Relative Modes: Using the Modes to Learn the Entire Fretboard, Part 1


How does one begin to learn the entire fretboard? This is one of the most common questions posed by students learning the guitar and also one of the first things a good guitar instructor will tell you. So how does one take on a task of this magnitude? I found the best answer to this in learning the Modes of the Major scale. I believe that the three-note-per-string fingerings for each of the seven Modes presents an opportunity to learn the fretboard in the most straightforward and logical manner. Therefore, the first step in learning the fretboard involves memorizing the seven different Modes.

At this point we are not going to be using the Modes as actual Modes but as a way to extend the range of the Major and Natural Minor scales. Each of the seven Modes has a very distinct musical flavor and this will be covered in the next article which deals with Parallel Modes.

Tabs for the seven Modes of the Major scale:


As you can see, each of the scales fit together like pieces of a puzzle. For example if you took the first note of each, you would find yourself playing Ionian up the neck on the 6th string. If you took the second note, you would be playing Dorian etc.. Additionally, the first two notes on any given string are the 2nd and 3rd notes from the previous scale. It is important to note that when working on memorizing the scales, practice playing them both in different positions on the fretboard and from top to bottom so they are not fixed in only one position in our memory. It is also very useful to practice scales in patterns of 3s, 4s and with skipped notes. You can create endless exercises using these principles.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

After we completely memorize the 7 modes–meaning we can play them in our sleep–we can begin to understand how to use them. The first thing to know is that the Ionian mode is identical to the Major scale while the Aeolian Mode is identical to the Natural minor scale. Furthermore, and perhaps the most useful for the aspiring Rock guitarist, the minor Pentatonic scale is embedded in the Aeolian mode. This will function as an important focal point later. It is more clear if we use an alternative fingering:

Fig. 3

Now we can start putting these scales into a musical context. One can look at the 7 scales as a chain with each link representing a different scale. The chain always maintains the same order meaning that Mixolydian will never immediately follow Ionian and Lydian will never follow Dorian. The order will always be Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and back to Ionian etc.. As stated before, we are using the modes relative to one another as a way to extend the major scale. Utilizing the uniqueness of each mode will be covered in the article on parallel modes.

  • Mickey Richardson

    Great post Kris! This is very helpful for anyone who wants to become a better player, no doubt about it. Thanks!

  • ern

    In your “Tabs for the seven Modes of the Major scale” you have “B Lydian,” but it should be “B flat Lydian,” as the fourth scale tone of the F major scale is B flat, not B. The tab itself is correct (low E-string, sixth fret, B flat).

  • I’m fifty and been playing for 35 years, its something I did when I started and I certainly found it helped establish a base knowledge, enabling easier improvisation. After seeing my sons tutor, going over the scales I decided to revisit my youth and practice them again. After thirty years of strumming its become refreshing again. Never too late to start!!

  • Great stuff. I’ve been improvising with pentatonics and am ready to expand my fingers and knowledge with this. Thanks.

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