What do people mean when they say play modally?
Following on from my last blog about Guthrie Govan scales I’d like to clear a few things up about what it means to “play modally”.
I see a lot of communication breakdown over this so I thought I’d share some light on what playing modally is but also what guitar players might think it is!
The majority of this lesson focus on a chord progression using an x chord.
But before we go there, let’s first examine a few misconceptions.
So what does it mean, how do guitar players refer to it and more importantly; how do you play modally?
The correct way
When you play over chord I you think of all notes as intervals in relation to I, let’s say we are in the key of E.
E – F#m – G#m – A – B – C#m – D#m7b5.
So over chord I, you play the note C#, you are playing a 6th interval, it will sound like a 6th over chord I.
Next up, the VI chord, let’s say you play the note F# now. If you are thinking modally this is now a 4th interval in relation to the C# root, not the 2nd interval in relation to E.
Over the II chord, let’s say you play an A, this is now a m3rd in relation to F#.
Over chord V, let’s play a B, this is now the root.
Let’s stay in major
Should you not think modally, but as if everything is from the major scale then the notes you played would have been C# (6th) F# (2nd) A (4th) B (5th).
With all this in mind it would be fair to say that you are always playing modally since intervals are heard in relation to the chord for the listener, whether you are aware of this or not.
Playing modally in guitar land
But hang on, this is not how most guitar tutors describe playing modally, they either use a drone as they loop over two chords like: F#m7 – G#m7/F# or they play two chords in a bar: F#m7 – B7 and blanket solo with a mode, in both these cases F# Dorian.
So the question isn’t really what does it mean to play modally…
The question is, what do you mean when you say play modally?
And more importantly, can you do it?
Outside the key
Let’s take another example. All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crow is a great example of a song that clearly use modes.
First of all, the song use a modal interchange, it manipulates a chord, tricking us to think we are on a different degree of the scale.
The progression take the classic VI – IV – V but change the VI from minor into major:
VIx – IV – V or E – C – D.
If you try modes over the three chords you will soon find how Mixolydian works well over two chords and Lydian over one.
When you established such details you can see how the progression is VIx (E Mixolydian) – IV (C Lydian) V (D Mixolydian).
All I Wanna Do is Phrygian Dominant
As the bridge section enters we move to Bb – A on a loop, two major chord a semitone apart is for the modal scale expert an indication that we are dealing with Lydian and Phrygian Dominant.
Sure, it would have made more theoretical sense if these two chords were A – G#, rather than a semi tone up as Bb – A, it still however is a fact that two major chords a semi apart does spell Phrygian Dominant, try it to find out for yourself.
Now I ask you to consider what is more modal playing;
1. When you change scale every time the chord changes, treating each individual chord as a degree of the scale.
2. Playing a blanket scale using all 7 notes of for example Dorian over II – V or II – III/II?
Have a think about which is more correct and then realize that the reason so many arguments and misunderstandings appear is because, in fact, both are correct!
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