Playing Modally

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!

This is an advanced lesson so do ensure you got the guitar conspiracy and at least the majority of beginner and intermediate songs under your belt, viewing these as numbers.

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

Since a mode is “a part of a scale” you can easily play modally over a diatonic progression like I – VI – II – V.

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.

Using the chordacus images below, can you see how there is an E shaped A chord and an E shaped Bb chord inside the A Phrygian Dominant scale?

A Prhygian Dominant, E shape

Summary

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!

-Guru

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6 thoughts on “Playing Modally

  1. Adao

    I just want to answer here because, I have studied recently one more cup of coffee.

    I understand the idea of saying why not playing the C major scale, as the song is in the key of C actually (the progression VI – V – IV – IIIx e.g Am – G – F – E has C has the “root”).
    Even though, each note you will play in this C major scale will be heard over one chord of the song that is being played. This combination gives us a particular feeling (without considering the progression between chords yet !)

    I guess you are ok to say that if you play the C note, it corresponds to the 3m of Am chord, the 5th of F chord. Over the the G chord, it is a 4th and it gives a particular combination I call the Mixolydian effect. Over the E chord it’s a b6th and it contributes to the Phrygian Dominant.
    sounding.

    (We find here the same idea of two major chord from one semi tone each other giving the lydian and phrygian dominant modes)

    Of course the effects is better heard with successive notes played over the chord.

    So yes, when you play only notes of C Major scale, you will play notes that are inside different chord modes of the song.

    This works well in this song by the way.
    The example of All I Wanna Do is good for me because it showed me that it is not always that simple, you can create various feelings by choosing a different mode than the natural one if I well understood (playing an mixolydian instead of aeolian for example and gives us the feeling to be in the key of Bb, doesn’t it?) .

    By the way, I also understand that saying “play in C major scale” has nothing to do with playing modes even if it is an option for soloing.

    1. Guru Post author

      Very well said Adao.

      The reason people think you can only play in minor or major is because of the sharps and flats at the beginning of a score.

      So four flats and you think, ah, it’s Ab major or Fm.

      But in a song that use only the chords Eb7 (V) and Db (IV), like Stevie wonders version of We Can Work It Out, for example, this is off course impossible!

      I have had many established musicians pretty wound up about this stuff!

      What I’m trying to say here is that: just because a beginning of a score has a certain amounts of sharps and flats and this could mean a key signature, that is not the full story.

      It’s much more simple and complicated than that!

  2. Adao

    Oh gosh ! Made me 2 hours to understand after having written all shapes on my note book ! (don’t worry guys, it’s normal I don’t really master modes yet !)
    I didn’t understand why the question “how it is E major and E minor.”
    Now I get it ! When you don’t “speak” modes, you say : “over the progression E C D, just play E major on the first bar, E minor all the second bar long”

    1. Guru Post author

      That’s it, that’s the shortcut everyone is doing!

      It’s because teachers wants to give students something that instantly works.

      But it’s really bad in the long run. You’ll never get it since you are taking a short cut.

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