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What Are The Theory and Practice of Guitar Modes?

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As a beginner, learning the theory and practice of guitar modes is important. It helps you understand the different modes and how to use them when playing your guitar. Many people often get confused and tend to mix scales with modes. One thing you should know is that modes are particular keys that start a note while a scale is a group of musical notes with intervals. Over recent years, guitar modes used are essentially major scale-minor scale mode system. To master and practise the modes of guitar better, you need to first be abreast of the different guitar modes. 

What are guitar modes?

A mode in its simplest form is a major scale mode guitar that begins with any note of the same scale. Guitar modes are commonly derived from the major scale which is often the first key that begins a scale in a sequence. Every guitar starts with a major keynote and the easiest way to play a mode is to play any major scale. Using the key of C as a sample example, a guitar fretboard is often arranged as;

C D  E  F G A B C

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8

The major chords here are 1, 4, and 5 and the minor chords are 2, 3, and 6 while 7 is the diminished.

The theory of guitar modes

Usually, when playing the guitar, there are seven notes often called the Tonic Solfas in a solo octave within a specific key. The Solfa sang as ‘Do-Re-Mi/Fa-So-La-Ti/Do’ is a major scale and it begins with a root note (‘Do’ or 1).

These seven notes, before moving to the eighth, are at double frequency. Know that the eighth note is often the same as the first. The intervals between these seven notes differ. It may be a whole step (two semitones) or a half step(a semitone). These intervals determine the notes of a key. Let’s say in the key of C, the interval pattern is ‘WWHWWWH – whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half.’

The mode of a key is created by starting a different note. For example, if a musical scale begins with the key of C which is a major scale, the mode becomes Ionian (the first mode – CDEFGABC). This theory applies to identifying the different modes as the notes for all modes are the same. What differentiates them is the structure i.e. hand placement, distance, or interval between notes.

7 different modes of a major-minor scale

  • Ionian mode. This mode begins on the tonic C and is commonly called the ‘major scale’. The Ionian mode is the first mode. Using the key of C, the Ionian mode is (CDEFGABC – WWHWWWH) translating to whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half.
  • Dorian mode. This is the second mode of a guitar. The Dorian mode begins with the second note of a scale ‘D’ (DEFGABCD – WHWWWHW) and translates to whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole. The Dorian note is higher in key than the tonic C.
  • Phrygian mode. The Phrygian mode is the third note on the tonic scale. This mode begins with the note ‘E’ (EFGABCDE – HWWWHWW) that is half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole.
  • Lydian mode. This mode starts from the fourth note. As the fourth mode, the Lydian is a perfect fourth higher. Key ‘F’ is the Lydian (FGABCDEF – WWWHWWH) whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half.
  • Mixolydian mode. The Mixolydian is the fifth mode and it begins with the fifth note ‘G’ (GABCDEFG – WWHWWHW) i.e., whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole.
  • Aeolian mode. This is the sixth mode of a tonic scale. It is often called the ‘natural minor scale’. This mode starts with the sixth note A (ABCDEFGA – WHWWHWW) i.e., whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole-whole.
  • Locrian scale. This is the seventh mode of a tonic scale and it begins with the seventh note B (BCDEFGAB – HWWHWWW) half –whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole.

Notice that the notes did not change only the structure and order of the notes on the scale changed. Each key, having its modal structure. Of the seven guitar modes, some are major scale while others are minor.

  • Major scale modes are Ionian (major scale), Lydian (major scale with IV#) and Mixolydian (major scale with VIIb)
  • Minor scale modes include Dorian (minor scale with VI#) Phrygian (minor scale with IIb), Aeolian (natural minor scale), and Locrian (minor scale with Vb and IIb)

How can I use guitar modes?

Guitar modes may seem a tad difficult to understand. However, if you take it one step at a time, it will begin to make a lot of sense to you. You can use the guitar theory to improvise new guitar solos, create new songs and enhance your musicality when you play. These seven guitar modes will also enable you to understand other modes you decide to use. 

Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. He has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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