What Are Scale Modes?

What are scale modes for guitar?No single musical topic generates more curiosity and utter confusion than scale modes. The real purpose and point to the modal concept eludes most guitar players. Most of the available instruction on modes is incorrect and misleading. Little known facts about guitar modes include:

  • Learning modes does not require you to learn new scale patterns
  • Modes are not necessarily created by starting positions
  • Generally speaking you cannot impose a mode over a song
  • Everything can be related to a mode


Why Do Guitar Modes Matter?
Before I get into the details of modes, I want to first explain why knowing modes matters. One of the biggest mistakes guitar players make is to assume that the modal concept is just a theoretical idea that doesn’t really have a practical purpose, but this is not true. Most music is modally based in one way or another and recognizing modes is critical to understanding how music works. Chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, riffs, lead guitar solos, and bass lines are all derived from modal scales in some fashion. Understanding the modal concept is absolutely necessary if you want to become a knowledgeable, versatile player.


“No Rain” by Blind Melon, as played in the video above, is a great example of using a mode. Though the opening guitar riff uses notes from the A major scale, the music centers on the 5th degree, E, creating the sound of E Mixolydian mode. 

How Guitar Modes Work
In a nutshell, here’s how modes work. The major scale has seven notes, and any one of them can be used as the starting point, or the primary pitch, of a piece of music. In other words, you don’t always have to base music off of the first degree and chord of the major scale. Rather than think of the major scale as a series of notes from left to right, think of it as a circle, like a clock. You can rotate the clock like a dial so that a degree other than the first one is in the primary pitch, or rather, the tonic, position. The sound of the scale changes depending on which degree is primary. Rotate the dial one click to the left and you put the second scale degree in the tonic position. From this starting point the structure and sound of the sale changes. For example, the third note in the scale (from your new starting position) is now a minor 3rd rather than the major scale’s major 3rd. This makes the primary chord minor rather than major. Santana’s “Oye Como Va” uses this trick. Though the song uses notes and chords from the G major scale, it actually centers everything on the second degree, A and an A minor chord. When music centers on the second degree of the major scale, it’s called Dorian mode and it produces a jazzy minor sound.

Something important to point out in the previous example is that you don’t need to learn new scale patterns in order to produce a modal sound like Dorian mode. Instead, the mode is made by how you apply the notes and chords of the major scale. If you’re looking to play modes by learning new patterns from guitar tablature and neck diagrams, then you’re missing the point.

Both diagrams above illustrate the same G major scale notes on the fretboard. Since “Oye Como Va” centers on the 2nd degree, A, most musicians would count the A as “1” and call the scale A Dorian mode.

Both diagrams above illustrate the same G major scale notes on the fretboard. Since “Oye Como Va” centers on the 2nd degree, A, most musicians would count the A as “1” and call the scale, A Dorian mode.


Making Modal Sounds
The following audio track, which features various grooves and progressions played in the style of popular Dorian mode songs, has chord changes and bass lines drawn from the G major scale, but with the music always centering on the 2nd scale degree, A, and the second chord, Am. Play along using notes from the G major scale in any position and any pattern (referring to the diagrams above if need be) to hear the sound of Dorian mode.

Dorian Mode Jam Track


How to Learn Guitar Modes
Together there are seven major scale degrees and seven possible music modes, each with a special Greek name. If you have even seen a modes chart, then you have probably seen these names. They are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Each mode has a unique structure and sound. In my book Fretboard Theory, Chapter 8, and my DVD, Guitar Modes – The Modal Scales of Popular Music, I walk you through all the modes, discuss each mode’s unique characteristics, demonstrate modal chord progressions, and play in the style of familiar songs. Many customers have told me that more than anything else, my teaching on modes was the most enlightening and game-changing experiences for them. Don’t let the topic of modes elude you any longer. Let me illuminate this hidden secret of music!


Before You Start On Modes
In music, some topics necessitate prior knowledge of other topics. The concept of modes is really a combination of other, more fundamental concepts. Specifically, modes are based on major scale patterns and chord progressions, so you need to learn these topics first, otherwise you’re getting ahead of yourself. Make sure that you can cover the neck with major scales, like I teach in Fretboard Theory, Chapter 5. Then look at Chapter 6 to see how to build chords, put together chord progressions, and play by numbers. I also recommend that you complete Chapter 7 so that you know how to properly apply pentatonic and major scale patterns, then you can explore modes.


Get Started With Modes Now
The use of guitar modes is taught in my book, Fretboard Theory, Chapter 8, and my DVD, Guitar Modes – The Modal Scales of Popular Music. Both of these items are available in a complete guitar theory package that also includes instruction on scales, chords, and progressions, among other topics. E-book and video downloads are available online from my store page, with special money-saving prices available on bundled packages. Regular books and DVDs can be purchased from Amazon.com. Some products are also available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Google Play. Go to my store page for all the details.


Advanced Guitar Modes Instruction
Already know basic modes and want to take things to the next level? My second book and DVD program, Fretboard Theory Volume II, deals with new numbering systems, modal interchange, chord tone soloing, and harmonic and melodic minor scales.


Free Modal Scales Lessons
If you haven’t done so already, use the form on this website to sign up for a free preview of Fretboard Theory. You can read a portion of both books, one and two, plus view video segments from the related DVDs. These sample lessons feature instruction on modal music theory and the use of modal scales.


Read More About Modes and Related Guitar Theory

What Is Guitar Theory?

What Scales To Learn

How to Learn Chords On the Fretboard

How to Play Guitar Chord Progressions

Learning the Guitar Fretboard

What Is Fretboard Theory?

Guitar Rhythm and Technique