Play Any Mode In Any Key – Easily!

Photo by Dan Coplan

Modes are both fascinating and totally confusing. I could go on for days about modal theory but this article is more about fun and giving you a taste of what modes sound like and how to play them. First, a basic introduction.

A scale is a series of notes, arranged by pitch, that starts at the root note (also known as the tonal center) and ascends or descends to its octave. Using A major as an example, an ascending scale looks like this:

A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A

A mode is similar to a scale in that it’s a series of notes, arranged by pitch, that starts at a root and ascends or descends to its octave. Rather than the root note being the first note of a major scale, however, a different note is used as the root. If you choose the 2nd note, which is B, and ascend the scale using the exact same notes as the A major scale, you get the Dorian mode – the 2nd mode of the series of seven (one mode per note). A major is the first mode (in this particular example) and is referred to as the Ionian mode. Dorian is the second mode and in this case is called “B Dorian”:

B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B

Start the scale using the 3rd note of A major which is C#. Guess what? Now you’re playing C# Phrygian:

C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#

Here’s the breakdown of modes for the A major scale. By the way, A major is also a mode. It’s called Ionian.

Ionian: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A

Dorian: B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B

Phrygian: C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#

Lydian: D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D

Mixolydian: E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D – E

Aeolian: F# – G# – A – B – C# – D – E – F#

Locrian: G# – A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#

If you play through each of these modes you’ll notice that even though they’re all based on the A major scale, they sound very different. You’ll have a tendency to want to resolve, or gravitate to the A note, but it’s important to emphasize the root note for each mode. This is what defines its character and this is what’s so cool about modes – they can broaden your musical spectrum.

Ok, so how do you learn to play these easily in any key? Most people are taught to start on the note of the major scale associated with the mode they want to play. Continuing with our A major example, if you want to play Mixolydian (E Mixolydian – refer back to the chart above), you can simply count up the A major scale until you hit E and start the scale there. Totally valid. But it requires having to find the E note within the A scale, which is time consuming, and may put you on an awkward finger to start and on a higher string which can limit your scale run. Once you learn the method I’m about to show you, you’ll be able to bang out any mode in any key as quickly as you can find the root note on the 6th string. You can actually start scales anywhere on the fretboard but by starting on the 6th string it will make it easier for you to memorize these patterns and you get the benefit of playing a full range from the lowest string to the highest.

There are three simple patterns used to play any mode based on a major scale. Using the first fret only as a guide, these patterns are as follows:
Pattern A = 1st fret – 3rd fret – 5th fret
Pattern B = 2nd fret – 3rd fret – 5th fret
Pattern C = 2nd fret – 4th fret – 5th fret

These patterns follow three simple rules as you ascend:

1) The order in which the patterns are played is: A – A – A – B – B – C – C. The starting point in this sequence will change for each mode, but the order stays the same even as it cycles around.

2) When you play the first B pattern, slide your finger up one fret.

3) When you reach the B string, slide your finger up one fret.

Here are the seven modes illustrated by their associated patterns:
Ionian: A – A – B – B – C – C
Dorian: C – A – A – A – B – B
Phrygian: B – C – C – A – A – A
Lydian: A – B – B – C – C – A
Mixolydian: A – A – A – B – B – C
Aeolian: C – C – A – A – A – B
Locrian: B – B – C – C – A – A

Continuing with our previous examples, play the A major, or A Ionian, scale. Referring to the chart above, the sequence for this is:

A – A – B – B – C – C

Each of these patterns is played three notes per string:

6th string: 5 – 7 – 9
5th string: 5 – 7 – 9

4th string: 6 – 7 – 9 (Rule #2 – this is the first B pattern so start on 6 rather than 5)
3rd string: 6 – 7 – 9
2nd string: 7 – 9 – 10 (Rule #3 – this is the B string so slide up another fret)
1st string: 7 – 9 – 10

Moving up one note to start on B as the root within A major, is B Dorian. Again referring to the chart above, the sequence for this is:

C – A – A – A – B – B

Starting on the 7th fret (B), the notes are as follows:

6: 7 – 9 – 10
5: 7 – 9 – 11
4: 7 – 9 – 11
3: 7 – 9 – 11

2: 9 – 10 – 12 (Tricky! Rule #2 – this is the first B pattern so start on 8 rather than 7, but also Rule #3 – this is the B string so slide up another fret to 9. This is the only pattern where the two rules apply at the same time)

1: 9 – 10 – 12

You now have a good dose of knowledge to go crazy with modes. Modal theory is logical, but it can get deep and mind-numbing. With this lesson you should be able to play through every mode and have some fun without getting bogged down by all the theory.

I’ve included simple backing tracks below so you can get a feel for what these modes sound like. As you listen to each one, play simple scale runs up and down along with the chords and always emphasize and end on the root note – this is important in getting a feel for each mode’s character.

 

A Ionian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/01_AIonian.mp3|titles=01_AIonian]
B Dorian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/02_BDorian.mp3|titles=02_BDorian]
C# Phrygian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/03_CPhrygian.mp3|titles=03_C#Phrygian]
D Lydian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/04_DLydian.mp3|titles=04_DLydian]
E Mixolydian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/05_EMixolydian.mp3|titles=05_EMixolydian]
F# Aeolian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/06_FAeolian.mp3|titles=06_F#Aeolian]
G# Locrian [audio:http://blog.sharemyguitar.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/07_GLocrian.mp3|titles=07_G#Locrian]

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  • great post Dan… thanks for taking the time to outline this killer info!

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