How to Learn the Guitar Modes: The Definitive Guide

You have your dream guitar, you have your multi effects pedal, and you know all of your favorite songs. So what’s next on your journey to guitar mastery? You’re going to have to take a deep dive into guitar music theory, starting with the guitar modes. By understanding the fundamentals of theory, you’ll equip yourself master this powerful instrument.

Guitar modes are a fast-track to becoming a pro at music, and they’re easy and fun to learn. By taking the time to memorize and understand them, you’re maximizing your understanding of music itself. This guide will go over everything you need to know about them, from the basics to advanced techniques.

We’ll go over each of the modes, which ones are major and minor, and some more complex variations. We’ll also cover how you can use them in your playing, making sure that you’re ready to take full advantage of these fundamental components of guitar.

What are Guitar Modes?

Any guitarist who wants to take their playing to the next level will want to take the time to study the modes. If you have each one memorized, learning new songs, improvising solos, and writing your own music will become much easier.

Guitar modes are the fundamental building blocks of any guitar music. They’re a lot like scales, but are more specific. Scales can be any combination of notes, while the modes are a specific type of scale. So a pentatonic scale is not a mode, while any mode is a type of scale.

Traditionally, there are 7 modes, one for each note in the standard major scale. Each mode has 7 notes, and can be either major or minor, with the exception of the Locrian mode, which we’ll get into later.

If you already know the major or minor scale, then you’ve done most of the work. This pattern is what makes up each of the modes; you just have to change where you start the scale to change your mode. So if you’re playing C major, that’s called the Ionian mode. If you play all of the same notes, but start on A, you’ll be playing in A minor, otherwise known as the Aeolian mode. Likewise, play the same notes starting on F and you’ll be playing the Lydian mode.

If this sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Let’s take a step back and go over which modes are major and which modes are minor.

What are the Major Guitar Modes?

The major modes sound “happy” to most listeners, though some songs in major keys can differ. In order for a mode to be considered major, it has to have a major third and a perfect fifth. These 3 scales all have a major third and a perfect fifth, but then switch up a few of the other notes, thus creating a distinct feeling for each scale. With these scales, the primary differences come from the fourth and the seventh.

The Ionian Mode

The most common major guitar mode is the Ionian mode. This is the basic major scale, and is often the first key guitarists learn. It has only major intervals, along with a perfect fourth and fifth.

Ionian Guitar Mode
Ionian Guitar Mode

It is one of the most stable keys, and makes up a huge amount of guitar music. However, there are 2 more major modes, the Lydian mode and the Mixolydian mode.

The Lydian Mode

The Lydian scale is unique, because it’s the only mode with an augmented fourth. Every other mode has a perfect fourth, but otherwise, this scale is identical to the major scale. It has the major second, third, sixth, and seventh, making it a very bright sounding scale when you add in that augmented fourth. In guitar, augmentation means to raise a note.

Lydian Guitar Mode
Lydian Guitar Mode

So the augmented fourth is raised one fret. Steve Vai uses this mode in many of his songs, and Jazz legend Joe Pass loved augmented fourths.

The Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian scale is probably the most important mode to learn outside of the major and minor scales. It has all of the same intervals as the major scale. This means that if you play a 7 chord in the Mixolydian mode, you’ll have a major third paired with a minor seventh. The result is a dominant chord, and it’s indispensable to blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, and a range of other styles.

Mixolydian Guitar Mode
Mixolydian Guitar Mode

What are the Minor Guitar Modes?

While the major modes sound “happy,” the minor modes sound “sad.” There are technically only 3 minor guitar modes, and like the major modes, they’re defined by the quality of the 3rd and 5th intervals in the scale. In this case, you have a minor third and a perfect fifth. We have the standard minor scale, the Aeolian, and the 2 variants, the Dorian and the Phrygian mode.

The Aeolian mode

The Aeolian mode is probably the most common scale in all of music. From classical music to jazz to pop to rock, nearly every style uses it, so make sure to learn it. It’s at least as common as the major scale, and could be even more common. Unlike the Ionian mode, which only has major intervals, the Aeolian mode is not made up of only minor intervals. It has a major second, even though it’s the minor scale.

Aeolian mode
Aeolian Guitar Mode

The Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is an odd one, since it contains a minor third and fifth, but doesn’t usually sound “sad.” It has an even mix of major and minor intervals, making it the only mode that is symmetric.

Dorian Guitar Mode
Dorian Guitar Mode

This may sound confusing, but think of it like this. For every major interval in the scale, it has a minor counterpart. So the major second is balanced by the minor seventh. The major sixth is balanced out by the minor third. And of course, it has a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth. So because it has an even mix of major and minor intervals, it’s a pretty versatile scale. Joe Satriani is known for using this scale, and Animals as Leaders takes advantage of Dorian in pieces like Crescent.

The Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode is really common in heavy metal and some styles of hard rock. It’s similar to the minor scale, but only uses minor intervals. So the major second is replaced by the minor second, giving this scale a fully minor sound using the diminished fifth. This scale is also important to the minor scale, since it’s part of something called the Hungarian Dominant scale, but we’ll cover that later.

Phrygian Guitar Mode
Phrygian Guitar Mode

The Locrian Mode

There’s one more mode left that isn’t technically minor, but it’s closer to the minor scales than the major ones. The Locrian mode is played from the second scale degree of the minor scale, or the seventh scale degree of the major scale. It is the only mode with a diminished fifth, making it tough to classify as either major or minor. However, every other interval is minor, like the Phrygian, which is why it’s being included as part of the minor modes section.

Locrain Mode
Locrain Guitar Mode

The Locrian mode is common in heavy metal and avant garde music, but it’s hard to find anywhere else. Without the perfect fifth to stabilize the scale, it’s tough to use in most music. It has a harsh, grinding sound, making it perfect for heavier styles.

Are There any Other Guitar Modes Variations That I Should Learn?

The standard modes are only a sliver of the scales you can learn, but it’s worth learning other ways you can mix things up with each mode. This section will speak more about scales, covering pentatonic and harmonic scales, but also how you can use the standard modes to give yourself a whole new level of playing.

Pentatonic Scales

If you’ve ever played the blues or classic rock, then you’re familiar with the pentatonic scale. The one guitarists typically use is actually a variation of the Aeolian mode, except with any half steps removed. In this case, it’s the second and sixth scale degrees that have been taken out, resulting in that classic blues pentatonic. You can actually apply this idea to any of the modes. Remove the half steps from the scale and you have a pentatonic scale.

By taking out the 4th and 7th from the Ionian mode, you have the major pentatonic. Take out the 5th and 7th from the Lydian mode, and you have the Lydian pentatonic. Each mode only has 2 half steps, so all of them can be morphed into a pentatonic scale.

Harmonic Scales

For more advanced theorists, the harmonic minor scale is a staple. The harmonic minor takes the 7th and raises it a half step, changing it from minor to major. The result is a very classical sound, but you can also play this scale from any scale degree to get a similar variation of each mode. So by taking that raised 7 in the minor key, you have a raised 5 in the major key, or a raised 6 in the Locrian mode.

The most interesting variation of the harmonic minor scale is the hungarian dominant, which is the Phrygian mode with a raised 3. This is the key that defines most metal guitar, and even finds roots in traditional middle eastern and mediterranean music. It’s incredibly fun to play, and has a powerful sound. If you’re a fan of Lamb of God or Whitechapel, then you’ve heard this scale in pieces like Laid to Rest and Dimentia.

The Melodic Modes

There are a few ways to describe the next set of modes. Medieval music theorists called them the “hyper” modes, but they can also be considered variations of the melodic minor scale. Melodic minor is like the harmonic minor, except with both a raised 7 and a raised 6. Classical musicians didn’t like the augmented 2 that results from just raising the 7, so you get rid of the problem by also raising the 6. Coincidentally, these modes are the only other variation of 7 notes made up of only whole and half steps without having any chromatic steps.

This is some of the most advanced scalar theory there is, so if you’re lost, don’t worry. These modes are incredibly uncommon, only finding their way into experimental corners, rarely being common guitar modes. But like the harmonic scale, you can take the melodic minor scale and play it from different scale degrees to get variations of the modes. So another name for the melodic minor could be “Hyperaeolian.” Playing from the third scale degree would be the “Hyperionian,” all the way through all of the scales.

How Can I Use Guitar Modes in My Guitar Playing?

Just like any part of music, you can’t do much with just knowing the technical part. This is where different guitarists and musicians have innovated over the years, coming up with new and creative ways to incorporate different modes into their playing. Each mode has a few unique characteristics that you want to take advantage of when playing. This portion of the guide will cover how to use each mode, and how to change modes while you’re playing.

When to Use Each Mode

Most of the time, you can get away with just playing a single mode. If you’re in a minor key, you can’t go wrong with the pentatonic blues scale. If you’re in a major key, then the Ionian mode will usually sound best. But if you understand the modes, then you’ll easily be able to improve your playing, taking things to a new level.

Let’s say you’re soloing, and you want your solo to really stand out against the chords. If the song is in A minor, but the chord is F major, you’ll be playing the F Lydian mode. It’s the same notes as A minor, but you can really make your solo shine if you think of it as F Lydian.

Sometimes you may even have to change keys. A common example of this is in jazz, where the song shifts from C Major to F Major. You’ll have a C major seventh chord turn into a C dominant chord. Now you’re actually playing in C Mixolydian, or F Ionian. This is the part of the modes that’s toughest to grasp. But there’s a fluid relationship between the modes, and you can take advantage of that in writing and playing guitar.

If you’re trying to incorporate the modes into your music, then you really want to take the time to understand each mode. Take the time to become familiar with each one, and learn the intervals that are interesting and unique to each scale.

How to Use the Major Modes

The major modes work best, of course, when you’re in a major key. The Ionian mode is the one that’s the most stable, and it’s what you’re practicing when you play in the major scale. Stylistically, it’s pretty vanilla, so you can use it to solo, come up with melodies, or play chords in nearly any style of music. Take advantage of the major 7th, since that’s one of this mode’s most interesting intervals. Whether you arpeggiate it, outline it in a melody, or throw in 7 chords, this mode lends itself to the crisp, clear sound you get with the major 7.

The Mixolydian mode is more interesting than the major scale when it comes to chording. That’s because you get a dominant 7 chord. If you want something jazzy or bluesy, throwing in a few more dominant 7 chords and understanding the Mixolydian mode is a must.

The last major scale to take advantage of is the Lydian mode. Like the Ionian mode, you’ll want to make sure to use that major 7. However, you’ll also want to use that augmented 4th a lot. It’s a really unique tone, and gives any melody or solo a slight airiness that you can’t get without an augmented 4th.

How to Use the Minor Modes

If you want your music to be a little more sad, you definitely want to use the minor modes. The minor scale is the go-to for that melancholy sound. It’s also one of the easiest patterns to move your fingers to on a guitar. You can strum some chords, write melodies, arpeggiate, or shred away, and this scale is one of the easiest.

The Dorian mode is pretty tough to use in most modern music, but was a staple in folk music. If you want to get a more old-fashioned sound, then you’ll pull out the Dorian scale. The Phrygian scale is perfect for metal, since it has all of the intervals of the minor scale plus the minor second. That first half step is great for getting a darker, heavier sound, so if you’re trying to get a metal sound, Phrygian is the way to go.

The Locrian mode is, as we discussed before, uncommon. The lack of a perfect fifth makes it unstable, so it always sounds like you’re about to move to a different key. However, if you’re trying to stretch your creative muscles, try throwing some diminished fifths into your metal to get a much darker sund. Some jazz players incorporate locran into their solos and chords, so experiment with that if you’re up for the challenge.

How to Use Multiple Modes

So far we’ve only discussed how to play in a single mode for the duration of a song. However, there’s a lot more that understanding the modes can help you with. If you understand each of the modes, then you’ll easily be able to come up with more intricate chords, melodies, and solos. At any given time, you’re actually playing in all 7 modes, it just depends on where you’re starting.

For example, if you’re playing in the minor scale, but the chord shifts down to the 6th, then the appropriate mode would be the Lydian mode. Melodies, chords, and solos in the Lydian mode will have the most powerful sound when they’re over that chord. Similarly if you’re playing in the Major mode and the chord shifts to the 5th scale degree, you’re temporarily in the Mixolydian mode. All of the notes will be the same between modes.

Or you can have a full key change and switch from C major to C Phrygian. You’ll completely change which notes you’re playing, giving you a dramatic change in how your tune sounds. They don’t even have to start in the same place. You can be playing in D major, then shift to Eb Mixolydian. Of course, the more dramatic the change, the more difficult it is to make sound good.

Where to Start

If you’re just starting out with the modes and want something basic, try to switch between modes and keys with a lot of notes in common. So if you’re in A minor, A Phrygian will be an easy shift, since there’s only one note that’s different. In G Major, you only have to augment the 4th to get G Lydian. Going from Major to Locrian or Phrygian would require you to change almost every note, so it can work, but it’s tough.

When you’re ready for a challenge, then you can explore the more complex relationships between each scale. Using the A Locrian mode to pivot from A major to Bb major is tough, but can add depth to any song.

Conclusion

The modes are one of the building blocks of guitar music. They’re the result of a pattern of intervals, each one starting from a different place in the pattern. They all have a different feel and sound, so knowing each one will really make a difference in your playing. But there’s so much more to them than just memorizing scales.

It’s one thing to know the modes, but it’s another thing to understand them, and an even bigger challenge to use them. But keep the fundamentals in mind and you’ll pick them up in no time. Start by memorizing each mode, and play around with using them in your own guitar playing.

Make simple shifts between different keys, or switch to different modes in the same key. But most importantly, make music that you think sounds good, and that you enjoy playing. The modes are just a tool, so don’t go out of your way to follow the rules perfectly every time. Great guitarists don’t follow old rules, they make new ones.

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