Get Creative with 7 Types of Guitar Modes

Curious about the types of guitar modes? Learn their unique sounds and patterns; and how to use them in your playing. Elevate your guitar journey!

Types of Guitar Modes

Breaking the Mold of a Major Scale

The major scale is undoubtedly one of the most foundational and widely used scales. Its cheerful and bright character has been the backbone of countless melodies and harmonies across various genres.

It’s basic and the first scale we all learn on guitar, but there’s more to it than just the standard diatonic structure.

Major Scale Recap

If you’re new to music theory, I highly recommend reading the following articles to lay a solid foundation:

The structure of a Major Scale follows a specific pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H).

The formula for a Major Scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H, where W represents a whole step (two frets on the guitar), and H represents a half step (one fret on the guitar). These “steps” are note intervals representing the gap or distance between two pitches or notes. 

Learn Modes on Guitar

  • Note intervals are typically measured in terms of semitones or half steps. In Western music, a half step corresponds to one fret on a guitar or one piano key, and a whole step is equivalent to two half steps or two semitones.

Starting from any note, applying this sequence of intervals generates the seven unique notes that constitute the scale.

For example, let’s take the C Major Scale:

  • Major Scale Interval: W – W – H – W – W – W – H
  • C Major Scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

From C, we move up a whole step to D, another whole step to E, a half step to F, a whole step to G, another whole step to A, a final whole step to B, and complete the octave by moving half step to the higher C.

Here are the notes of ‘C Major Scale’ across all six strings of the guitar:

String NamesFret NumberNotes
e7, 8, 10B, C, D
B8, 10G, A
G7, 9, 10D, E, F
D7, 9, 10A, B, C
A7, 8, 10E, F, G
E7, 8, 10B, C, D

In this lesson, we’ll use the major scale pattern as the foundation for exploring different modes.

7 Modes of a Major Scale

The Major Scale forms the basis for establishing keys in music. Each note within the scale functions as the tonic or root of a specific key, and understanding this relationship is crucial for playing modes.

Musicians often venture beyond the traditional confines of the major scale to explore the depth of musical expression and creativity.

Modes are variations of a parent scale, sharing the same set of notes.

The parent scale is usually the major scale or natural minor scale. Each mode starts from a different degree of the parent scale, retaining the major scale’s framework but altering the starting note, resulting in distinct flavors and moods. By doing so, musicians can infuse their compositions with unique colors, emotions, and a touch of the unexpected. 

Yes, modes are different moods created on a scale!

They still share the same key signature as their parent major scale. This means they have the same sharps or flats, but the starting note and interval sequence give each mode a unique mood and sound.

Here is the list of guitar modes and their respective order:

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

Memorizing the order of the modes can be incredibly useful in playing guitar modes. To make it easier, try using this catchy mnemonic to recall the names and order of the modes.

  • I Don’t Play Like My Aunt Lucy

Diving Deep into Different Types of Guitar Modes

We all know the major scale for its happy and uplifting tone, but it’s just the beginning. From the major scale, different unique modes can be created, each with its distinct flavor and emotional character.

Let’s kick things off by exploring the sounds of these modes.

Guitar Mode #1: Ionian (Major Scale)

The Ionian mode is the standard major scale, starting from the first degree of the major scale.

👉 It has a bright and uplifting quality, forming the foundation of many popular songs and melodies. This mode also carries a heroic sound, often associated with marches and fanfare.

Guitar Mode #2: Dorian

Starting from the second degree of the major scale, the Dorian mode features a unique blend of minor and major qualities.

👉 It has a more soulful and bluesy sound, often used in blues, jazz, rock, and funk music. The mood is a bit sad or slightly melancholic, yet it carries a cheerful and hopeful sound. It is the brightest among the minor modes.

Guitar Mode #3: Phrygian

The Phrygian mode begins on the third degree of the major scale and has a distinct Spanish or exotic flavor.

👉 It is characterized by its dark and mysterious sound, often associated with flamenco and metal genres. Phrygian mode also finds its place in neoclassical, jazz, and film-scoring music.

Guitar Mode #4: Lydian

Starting from the fourth degree of the major scale, the Lydian mode has a dreamy and ethereal quality. It features a raised fourth degree, creating a sense of tension and wonder.

👉 The Lydian mode offers a cheerful and airy feel, evoking joy and a sense of hope. It carries a touch of heroism and a celestial quality that uplifts the listener’s spirits.

Guitar Mode #5: Mixolydian

The Mixolydian mode begins on the fifth degree of the major scale.

👉 It has a bluesy and rock-like feel, often used in rock, blues, and country music. The Mixolydian mode can be thought of as a major scale with a lowered seventh degree, lending it a distinctive flavor that results in a cheerful with a hint of tension.

Guitar Mode #6: Aeolian Mode (Natural Minor Scale)

The Aeolian mode starts from the sixth degree of the major scale. It is the natural minor scale and has a melancholic and introspective sound.

👉 The unique qualities of the Aeolian Mode, particularly its lowered sixth and third notes, create distinct sounds of sadness and longing. Compared to the Dorian mode, it sounds darker and more minor.

Guitar Mode #7: Locrian

The Locrian mode begins on the seventh degree of the major scale.

👉 The most dissonant and unstable mode, rarely used in traditional tonal music, is the Locrian mode. It carries a distinct, hard-to-define sound that’s dark, unresolved, and somewhat unusual due to its unique interval combination.

Exploring Mode Sounds via Chord Quality

Modes revolve around the chords you’re playing over, not the starting note. If you know the chord qualities of a scale, you will be able to identify the sound of a mode more quickly.

  • 3 Major chords, 3 Minor chords, 1 Diminished chord

Chord Qualities of Guitar Modes

  • Major – Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian
  • Minor – Phrygian, Aeolian, Dorian
  • Diminished –  Locrian

Our emphasis on grasping the sound of modes initially serves a purpose: it helps you grasp the “why” behind learning and using modes. 

Understanding the sound of guitar modes aids in discerning the mood of the music you’re listening to and guides you in cultivating the desired emotional atmosphere when creating your music.

Why should we learn modes, and how can we effectively use them? This approach will also enhance your ability to identify modes within songs or progressions.

Now that we know the sounds, let’s explore how to form them.

How to Build Modes from the Major Scale?

It’s simple! Just start from a different degree in the major scale and treat it as the tonal center.

Major Scale IntervalsWWHWWWH
DegreesI – 1stii – 2ndiii – 3rdIV – 4thV – 5thvi – 6thvii° – 7th
Soundcheerful, playful, joyfulmelancholic, hopefuldark, mysterious, exoticcheerful, airy feel, sense of wonder, celestialcheerful with a hint of tensiondarker, sad, longingdark, unstable, unresolved
C Major ScaleCDEFGAB
Chords /Tonal CenterCDmEmFGAmor Bdim

Relative vs. Parallel Perspective

When it comes to mastering guitar modes, there are two perspectives to consider: the relative and parallel approaches. You might have encountered these concepts in other lessons and video tutorials.

Guitar Modes

The good news? There’s no need for confusion. They simply present two different ways of learning modes.

1. Relative Modes – Same Key Signature, Same Notes

  • Ionian – W W H W W W H
  • Dorian – W H W W W H W
  • Phrygian – H W W W H W W
  • Lydian – W W W H W W H
  • Mixolydian – W W H W W H W
  • Aeolian – W H W W H W W
  • Locrian – H W W H W W W

The modes within the C Major Scale:

  • IonianCDEFGABC (1st mode, actually major scale)
  • DorianDEFGABCD (2nd mode, start from 2nd note)
  • PhrygianEFGABCDE (3rd mode, start from 3rd note)
  • LydianFGABCDEF (4th mode, start from 4th note)
  • MixolydianGABCDEFG (5th mode, start from 5th note)
  • AeolianABCDEFGA (6th mode, start from 6th note)
  • LocrianBCDEFGAB = (7th mode, start from 7th note)

Key of C: Tonic Chords

As modes revolve around the chords you play over, these chords represent the tonal center within a key and their corresponding modes.

  • IonianC
  • DorianDm
  • PhrygianEm
  • LydianF
  • MixolydianG
  • AeolianAm
  • Locrian or Bdim

2. Parallel Modes – Same Root Note, Different Parent Key

C Ionian – C Dorian – C Phrygian – C Lydian – C Mixolydian – C Aeolian – C Locrian

  • Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6- 7 (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

Difference Between Relative and Parallel Modes

Relative modes and parallel modes are two distinct ways of approaching and utilizing the various modes within a given scale.

  • Relative modes are derived from the same parent scale, sharing the same set of notes but starting from a different degree of the scale. In this approach, the tonal center remains constant, providing a familiar and consistent foundation.
  • Parallel modes involve shifting the entire mode to a new starting point while maintaining the same intervals. This results in a change of both the tonal center and set of notes.

Imagine you’re playing the Relative Dorian of the C Major scale. Using the exact “Relative Dorian” interval pattern (W, H, W, W, W, H, W), move it to start from the C note (the root note) instead of D.

C Major Scale

  • Notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  • Interval pattern: W, W, H, W, W, W, H

👉 Relative Dorian Mode of C Major Scale

  • Notes: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  • Interval pattern: W, H, W, W, W, H, W

👉 Parallel C Dorian Scale

  • Notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
  • Interval pattern: W, H, W, W, W, H, W

In Parallel C Dorian, two notes differ from Relative Dorian of C, causing a distinct shift in mood.

How to Play Modes on Guitar?

When working with modes, we’ll focus on a modal chord progression approach. In this method, one degree of the parent scale is chosen as the tonic.

Initially, we often focus solely on the key of a song, associating its sound with whether it’s major or minor. However, modes introduce a new dimension. Even within a major key, we can experience a spectrum of major and minor tonalities, adding diverse colors to the musical palette.

Therefore, if you encounter a chord progression in a major key that carries a minor sound or feeling,  a specific mode is likely at play within the song. When jamming with a band, you have the flexibility to craft a modal chord progression that aligns with the mode you intend to convey.

Adding Flavor to Your Playing

The goal of guitar modes is to express a more defined emotion in a song or musical piece with the different levels of major and minor sounds it can create.

This allows you to evoke nuanced emotions such as a mix of happiness and sadness, a melancholic yet hopeful sentiment, or even explore deep and darker realms. The versatility of modes empowers you to chart a more specific emotional path you wish to tread.

You can begin by experimenting with relative modes, and later delve into the enriched palette of parallel modes.

Ready to infuse your music with a rich tapestry of emotions? Elevate your musical storytelling today!

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