Let’s find out what a mode is!
One of the most common questions a guitar player ask themselves and others is: What is a mode? Before we start practising the modes, it makes sense to first answer this question.
A mode is a section of a scale or a new starting point of a scale. Let’s look at the major scale:
The formula for the major scale is: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
The formula in itself doesn’t mean much unless we understand the intervals between the numbers.
T stands for tone (two frets) and S stands for semitone (one fret)
T T T T T
It’s the relationship between the numbers (tone or semitone) that makes the sound of the scale.
Here’s what it looks like in an E shape on the guitar. The key is C but that’s not important, focus on the intervals and what the shape looks like.
A mode is a different starting point of the scale so let’s look at the second mode, Dorian
T T T T
As you can see, the distance between the notes has changed. Still the notes are the same, compare this chordcus image of a Gm shaped D Dorian scale, to the one of C Ionian above.
If we never resolve to the I chord, we will feel as if the second degree of the scale is now our home, where we feel content to end the song. What we play can now be referred to as ‘playing in Dorian‘.
All modes work in the same way!
What I described using Dorian as an example above is true for all other modes.
Should we see the sixth degree of the scale as our “home” then we would play in Aeolian. Looks like this in Chordacus, still, the notes are the same, it’s the starting point that has changed.
In order to master any instrument you have to be able to zoom in on modes like this as a chord progression moves on.
How do I use the modes?
If you know all your modal shapes well enough you can use them when you improvise or write music.
When the chord is II, you focus on Dorian over that chord, pick out strong intervals and phrase as if chord II was your home.
If the next chord is chord VI, then you switch to Aeolian and phrase around this chord as your home.
Hear chords as numbers and modes!
Imagine that the I chord is the sun and all other chords (II-VII) are planets surrounding the sun/I chord.
All planets will have a different sound. Moving to “planet” V will have a strong pull towards the sun.
“Planet III” will sound more aggressive than “planet” VI etc. Every time we visit one of these “planets” we are in that mode.
Whatever melody we create will always be in relation to that chord.
Musical harmony is all about relationships between the melody and the chord that supports it, change the chord but not the melody and the melody will feel different.
Let’s say we are in the key of C and we play the note E.
- Over the C chord, this is the 3rd, the note will feel more adventurous than the root but less than the 7th.
- Over an Em, however, the E is the most “rested” note.
Understanding the modes simply mean understanding the intervals in relation to the chord being played.
Modes on the guitar
To learn modes on the guitar can be tricky business. For many years, schools and books have been teaching modes as positions on the neck, as fragments of the same scale.
On the piano, this makes complete sense since all notes are laid out in a row on a piano.
However, on the guitar, this is completely pointless since there is in this way no obvious relationship between the intervals and the chord, just a lot of scale shapes to memorise.
After studying guitar for 20 years the penny dropped for me when I saw the relationship between the pentatonic scales being applied using the concept of new chord = new scale by Jimi Hendrix.
Pair this with the fact that the only thing separating the pentatonic scale from the modes are two notes and the concept of the pentatonic modes was beginning to take shape.
In full use, you can with this system, choose if you want to play the pentatonic scale, the arpeggio or the correct mode over the chord being played.
Since all chords, arpeggios, pentatonic scales and modes can be arranged around the same ten chord shapes this is not as difficult as it may first seem, all you have to know is the intervals.
Well, it’s not you who need to learn them, it’s your hands.
All the minor and major modes can be created from the pentatonic scales by adding just two notes. It’s the 2nd and 6th in minor, the 4th and 7th in major.
Not only is this without a doubt the easiest way to learn all the modes, it is also the only way that will make complete musical sense.
Here’s a flow chart of how all this works.
||4 + 7
|| 2 + 6
||b2 + b6
||#4 + 7
||4 + b7
||2 + b6
To understand this, to teach your hands these modes, you need step by step instructions and real song examples.
Take the advanced course and you too can learn how to play, write and improvise with modes.