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What Are Guitar Modes - All Types, History, Putting To Practice

If you're a guitar player, you've most likely heard or read about guitar modes. 

We're talking about seven different scales which you can implement in your music in order to create different moods.

So, What Are Guitar Modes?

Well, the term itself "guitar modes" is a bit redundant. If you've heard it, you should know that modes are modes. However, the expression may refer to modes and how they're approached on the guitar.

In a nutshell, modes can be thought of as "scales within a scale".

Modes are essentially scales that have different characteristics or "moods." We can define them as scales derived from the major scale. Instead of going from the 1st note and an octave up, you start from the 2nd, or 3rd, or any other degree.

History of Guitar Modes

However, modes might be a bit tricky to fully understand from the perspective of modern music. Modes, as we know them today, come from Ancient Greece.

Back then, there were concepts of keys in music like we have today. Instead, different emotions and moods in music were achieved using several different types of scales. Basically, we can say that they had several different keys instead of just two.

The tradition of modes was then continued during medieval times, so we had church modes. As the centuries went by, things were standardized and we finally got more "order," making things easier to learn. When you mention modes, or guitar modes, it refers to seven modern modes which are derived from the natural major scale.

What Are They Named After?

The word "mode" itself comes from the Latin "modus." It has several different meanings, but it roughly translates to "standard" or "measure" or "manner." As for the seven modes of modern music, these are:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

As you might notice, all of these modes have Greek names. The modern music modes were named after the old Greek modes.

However, there's not much similarity between the old and modern music modes. Some argue that they were named after certain regions.

But the truth is that the medieval music theorists just took these old names and adapted them according to what they thought sounded good. Eventually, it transferred to modern music theory, and we just know these modes under some of the old Greek names.

How to Memorize Guitar Modes?

Okay, so this seems a bit complicated at first, right? Even if you get it, you'll still have a hard time memorizing every mode. And there are two aspects about them that you need to memorize – the theoretic part and the practical part, or how you would play it on your guitar.

It does seem like a lot of new information. However, there are two ways for both theoretical and practical aspects to memorize them. The first one is memorizing the distribution of whole steps and half-steps. Below, you can find a diagram presenting every mode and the distribution of half steps and whole steps. ("W" = whole, "H" = half)

Then the second way to memorize them is to think of the 7th chords that they make. On the guitar, you can easily memorize the arpeggio shapes and then go on from there by adding other notes to it.

Below, you can find a list of all the modes and the 7th chords, or 7th arpeggios, that they build, starting from their root notes.

  • Ionian – Major 7
  • Dorian – Minor 7
  • Phrygian – Minor 7
  • Lydian – Major 7
  • Mixolydian – Dominant 7
  • Aeolian – Minor 7
  • Locrian – Half-diminished 7


Building Guitar Modes

There are seven different modes, and each of them can be made if you start from a different note of a major scale. In modern music, the usual practice is to look at everything from the perspective of a major scale.

You need a specific mode with a specific root note, so you just modify the major scale in order to form it.

How Modes Are Built From the Major Scale

There are two ways how you can build modes from the major scale. The first way, which is considered to be simpler, is that you just start from a different degree in the major scale and essentially use it as the root note. So this is basically how it goes:

  • Ionian – Starts from the first degree of the major scale. It's same as the major scale.
  • Dorian – Starts from the second degree
  • Phrygian – Starts from the third degree
  • Lydian – Starts from the fourth degree
  • Mixolydian – Starts from the fifth degree
  • Aeolian – Starts from the sixth degree. It's practically the same as the        parallel minor scale.
  • Locrian – Starts from the seventh degree

Modifying the Major Scale

Although it might seem a bit more complicated to beginners or intermediate musicians, creating modes by modifying the major scale is actually the easier way. If we're talking about the practical aspect of it, it's much simpler to implement modes in your own music if you do it this way.

So what you need to do is regard every mode as a modification of the natural major scale.  You essentially know the structure of a major scale and add sharps or flats to certain degrees to turn it into a specific mode.

In order to get this right, you'll need to use numerical notation. No matter the key, each degree in the major scale is presented with a number from 1 to 7. You just add flats and sharps accordingly to get a different scale or a mode. Below, we have a list of all the modes created from the natural major scale:

·       Ionian – 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6- 7 (unaltered, the same as the major scale)

·       Dorian – 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6- b7

·       Phrygian – 1 - b2 - b3 - 4 - 5- b6 - b7

·       Lydian – 1 - 2 - 3 - #4 - 5 - 6- 7

·       Mixolydian – 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5- 6 - b7

·       Aeolian – 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 -b6 - b7 (the same as the natural minor scale)

·       Locrian – 1 - b2 - b3 - 4 - b5- b6 - b7

If it makes things easier for you, you can think of it in terms of a C major scale. Instead of writing "1 - 2 - 3 - 4- 5 - 6 - 7," you can write "C - D - E - F - G - A - B" and modify it that way.

Can We Build Modes From Other Scales?

When we're talking about modes, or guitar modes, we usually think of the natural major scale modes. However, we also have modes from the melodic minor and harmonic minor scales.

Melodic minor is like a "perfect blend" of the natural minor and natural major scales. It's essentially like a natural minor scale, only with its 6th and 7th degrees raised by one semitone. Or, even simpler, it's like a major scale with its 3rd degree lowered by one semitone. Presented numerically by modifying the major scale, it goes:

·       1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -7

Then we also have the harmonic minor, which is like a natural minor scale with its 7th degree raised by one semitone. If we're modifying the major scale, it goes:

·       1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7

Due to their completely different distribution of intervals, these scales not only sound different but also have their own set of modes. Below, you can find melodic minor and harmonic minor modes.

Melodic Minor Modes

·       Melodic minor: 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 -5 - 6 -7

·       Dorian b2 (or Prhygian ♮6): 1 - b2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -b7

·       Lydian augmented (Lydian #5): 1- 2 - 3 - #4 - #5 - 6 -7

·       Lydian dominant: 1 - 2 - 3 - #4- 5 - 6 -b7

·       Mixolydian b6: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 -5 - b6 -b7

·       Locrian ♮2 (Aeolocrian): 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - b5 - b6 -b7

·       Super Locrian (Altered scale): 1 - b2 - b3 - b4 - b5 - b6 -b7

Harmonic Minor Modes

Harmonic minor: 1- 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7

·       Locrian 13 (or Locrian natural 6th): 1 - b2 - b3 - 4 - b5 - 6 - b7

·       Ionian #5: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - #5 -6 - 7

·       Dorian #4: 1 - 2 - b3 - #4 - 5- 6 - b7

·       Phrygian dominant: 1 - b2 - 3 -4 - 5 - b6 - b7

·       Lydian #2: 1 - #2 - 3 - #4 - 5- 6 -7

·       Super Locrian bb7: 1 - b2 - b3- b4 - b5 - b6 - bb7


    Modes In Practice: How They Sound?

    But one of the most important things to consider is how these modes actually sound. Sure, if it's the first time you're reading about modes, you might think that they're all pretty much the major scale just played from different angles, right? Well, that's technically true, but using these modes in the right context and looking at them as scales completely changes their sound.

    Below, we have a list of all seven modes, along with adjectives that would describe their "mood" and notation with tabs. Bear in mind that these are all written with the C as the root note.

    Also, tabs are written in the 8th position, meaning that you start with your index finger on the 8th fret.


    How it sounds: Cheerful, playful


    How it sounds: Slightly melancholic, bluesy


    How it sounds: "Exotic," dark, sad


    How it sounds: Cheerful, "airy"


    How it sounds: Cheerful, slightly tense


    How it sounds: Melancholic, dark


    How it sounds: Dark, unresolved, weird

    Modes Ranked From the "Brightest" to the "Darkest"

    In some way, we can also rank modes going from the brightest-sounding to the darkest-sounding.

    The overall "spectrum" can be presented like this, going from the "brightest" to the "darkest" one: Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian

    Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian build major triads, which makes them sound more joyful.

    Dorian and Aeolian build a minor triad, although Dorian has a major 6th instead of a minor 6th interval, which makes it a bit more cheerful.

    The Phrygian mode also builds a minor chord, although having a minor 2nd interval, along with the minor 3rd and the minor 6th, makes it sound darker and somewhat tense.

    Finally, we have Locrian, which is kind of hard to define. It has a pretty unusual combination of intervals. This is especially due to its diminished 5th, in combination with the minor 6th, minor 2nd, and the minor 7th. It's really hard, almost impossible, to implement it in practice, but we'll get to that.


    Difference Between Guitar Scales and Guitar Modes

    Technically, from the practical perspective, these seven modes are scales. Yeah, music theory can be a bit confusing, but we'll try to keep things as simple and to the point here.

    Scales can be defined as a string of notes, each in correlation to one another. In some way, we're talking about the distribution of intervals (whole and half-steps in most cases) over a string of multiple notes. However, in terms of modern Western music theory, modes are technically variants of the major scale. 

    But in the practical sense, modes can be regarded as scales. In fact, you'll mostly be using them as alternatives to natural major and natural minor scales. 


    Implementing Guitar Modes In Practice: When to Use Each Mode?

    So while we're at it, we get to the main point of this discussion – using modes in practice. While the whole thing might seem pretty complex, it's actually pretty simple. There are two ways how you can implement them.

    Using Modes of the Scale and Key You're Playing In

    Let's present this with a simple practical example. If a song is in the key of C major or A minor, you can use C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian.

    Essentially, you're using the notes of the same major or minor scale that the key is in, but you're focusing on a particular set of notes.

    Implementing Modes According to The Chords They're Building

    This would probably be the best way to implement them. Modes can technically be used as minor or major scales. For instance, instead of the natural major (Ionian mode), you can use Lydian, or

    sometimes even Mixolydian. Instead of the minor scale (Aeolian mode), you can use Dorian or Phrygian. It's as simple as that.

    However, you'll first need to try them over a given chord progression and see how they sound like. Phrygian and Mixolydian can be a bit tricky to implement. Phrygian may sound too "tense" or "dark" for some settings. At the same time, Mixolydian is a dominant scale, meaning that it builds a dominant chord, and it can be a difficult one to implement in most major settings due to its minor 7th interval.

    Locrian: The Trickiest Mode

    Locrian is the odd one. You can't really use it in either major or minor settings. If you want to play in Locrian, you need to write a song entirely in the Locrian scale. Other than that, it may be used for brief passages, but nothing else.

    At the same time, it's really hard to write anything in Locrian mode. While it's certainly possible, it just sounds too weird to be used for modern music as we're used to. It sounds too "unresolved," and the music would feel as if there's no "closure" to it. 


    Modes in Popular Songs


    ·       Almost any song written in major key. Examples:

    ·       Ozzy Osborne – Crazy Train

    ·       Eric Johnson – Cliffs of Dover

    ·       The Beatles – Let It Be


    ·       Bee Gees – Staying Alive

    ·       Pink Floyd – Breather

    ·       AC/DC – Back in Black


    ·       Megadeth – Symphony of Destruction (the main riff)

    ·       Slayer – South of Heaven

    ·       Metallica – Whenever I may roam intro


    ·       Joe Satriani – Flying In A Blue Dream

    ·       Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

    ·       R.E.M. – Man on the Moon


    ·       AC/DC – Thunderstruck

    ·       Creedence Clearwater Revival –Fortunate Son

    ·       Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama


    Most of the songs written in minor keys.

    Some examples are:

    ·       Judas Priest – Breaking the Law

    ·       Black Sabbath – Children of the Grave

    ·       Guns n Roses – Nightrain


    ·       Björk – Army of Me

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    1 comment


      Awesome I should learned this back in school days

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