3 Steps to Learning How to Apply Modes...

Modes offer guitar players inspiration for improvising and composing by introducing unique sounds not included in the basic major and natural minor scales. 

When adding modal concepts, your melodic ideas can zero in on the chord tones of progressions creating better phrases and more interesting lines...

If you've played the guitar for a few years, then there's no doubt that you've heard of the "Modes." The "Major Scale Modes" make up one of the most important areas of playing guitar solos out there.

Starting with the basic major scale and moving onto the natural minor, the guitarist will undoubtedly realize that certain progressions cause note selction issues. This might be due to the appearance of a non-diatonic chord, or from an extension placed upon a diatonic chord.

Whatever it may be, modes will eventually come into play. And, you'll need a few basic ideas to help you make sense of them in your music. Below are a few of the foundation ideas you'll need to comprehend to be able to apply modes.

NOTE: Prior to any attempts at beginning to use modes, spend time studying the basic major and minor scales, the major and minor pentatonic scales, and the key signatures along with the process of diatonic harmony. If you do not understand these principles, Modes will generally cause you more confusion than they will help you.

For help in these areas, feel free to contact me regarding one on one Skype classes.

In deciding which mode to use, start with the scale or mode which best fits and includes all of, or at least the most, notes from the chords in the song or progression and which best suits the mood of the song or the mood you’re trying to create.


For Basic Major key Situations: Ionian (the basic major scale)

For Jazzy /Altered Major Situations: Lydian

For Blues /Jazz / Classic Rock Major Situations: Mixolydian


For Natural Minor key Situations: Aeolian (the natural minor scale)

For Jazzy /Blues /Latin /Classic Rock Minor Situations: Dorian

For Jazz /Altered /Spanish Minor Situations: Phrygian


For Jazz /Altered /Diminished Situations: Locrian

Process #1). Modes are required when you have to make scale tone adjustments to target chord tones which are “outside” the notes /tones of the diatonic scale. However, if you’re dealing with a fairly simple diatonic chord progression (one which exclusively uses only the chords built from the notes of the underlying key), then you are able to stick with the basic major or natural minor scales.

Example 1a). Diatonic progression (key of G Major /Ionian Mode)

Note: All chords used in example 1a, are within the key of "G major."

Example 1b). Non-diatonic progression (key of G Mixolydian Mode)

Note: The "D Minor" chord in progression 1b, is Non-diatonic due to its "F natural" chord tone, (F is sharp in G Major). The "Dm" chord ends up producing the sound of "G" Mixolydian.

Process #2). Modal ideas can be used to pick up any "outside" notes (non diatonic) over a particular outside chord (trigger chord) when it appears in your progression. The mode covers the unique chord tones in the triggering chord, and allows for a better fit to the outside chord when it appears. Progressions can be composed of chords that trigger the use of a mode in every measure or in only certain measures.

Example 2). Dorian mode progression, (A Dorian - trigger chords are both chords of the progression; the "Am6" and the "D Major" both trigger the Dorian effect).

NOTE: Remember that instead of using a mode you can always try hitting trigger notes by bending up to chord tones, use an arpeggio, or by the use of chromatic notes to walk up or down into any chord or scale tones required.


Let’s take a typical Dorian progression with a minor i chord and a Major IV chord, like Gm to C. While using a G Dorian modal scale will work over both modes, sometimes it can be interesting to use the G Aeolian mode over the Gm half of the progression (emphasizing the b6 of the G natural minor scale), but switch to G Dorian mode (i.e. raising the 6th) over the C (IV) chord to emphasize the Major 3rd of the C chord.

Example 3).  The "Gm7(#5)" chord promotes "G Aeolian Mode." But, the "C Major" chord introduces the color of the "G Dorian" mode.

NOTE: If the progression moved to a "Dm" for the v chord, G Dorian will continue to work, but so would G Aeolian, since both of those modes also contain all of the notes of "Dm" (D F A) in their scale. 

Another way to look at it is that diatonic chords of G Dorian and G Aeolian modes contain a minor v chord (Dm). … If instead, the V chord is D Major, neither the diatonic G Dorian or G Aeolian modes fit since D contains an F# in it’s construction [D F# A].

In that case, we could use an D Ionian modal scale – D Major scale – over the D chord, but that takes our minor sounding progression and temporarily makes it sound Major and, in this case, not in a good way.

So instead we might try to find a minor sounding mode that also works. The "A Aeolian" (natural minor) contains an "F," ( not an "F#" ), so that won’t work particularly well. However, an A Dorian scale would raise that 6th from minor b6 to Major 6 and catch the F#, but it also contains a b7 (G), which is the root note of both our G Aeolian and G Dorian modal scales that we have found to be very pleasing and better fit the “mood” of our progression.

Remember, the point here is that in choosing which modes to use when combining them, it’s usually best try to pick modes that either both contain all the notes from all the chords in the progression, (or where that’s not possible), choose a different mode to accommodate an “outside” chord tone/note, try to select a mode to play over the “outside” chord which at least creates the same “mood” over the progression being played,

The progressions you compose will tend to sound better if the modality of the song or progression remains the same. Purposefully incorporating a blues note or an “outside” note can work to add color or to create tension. This can sound really cool when you want to resolve back into a chord tone or if you wanted to create /follow the unique melody of the son.

Also, purposefully changing the overall minor v. Major modality entirely (to support a new key change or new progression intentionally written to create a completely different mood), can be excellent for a bridge or chorus, or underneath a solo to make it sound more interesting.



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