An Intro to Modes [Intermediate and Advanced/All Styles/Theory]

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An Intro to Modes

If you've reached the point that you're interested in more than chords, then it's time for you to consider the chord tone approach via Plane Talk. This is a concept that is very unique and brilliantly simple and has taken Kirk's playing as far as he ever needed or wanted. It has also helped me to get back to the basics that I was missing in my understanding of the neck; it has helped me stabilize in my mind where my anchor points are to be found on the fretboard.

The concept of modal playing is one that in the history of music comes from tunes that follow a musical theme. More important to music of the 1500s through the 1700's, modal playing is widely debated amongst guitar players. You may have read or joined in discussions on this topic at other guitar sites. What exactly are modes or this concept of mode playing on the guitar? I'll help to answer that at the very basic level (that's all I'm qualified to do).

One of the aspects about learning how to play individual notes on the guitar is to learn how to practice scales. Unfortunately, players over the years have taken the practicing of scales to be the end-all of learning to play lead lines. If you can relate this type of training to that of learning another musical instrument, you'll know that this is exactly how the other instrument is taught: learn and play scales. Well, the guitar is unique. Here's why.

The guitar, as it is most widely played and taught during this part of our history, is mainly a chordal instrument. We learn and play chords. The chords contain all of the notes to play, therefore the notes to play come from the chords. Now, this will be argued, but allow me to make my point.

The guitar is unique because we have the ability to play 'chord scales'. We play chords, but the chords themselves can be placed in the same sequence and intervals as the scales have been placed. And where do we begin? The major scale, of course. As you've read from the Major Scale Chart series of lessons, I argue (and I'm not alone) that all other music and scales are derived from the major scale. This is also where the discussion of playing modes on the guitar begin.

This is what I'm talking about: One of the great truths about playing notes from a pool of available tones and how they sound as a group depends on which note you begin the sequence and where you end the sequence. This is what gives each mode their unique sound, all by using the same pool of notes. This is one aspect of the theory of modes. The entire topic of modal playing is actually very huge and exceeds the scope of this lesson (and the brains of this Lesson Contributor), but there are two aspects to it that I want to bring up in this lesson: single note modal playing basics and chordal modal playing basics.

So let's dig in. What in the world are you talking about, Steve???

Take a look at the The Major Scale Chart (or see the attachment) All we're going to be concerned about is notes and chords and intervals of the key of C. No sharps, no flats, no fuss, no muss.

In the key of C, in any key actually, if you play notes sequentially (or advance them to a higher pitch using the major scale intervals) from the first position or root note of the scale then that is called the Ionian mode. A mode shift would occur when you would start the scale on the second note within the scale while maintaining the interval structure of the scale. In the key of C major, for example, if you would start the scale on the second note, D, and keep the same note intervals as the key of C major you would be shifting to the D Dorian mode. And here's a bit of interesting info: The relative minor chord of C is Am. Wouldn't you know it, to play an A minor scale means to play the A Aeolian mode of C (the sixth position of the key of C, see the chart below).

And yes. You've already been playing modal chord progressions. If you've followed the chord progressions from the first line of the Major Scale Chart, you've been playing a C Ionian modal chord progression when you play the chord scale in C major. C, Dm, Em, F, etc. The Ionian mode is just another word for what we call the major scale. I think you see where this information can lead you.

What modal chord progression are you playing when you begin the note or chord scale on E while maintaining the same intervals as that of the key of C? It's on the chart.


Now look again at The Notes section of the key of C on the Major Scale Chart. Cover up all the other notes scales below the key of C. Also cover up all the chords under the key of C in The Chords section of the chart. Play the C chord and then play the C major scale notes by beginning with the C note. Now play the Dm chord and then begin to play the C major scale intervals by beginning on the D note. Play the Em chord and begin to play the C major scale intervals by beginning with the E note, etc. These are how all the minor-type chords (the ii, iii, vi and vii chords) are harmonized and fit within the C major scale. Do you see how all of this is connected? Wild, huh?

Some will argue that modes have no place in discussion with playing the guitar. I hope this information has piqued your interest at any rate. It's certainly an advanced form of lead playing. This is only the beginning of a larger world. But is it important to pursue as a guitarist of the 21st century?

We have enough tools in the toolbox now to last us a lifetime. This is how the guitar is a unique instrument amongst instruments. This is how those famous guitarists are making some of their runs sound--different.

Here's a thread that talks about chord structure and touches on the basics of modes and offers other points of view.

And here's another post with a one-page explanation of modes from years past to the present. You may want to read the rest of the thread as well from the beginning. The thread was originally called, "Is the Major Scale Enough??". There's great input here from Kirk and many members.

All the best,


The Major Scale Chart.pdf

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