T T S

G,.....................G Mixolydian....GABCDEFG......T T S T T S T

A,.....................A Aeolian.......ABCDEFGA......T S T T S T T

B,.....................B Locrian.......BCDEFGAB......S T T S T T T

As you can probably see, each of the modes has its own, unique structure of tone and semi-tones between notes in the scale. What this means is that if you learn, for example, that the Locrian mode is constructed by spacing notes according to the formula of S T T S T T T, you can play the the Locrian mode in any key by choosing your start note, and then building the scale according to this formula.

One final way we can think of the modes shows very clearly how each mode differs from its own Ionian mode. Again, taking as our basis the C Ionian, we will number each of the notes in the C Ionian scale, as below.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Now, we will look at the modes based on C Ionian, and show how each mode differs.

D Dorian



This merely means that D Dorian differs from D Ionian by the third degree of the scale and the seventh degree of the scale being flattened. So, whereas in D Ionian the scale has an F# and a C#, D Dorian has an F and a C. We'll look at the other modes in the same manner.

E Phrygian



F Lydian



G Mixolydian



A Aeolian



B Locrian



What the previous list demonstrated is how each of these modes differs from the Ionian mode starting on the same root node. So, for example, A Aeolian differs from A Ionian by the third, sixth, and seventh degree of the Ionian mode being flattened. Once again, you could learn how the individual modes differ from their Ionian modes and alter the way you play the Ionian to take account of this.

By now you have probably got a bit of an ache in your head from all this theory. It's not crucial at this stage that you have got all of this committed to memory and have it all worked out. Give it a little time, and when you have had a chance to get a bit of modal playing done, you can pick the ones that you like, or that fit your style, and then just get your head around those ones.

This is end of the main theoretical section. Bits will creep in, or will seem to creep in when we look at chords for each of the modes, but really, as long as you have a basic understanding of music it shouldn't be any more troublesome than what you've been through already. I hope.

Feedback welcome.

Guitarist and therapist:,, though not necessarily in that order, and not exclusively either.

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