Guitar Scale Modes

Author: Edward Cupler

Derived from a parent scale, scale modes get their unique sound by shifting the tonal center of the parent scale. By shifting the tonal center, they use specific sequence of intervals within the parent scale, creating distinctive musical flavors or moods. Each mode has its unique set of intervals, altering the relationship between notes to provide a distinct sound.

The importance of scale modes is their ability to extend musical expression. They allow artists to move beyond the traditional major and minor scales. Modes are essential in shaping varied melodies, harmonies, and solos. Understanding and applying scale modes allows musicians to explore a wide spectrum of tonal possibilities, fostering overall musical creativity.

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The guitar scale modes in these examples are comprised of the same seven notes in order to keep things as simple as possible. With all of these guitar scale modes, I am avoiding the use of sharps and flats and instead I am showing the modes at different positions on the guitar neck as they would be relevant to the seven notes of the C Major scale (C D E F G A B), These notes would be all of the white keys on a piano.

Scale Modes – Ordering

The order in which the scale modes appear is as follows:

  • C – Ionian C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
    • The Ionian mode is the familiar major scale, known for its upbeat sound. It features a pattern of whole and half steps that creates a sense of openness and positivity, making it a popular choice for positive and happy music.
  • D – Dorian D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D
    • Dorian is a minor mode with a unique character. It’s basically the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) with a raised sixth degree (sharp 6th), giving it a soulful quality. Dorian is often used in rock and blues.
  • E – Phrygian E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E
    • Phrygian is a minor mode with a distinctive, exotic flavor. It features a lowered second degree, creating a Spanish or Middle Eastern sound. This mode is often associated with tension and is commonly used in flamenco and progressive rock music.
  • F – Lydian F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F
    • The Lydian mode is a major scale (Ionian mode) with a raised fourth degree (sharp 4th). The Lydian mode sound has been said to give a sense of hopefulness. It has also been described as heavenly.  The Lydian mode is frequently used in film scores and ambient music.
  • G – Mixolydian G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G
    • Mixolydian is a major mode with a lowered seventh degree, producing a bluesy and rock-oriented sound. Widely used in blues and rock genres, it adds a sense of tension and anticipation, making it a popular choice for improvisation.
  • A – Aeolian A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A
    • The Aeolian mode, also known as the natural minor scale, Aeolian has a somber and introspective character. It is characterized by a lowered third (flat 3rd), sixth (flat 6th), and seventh degree (flat 7th), creating a dark and emotional mood.
  • B – Locrian B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B
    • The Locrian mode is an unusual and dissonant mode with a lowered second (flat 2nd), third (flat 3rd), fifth (flat 5th), sixth (flat 6th), and seventh degree (flat 7th). Due to its unstable nature, it is rarely used as a standalone mode but finds application in specific musical contexts that require tension and instability.

Please refer to the following key to aid in understanding the guitar neck diagrams on this page.

neck-diagram for scale modes - legend

On the following guitar neck diagrams, the mode is displayed followed by the same scale mode overlaying the rest of the notes that make up the C Major scale.

C – Ionian Mode

C – Ionian Mode Over The C Major Scale

D – Dorian Mode

D – Dorian Mode Over The C Major Scale

E – Phrygian Mode

E – Phrygian Mode Over The C Major Scale

F – Lydian Mode

F – Lydian Mode Over The C Major Scale

G – Mixolydian Mode

G – Mixolydian Mode Over The C Major Scale

A – Aeolian Mode

A – Aeolian Mode Over The C Major Scale

B – Locrian Mode

B – Locrian Mode Over The C Major Scale

Using Scale Modes

After studying these scale modes, you may be asking, “How can I apply these?”. Well, to simplify these modes, keep in mind that they are all using the same 7 notes. These are the notes of the C Major scale. Scale modes are much more about the tonal center of the song and the intervals between the notes. If you’re playing the D Dorian shape over a C major chord it will sound like the Ionian mode. Play the same D Dorian shape over an A Minor chord and it will sound like the Aeolian mode. Knowing this allows you to break away from the simple boxed patterns of scale mode lessons where you only see each mode in that now familiar boxed in shape. In the follow-up to this lesson, I’ll be giving some practical examples of using the scales and modes.

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