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Calling All Novice Guitar Players: Get Jumpstarted On Modal Theory Today! No More Confusion!

Updated on December 30, 2016

NOTE: This Hub isn't complete but I've been encouraged to publish what I've created so far.

So you've heard about modal theory and have probably even watched some videos on youtube and googled some guides and blogs about it and still don't understand it. Hopefully you've come to the right place because I've been in the same boat before when trying to teach myself about modal theory.

What is modal theory and what can you do with it? If you have discovered this guide then you are probably wondering the same thing. When we hear the phrase, "Music Theory" we generally think of reems of paper covered with cryptic symbols. We might have an image of a musician or composer hunched over a desk scrawling music notation on endless sheets of paper or of an accomplished guitar player who has spent years memorizing dozens of different scales in all keys.

What's the allure of modal theory?

For a lot of beginners learning even one music scale on the guitar from one end of the neck to the other can be a daunting task! For the beginner who wants to learn how to play along with lots of different styles of music in both major (happy) and minor (sad) keys, music theory can seem like an insurmountable mountain. It takes quite a bit of work just to learn the minor pentatonic scale all the way up the neck and that's just to be able to compose or improvise over most blues songs.

What do you do if you want to branch out? What if you want to solo over a song that has a spanish feel to it. What is it about an Allman brothers song that makes it so distinctive? Have you ever had difficulty nailing down the flavor of Jerry Garcia's playing? How did a certain guitar player write a solo that has an arabian feel to it? How does Joe Satriani write music that sounds so strange yet hauntingly beautiful?

Most guitar players who ask questions like these will understandably come to the same conclusion: You have to memorize and master a different music scale for each style of music. And that's where a lot of guitar players just give up and walk away. But what if you don't have to memorize dozens of different scales? What if all it took was memorizing ONE scale pattern? What if one pattern could do all this? Sounds impossible, right? Only one scale pattern that could open up a whole world of music styles?

That's where modal theory comes in and that's what modal theory does believe it or not. A friend of mine who was taking guitar lessons and studying modal theory said at one point, "When it finally dawned on me how modal theory worked, I couldn't believe it. When I apply modal theory to my playing I feel like I'm cheating somehow because what comes out sounds so sophisticated and technical but it's all the same pattern."

So what can this guide offer you?

What this guide aims to do is teach you the core of what modal theory is and how it works. Will you know everything there is to know about modal theory after reading this guide? Of course not. Like everything in music and in life modal theory is not a musical concept that exists in a vacuum. It has fingers that snake out from it and touch all other forms of musical styles. But you will be able to get a working knowledge of modal theory and establish a platform from which you can dive into all kinds of exotic musicals tastes.

One of the major hurdles for learning any new discipline is making the leap from the total beginner to someone who possesses enough knowledge to form a foundation where they can begin to build new concepts based on already understood concepts. And of course whether you're trying to learn to write computer code, design electrical circuits, or learn new musical concepts it can be frustrating trying to find that guide that perfectly finds you where you're at in your understanding. If you're like me you can find yourself getting impatient with guides, books, or videos that are either too simplistic on one end or way too technical or impracticle on the other.

You'll also come across the occasional guide that starts off very simple at first, promising to go at a slow and understandable pace, and then at some point just leaves the reader behind. This was most definitely my experience when I started trying to get a handle on what modal theory is and how it works. So I decided to write this guide for you in such a way that you can follow it all the way from beginning to end without ever getting lost or left behind. To do this I'm going to make this guide very lengthy and wordy (As if you cannot already tell). Don't be intimidated by the size of it. The aim here is to go slow and be thorough and deliberate. If you have a basic understanding of modal theory then this guide will be of little help to you unless you're trying to show someone else how modal theory works. But if you don't even know where to begin with modal theory then hopefully this will lay it all out for you.

What kind of approach should you expect with this guide?

This guide is intended to break modal theory down into simple, easy to digest pieces. This is aimed at complete newcomers to modal theory and as such I will be slow and deliberate with it and not make any assumptions about what the reader already knows. So please resist the urge to get impatient if at any time I'm telling you something you already know. I'm also going to be very informal most of the time and I'll try to keep it light and funny whenever possible.

I'll start off with a little exposition about what modal theory is, how it works, and how you can apply it to your musical exploits. Then we'll get into the mechanics of the theory where I explain the nuts and bolts and give you the tools to start noodling around with modal theory right away. My plan is to really flesh out what's going on at every step so you can keep up and really get the holistic sense of what is going on. So good luck!

For all you musical pedants out there:

You will be seething as you read this guide because I am being very unorthodox in my method to frame a workable picture of modal theory for the layman. That this would frustrate some of you is of course expected. After all a pedant is a person who overemphasizes rules or minor details or is obsessed with displaying technical knowledge.

You are welcome to comment on my presentation with your corrections and/or criticisms. You will no doubt provide a quality critique and lend invaluable supplimental commentary and instruction. But really my first hope is that you just generate some traffic with your comments. There's no such thing as bad publicity! My hope is that I can get the readers on their feet as beginners and prepare them for your master class.

Let's get prepared...

Ok, first things first...

Nothing good comes easy. And modal theory is very, very good, so it's worth you taking your time with this. In this fast paced world it's easy to get impatient and want to fast forward and speed read over this kind of information in the name of cutting to the chase.

Modal theory is definitely one of those systems where it seems infinitely complicated at first until everything clicks into place in your brain. At that point you'll realize the wonderfully simple symmetry of modal theory and how easy it is to understand but like a lot of these types of intellectual pursuits there is going to be a learning curve until you make that breakthrough.

So just relax a bit first. Make a cup of hot tea. Do a little meditation. Spend a few minutes in your rock garden. Take some deep breaths and prepare yourself to go at this slow and try and soak up every word.

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What is modal theory?

I'm gonna take the risk of offending any musical theory purists out there by just explaining what modal theory is to me without getting overly complicated or formal. Basically modal theory is a process by which you can learn just one basic scale pattern and by learning how to transpose this scale pattern up or down the range of musical keys you can make this one pattern actually sound like many different scales, each with their own specific emotional feel.

Ok, now there's our first statement that might be considered a mouthful. So let's try and flesh it out a bit more. When I use the term "emotional feel" what I'm talking about is the tonal characteristic of the scale as it's applied that makes the music sound happy or sad, tense or relaxed, or even middle-eastern or latin-american.

Believe it or not, with modal theory you can actually take one scale and play it over one set of chords with the result sounding happy and play the EXACT same scale over a different set of chords in a different key with the result sounding sad. Yes, that's right. This is the part of modal theory that is so fascinating. It's the chameleon-like characteristic of the modal scale to actually sound completely different in different musical settings. How does it do this? Well the scale doesn't actually do anything, right? It's the way your brain interprets the notes in respect to the context of the chords that the notes are being played over. And also the key of the music you are using the scale on has everything to do with how the melody is interpreted by your brain.

How does modal theory do what it does?

Here is a great visual example that might give you an idea of how context can affect the interpretation of what we see and hear...

I created this image on my computer and I can promise you that that I did not doctor the colors for effect. The two guitars are exactly the same image. You can try this yourself.
I created this image on my computer and I can promise you that that I did not doctor the colors for effect. The two guitars are exactly the same image. You can try this yourself.

Notice that in this picture you see an image of two guitars. The guitar on the left looks to have a warmer more orangy color and the guitar on the right seems to have a cooler more purple color. Of course you've probably seen this kind of illusion before and if you have then you already know the two guitars are exactly the same color as shown below.

Modal theory behaves in much the same way except that it is an auditory sensation we are getting. As an analogy let's assume that the guitar image represents the C major scale. Now let the more purplish background represent a G-major chord progression and let the orangy background represent a D-minor chord progression. As we put this C major scale on top of the G-major background we get a warm, festive, and happy tonal quality to the melody derived from experimenting with that C-major scale.

Conversely, if we put the same C-major scale on top of the D-minor chord progression the tonal quality would actually morph from a happy, festive sound to a darker more bluesier and ultimately minor tonal characteristic.

(Don't get frustrated if you don't understand why I picked the scale of C-major and used a G-major chord progression and D-minor chord progression. It has to do with the mathmatics of modal theory which we'll get to later.)

Again, I want to stress that in both cases it's the same scale, the exact same set of notes. It's just that in one song the key is a G-major key and in the other song the key is a D-minor. So in this instance you've literally spent time learning only one scale but depending on how you use this scale it has become two completely different scales in two different keys with two distinctly different tonal emotions. All for the price of one scale. But it gets better than that! Way better!

I always thought the number 7 was cool!

In the above example I state that you can learn just one scale pattern and make it sound like two completely different scales if you know what you're doing. In actuality that one scale can sound like seven different scales with seven different tonal characteristics. Ok, so you've got literally one scale on the guitar that can be made to sound like 7 different types of scales. Once you understand the mechanics of that you can then begin to transpose this scale up and down the neck for all the different keys you might want to play in. What does that mean? It means that eventually, just by memorizing one scale pattern, you'll be able to play 7 different scales for every possible key you could write a song in.

Ok, so I feel like I might be losing you here. Let's take a step back and slow down just a bit. Eventually I'll post this scale pattern (a very special scale that has actually been featured in a famous major motion picture) and the rules to use to make it work but I still want to put off getting technical at this point. I'd like you to be able to follow along without having to have a guitar in your hand.

Let's go back to the above example with the pictures of the two guitars. Again, we have one set of notes (our scale) that when played over one set of chords sounds one way and when played over another set of chords sounds another way. If you've already guessed that those two different uses are called modes then you're absolutely right!

That's how to think of modal theory. You have a scale and it can be used in one mode or it can be used in another mode. Furthermore when I say that one scale can be made to sound like seven different scales then obviously another way of saying that is to say that one scale has seven different modes. Ok now we're getting somewhere. One scale has seven different modes and each of these modes have these wonderful Greek names and if you mention these Greek names to your friends while you're playing your guitar you will sound brilliant! And studies have shown that chicks go crazy for Greek guys. And guys who know Greek words are the next best thing. Eventually if you stick with modal theory you'll even be able to point out just by listening to a song what mode the guitar player is using in that song.

The Seven Modes

Ok, so now we've established that there's a special scale out there that has seven different modes. And each mode has a very exotic and international sound to it's name and you and those around you will witness your I.Q. increase everytime you say the names of these modes. Furthermore these modes are arranged in a specific numerical order that you should memorize if you're going to be able to work with these modes. So at this point let's go ahead and introduce these modes in order!

1) Ionian
2) Dorian
3) Phrygian
4) Lydian
5) Mixolydian
6) Aeolia
7) Locrian

Ok, now for reasons we'll get to later the order of these modes is very important! So learn them! Learn them in order! At this point you really wanna take a minute to memorize them because it's gonna pay off if you have these down pat and know them dead.

I tried to come up with some mnemonic devices to help you memorize the order of the modes, something along the lines of my mental trick that I show to new guitar students to help them memorize the notes of a guitar that is in standard tuning...

A visual of a dead goat, surely a pure moment in music theory instruction. Until now, dead goats have only been able to get work on the darker side of Rock and Roll.
A visual of a dead goat, surely a pure moment in music theory instruction. Until now, dead goats have only been able to get work on the darker side of Rock and Roll. | Source

Eat

A

Dead---------------->

Goat---------------->

Before

Exercising


(Thanks to Tad Taylor for providing that handy mnemonic oh so many years ago.)



So let's list the modes again...

1) Ionian
2) Dorian
3) Phrygian
4) Lydian
5) Mixolydian
6) Aeolia
7) Locrian

So try out this device to help you remember the order of the modes...

"Injure Dogs Perfectly Like Monkeys Always Love."

I bet you did not know that monkeys always love to see dogs injured perfectly!

(Note: I'm not inclined to post a visual of injuring dogs and a query for images of monkey love are no less disturbing!)

I think that one works pretty well because you'll notice that there are two modes that begin with L...Lydian and Locrian. Well in the above sentence you'll notice that the first L word begins "Li" (Lydian) and the second word begins "Lo" (Locrian) so that should be sufficient to keep straight which mode comes first and which comes second.

If you don't like that sentence, here's some more that are a bit funnier and possibly easier to remember...

Source
Source

Alright, enough of that. You get the picture. Just know the mode names in the order that I've listed them.

At this point you're probably feeling that old frustration setting in. I can hear you now...

"Great, here we go again. I've got a list of "modes" with these cryptic Greek names and I know in what order they're supposed to be. I also know that they're supposed to be able to do some pretty cool stuff musically but I still don't know anything about each mode! I suppose next this guy is gonna throw up some tablature and scales patterns."

That was the biggest frustration to me when I was trying to teach myself this stuff. All the literature on the subject and videos on youtube basically said, "Ok, these are the 7 modes and here's the scale patterns. Have fun!" What I wanted to know was how to use the modes. Why should I choose one mode over another one? Sonically speaking, what is the difference between each one and how do I know if I'm doing it right?

Well that's what we're gonna tackle next. I'm going to try and paint a picture of each mode and explain what to expect when you hear these melodies that you create from one mode to the next. We're going to get a little right brain at this point. (Remember that right brain is artistic and left brain is analytical. Kind of the opposite of right and left terminology in politics.)


Sonic Attributes of Each of the Seven Modes

Let's go back to the beginning of this guide where I mentioned the different kinds of musical styles that you hear. I'll quote myself so you don't have to scroll back up...

"What if you want to solo over a song that has a spanish feel to it. What is it about an Allman brothers song that makes it so distinctive? Have you ever had difficulty nailing down the flavor of Jerry Garcia's playing? How did a certain guitar player write a solo that has an arabian feel to it? How does Joe Satriani write music that sounds so strange yet hauntingly beautiful?"

That one little paragraph sums up what I'm aiming to do with this guide. And that is show you how each of the modes will open up all of those musical frontiers for you to explore.Remember the seven dwarves? Dopey, Sneezy, Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, and Doc? Each of the dwarves names kind of described the dwarves disposition. The seven modes also have emotional dispositions. I suppose if you were going to use the same convention for naming the seven modes it might go something like...Happy, Bluesy, Abdul, Trippy, Partay, Carlos, and Pyscho. Or something like that.

Want to go all Antonio Banderas when you're writing a solo? One of the modes does that. How about the drunken laid back happy vibe of the Grateful Dead or the warm celebration of "Summer Song" by Joe Satriani? One of the modes does that. Want to light up some incense and get some eastern mysticism in your music? There's a mode for that. How about the the alien beauty of songs like "Flying In A Blue Dream" by Joe Satriani? There's a mode for that.

So at this poing I'm gonna go mode by mode in order and try and describe the sound of each mode to you. I'll also use some colors and imagery to help flesh out the feel of each mode. After that we'll get into the nuts and bolts of each mode and I'll actually put up some scale patterns along with some guidlines of what kinds of chords will and will not work with each mode so you can get hands on with this stuff and hopefully the rubber will finally meet the road.

Let's begin by outlining two general categories of emotion in western music...happy and sad. You should already know that generally speaking a song written in a major key sounds happy and music written in a minor key sounds sad. Another way of saying that is that major keys are pleasing to the ear and tend to resolve and sooth while minor keys tend to create tension when we hear them. At this point I can hear the hardcore music theorists yelling, "Tell them about the 3rd, tell them about the 3rd!"

Oh alright just to satisfy those guys let's just say that, on a very technical level, what makes a key or scale major or minor has to do with the 3rd note in the scale and it's relationship to the natural 3rd note of the key center. See??? It's too technical at this point so just forget that I put that bit in there for now. I'll come back to it later in the guide.

Well in modal theory we have seven modes. 3 of them just happen to be major modes and three of them happen to be minor modes. The seventh mode Locrian...well...let's just cross that bridge when we come to it. For now all you need to know is that 3 of the first 6 modes are major and 3 of them are minor. Ok, you smart guys have probably already deduced then that 3 of the modes sound kind of happy and three of the modes don't. I say "don't" instead of "sad" because the minor ones can sound sad, angry, or just strangely tense. As we outline each mode I'll let you know whether they're major or minor.

So let's start with the first mode...

#1 IONIAN

Here's a good way to remember that Ionian is the first mode. The Roman numeral for 1 is a capital "I" and Ionian starts with "I" so it's the first mode. Notice that I printed the word Ionian in white letters. That's because of all the modes Ionian is the most innocent and sweet sounding. Just like Snow White and Bambi. You'll find that the Ionian mode is used a lot in love songs. It has a fairly inspirational sound and imparts a very positive message. Use this mode if you want your melody to sound sincere and pure.

You can probably guess from this description that Ionian is a major scale. You literally could not be more right. As a matter of fact the other name for the Ionian scale is the Major scale. The Ionian mode is literally the cornerstone of western music. Of all music scales this is by far the most famous one. Seriously. Just pluck the first 7 notes of the Ionian mode in any key and you'll instantly recognize them. If you don't recognize them then just put down your guitar and slowly back away, this music stuff is not for you. Seriously, when you play the Ionian mode you should recognize it right away as the "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do" scale that you learned in music class in elementary school. It's such an important scale that Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a song about it for the musical The Sound Of Music. You can watch the clip from the movie version here...

Some songs that use Ionian mode:
Frosty The Snowman
When You Wish Upon A Star
I Believe by Joe Satriani (Just the chorus and the end of the song. For the verse see Aeolian mode.)
Always With Me, Always With You by Joe Satriani (The intro and main melody.)
Do Re Mi song (Of course.)

Let's move on to the second mode...


Source

2) DORIAN

Dorian is a darker mode. It's definitely the one most closely associated with the blues. And if you haven't already figured it out, it is a Minor mode for sure. Use this mode when you want to create some tension. When you want your music to brood this is a good mode to use. Think Buddy Guy or John Lee Hooker. The next time you're playing a minor pentatonic scale, slowly slip into the Dorian mode with all 7 of it's notes and then stealthily sneak back out of it and back into the 5-note minor pentatonic. It's a lot of fun and is sure to turn heads. I'll explain how to do this later when we go over the mechanics of the Dorian mode but for now just know that this is a great mode to keep handy when playing the blues. It also has some applications with hard rock songs.

Some songs that use Dorian mode:
Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles
Black Night Is Falling by Buddy Guy
Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix (For the most part.)
Bad Horsie by Steve Vai

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3) PHRYGIAN

Another mode with some tension to it. This mode has a more international feel to it. To be specific some of the intervals of this mode are definitely reminiscent of middle eastern music. (Ok, whew...I made it a very long way into this guide before I used a really fancy word. "Interval" just means the space in frets between one note of the scale and the next note.) Think Arabian nights. Whenever you're looking for an exotic, far off mood Phrygian is a good bet. Joe Satriani once said something to the effect of, "What kind of story do I want to tell? What do I want the audience to imagine? Is this about a guy floating down the Mississippi Delta or floating down the Nile?" That's a good approximation of the Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Dorian mode has a more American blues rock feel to it and the Phrygian more of an eastern twang.

(I should point out here that Phrygian mode actually tends to get very slightly tweaked in order to make it really pop! Most guitarists prefer something called Phrygian Dominant which is the Phrygian mode with one of the notes altered. Don't worry about it at this point. I just thought I'd point out that a lot of songs that focus on Phrygian tend to lean toward the Dominant version. The true Phrygian mode is very workable but not quite as sexy as the Dominant version. I'll elaborate later on when we start to get hands on with the modes.)

Ok, so if you haven't already figured it out the Phrygian mode is another minor mode. So if you're keeping score we now have one major mode and two minor modes so far. Three down, four to go...

Some songs that use Phrygian mode: (most of these are probably Phrygian Dominant.)
War by Joe Satriani
Songs For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age.
Fire Garden Suite by Steve Vai (intro)
A Taste Of India by Aerosmith

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4) LYDIAN

Ok, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it...I just call this one the Satriani mode. Some of you guys might think I'm being goofy but for my money Satriani is the guy who made this mode famous. And though all the other modes will remind you of a lot of great guitar players and styles of music, the Lydian mode is the one that always and only reminds me of Satriani. If you're a fan of Joe and you wanna know how he gets that strange beautiful melody in some of his songs then this mode is for you. Yes, I know that other musicians were using it before Joe came along but in my opinion no main stream guitar player has dressed it up as much and presented it in such an appealing light as Joe has.

It's has a quirky yet enchanting feel to it. For the most part it's a hauntingly beautiful mode but there's definitely some strange notes in it that give rise to some trepidation and tension. A good analogy for this mode would be to imagine yourself waking up in the garden from the movie Avatar. On one hand you'd be totally mesmorized and enchanted with all the beautiful things to see. On the other hand you'd kind of be freaking out wondering where the hell your bedroom went, right? So when you wanna go for a pleasant and lovely landscape but with an injection of alienation to it then Lydian is the one for the job. Ok so I tried to drop as many positive hints as I could and if you've guessed that the Lydian mode is another major mode then you are correct!

Some songs that use Lydian:
Flying In A Blue Dream by Joe Satriani
Lords Of Karma by Joe Satriani

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5) MIXOLYDIAN

So Lydian and Mixolydian are pretty much my favorite two modes. If Lydian is beautiful yet alien and Ionian is pure and inspirational then Mixolydian is just down right drunk and happy! Mixolydian has a warm quality to it that is missing in the Ionian mode. Both modes are very positive and affirming but where the Ionian mode has a very touching somber emotion like a wedding or a bubbling brook, the Mixolydian mode is more laid back with a very slight country/rock flavor to it. If the Ionian mode is a couple at a wedding, then the Mixolydian mode would be appropriate for them on their honeymoon kicking back on the beach. Imagine the Corona commercials and you'll get the picture. If you like to play country then Mixolydian is the mode for you but don't be disappointed if you actually hate country. Mixolydian only sounds country if you play it in what is obviously a country song. It also does rock like no body's business, just ask Angus Young!

"Jessica" by the Allman Brothers
"Summer Song" by Joe Satriani
"Fire On The Mountain" by the Grateful Dead. (Actually, try Mixolydian in any Jerry Garcia song. It's a good bet.)

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6) AEOLIAN

Ok, so remember when I said that Ionian was also called simply the Major scale? Well the Aelian mode has another relatively famous alias also which is the Natural Minor scale. What does Natural Minor mean? I don't know and I don't care! Haha. Seriously, I could go into it here but it's just gonna be a bunch of musical jargon. On a rainy day you can look that up but it really isn't that important at the moment.

Being that it's also referred to as the Natural Minor scale, you sleuths out there have no doubt deduced that it is our 3rd Minor mode of the 7 modes. So we have our 3 major modes and our 3 minor modes and that seventh and last mode lurking right around the bend with it's ominously dark reputation. Anyway, I have referred to the major modes with terms like, "beautiful" and "love" but even though the Aeolian mode is a minor mode and therefore not very happy, it is still quite a beautiful sounding mode that imparts a very sexy and romantic mood.

It's the most workable of the 3 minor modes. The Phrygian mode as we'll see later on actually needs a little tweaking to make it really pop and the Dorian mode has kind of a disgruntled feel to it when you try and work it. The Aeolian mode however definitely comes pre-assembled and ready to go right out of the box. Whenever you wanna go for a dark, sexy, wax-dripping love scene this is the mode for you. It also has a distinctly Spanish feel to it especially when you use it over the right chord progression. If you're writing a love song in a minor key then I strongly suggest you go right to the Aeolian mode. Anytime you need to create a mood of sadness and loss then this is the mode for you. Of the 3 minor modes it's definitely the least aggresive sounding.

Some songs that use Aeolian:
I Believe by Joe Satriani (Remember that the chorus is Ionian. Well the verses are Aeolian. You can hear how the verses sound haunting and sad and then the song gets very happy during the chorus.)

When You Love A Woman by Bryan Adams (intro)
Black Magic Woman by Carlos Santana
Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin
Mr. Crowley by Ozzy Ozbourne

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7) LOCRIAN

Ok so we've now finally come to the last mode. And if there's anything redeeming that you could say about the Locrian mode it would be that at least it had the decency to be the last one instead of loitering around in the middle of the pack confusing people. Because there's not much else good about it. In the movie Twins with Arnold Swarzeneggar and Danny Devito, there is a line that basically explains that as twins Arnold's character got all the great genes: size, strength, stamina, intelligence, looks. And Devito's character got all the genetic junk left over. That's a good way to describe the Locrian mode.

If there's a price to pay for the beauty and symmetry of the first six modes then the seventh one would be it. It really isn't of much use at all. You know how when you get that awesome product in the big box that has to be assembled with hundreds of parts including poles, rods, nuts, bolts and washers? And when you get done building it, it looks kick butt and works great but you have a bunch of random parts left over that you would swear were never called for in the instructions? Well the first six modes are that awesome product that works great and the Locrian mode is the crap left over that you can't find a use for.

It is most commonly referred to as a theoretical mode, meaning that it is technically a mode because it adheres to all the rules mathmatically as far as what notes make it up. Unfortunately it breaks so many rules musically that it is helplessly unstable and un-melodic. Pretty much anything about a musical scale that makes it suitable to create desireable music is missing from the Locrian mode.

Now when I first read that about the Locrian mode I had the same reaction that most people do. I thought, "Well that sounds like a challenge! Let's just see how difficult it is to work with the Locrian mode! I bet I can do something with it!" Nope. It sucks. One of my guitar students had the same reaction. I'd explained the first six modes and we'd played around with them some. I told him there's a seventh one but its pretty useless and he said well I still wanna see what it sounds like. So he did and he agreed. It sucks.

So the allure of the Locrian mode for you is going to be akin to sniffing a fart. You're curious to see what it sounds like and to see if you can do anything with it and will undoubtedly experiment with it if for no other reason than to affirm to yourself that it really does sound as bad as everyone says it does.

Now don't get me wrong...there ARE guitar players who use it but mostly it's some really out there jazz stuff where the name of the game is to break rules and wrinkle noses so to speak. Come to think of it, I'd be very surprised if Tom Waits doesn't have any songs that use Locrian. If he doesn't I'd urge him to give it a try. Also some hardcore metal bands have played around with Locrian because metal is crap and so is Locrian!

NO, haha..I'm only kidding! Seriously, metal music often looks to create tension and dissonance and the Locrian scale is all about dissonance so some metal players have found some interesting uses for it. When you wanna go for crazy try Locrian.

Also it is said that a lot of far eastern music uses the Locrian mode which makes sense because when is the last time you found yourself endlessly humming some catchy Mandarin Chinese diddy that you could not get out of your head?

Wow, how about that! I wrote the longest description for the least useful mode. Haha. I don't know why I did that but anyway.

Some songs that use Locrian mode:

Ummm, the only info I've really found on this is that the intro to Enter Sandman by Metallica uses Locrian. Really because it's such a weird scale you'll probably find it out there being used by weird or really experienced and experimental musicians.

Modal Theory Mechanics

Ok, so that's it for a run down of each mode's aesthetic qualities. Let's talk more about what makes modal theory tick.


At this point what most of you are probably used to seeing is a bunch of scale diagrams for each mode that look something like this...

To me this is a confusing way to present modal theory to beginners. Why would I spend all this time explaining to you that modal theory uses one scale pattern and then turn around and give you these seven different patterns? There is merit to using the above images to learn modal theory but I think that for the beginner there is a simpler and easier to understand approach that will demonstrate that modal theory really is just one scale pattern. So let's move on to that approach...



The Major Scale Pattern

To the right you will see the major scale pattern. This is the pattern I've been talking about from the very beginning of this guide. Yes folks get an eye full because there it is!

Right there -------------------------------->

Yep!

FN awesome!

Amazing ain't it! Doesn't it just look magical? I used swirly purple and orange dots to represent the notes just to add to the effect of enchantment. I suppose I could put some sparkles and maybe halos around the dots also.

Ok.

So...

...

...ummm, you're probably thinking, "What now?"

Good question actually.

Ok, so let me just say first that I avoided the temptation to get to technical with this scale pattern. I could have put little "root note" symbols on certain dots and I could have put the name of each note over each dot also. I could have added fret numbers out to the side of the neck for easier navigation and put some heading about how it's the G major scale that you're looking at. But I didnt. Why?

Because that's a Hell of a lot of work and I'm not getting paid to write this guide. (The fact that I hope to pick up a couple of pennies after I publish it is beside the point.) If you want all those fancy bells and whistles you should probably think about actually spending some money on a real music theory book!

No, haha...of course I'm just kidding. The reason that I didn't annotate the image with more information is because I want to stress the universality of the scale. I don't want you to think of the image as just the G major scale and have you then want to know what the major scale looks like in other keys. This is the pattern that you'll eventually come to know and love if you stick with modal theory. Simply by shifting all these notes up and down the neck together you'll be able to achieve some amazing things!

But it is quite a bit to chew off at one time isn't it? So let's simplify things a bit to start off because really this scale is nothing if not redundant and at this point it's probably over-redundant and for some beginners maybe a bit overwhelming. I mean I've been writing this section for quite some time and I'm only now getting close to the other end of this scale! I'm afraid that for the purpose of getting you started right away with modal theory we'll want to break things down a bit...




Home Base

In the next section we'll get hands on and begin learning when and how to play each mode for any key. I'll use some helpful videos demonstrating each mode and provide some useful links to youtube videos for backing tracks for each mode that you can use to practice with.


Now glance again at the major scale above. That's a lot of dang notes! But remember that it's really just seven notes that repeat over and over again. To keep things simpler lets just take a subset of these notes and concentrate on them as we begin. I'm gonna crop out all but 18 notes which will give us more than two whole octaves to play around with...

Notice the yellow numbered notes. You should think of this pattern as home base for modal theory. It's the first position and if you were paying attention earlier when we were listing the modes in order you'll recall that the first mode is the Ionian mode. So at this point it's useful to think of the above yellow notes as your Ionian pattern.

This pattern as well as all the other non-yellow notes will be used for all seven modes so don't be confused by the suggestion that you should think of this pattern as the Ionian pattern. Notice I said it's "useful" to think of it that way. I'll explain why it's useful at the end of the guide but for now I'm going to be a little unconventional by using this one pattern to demonstrate all seven modes. I feel like that this approach will give you a bird's eye view of what's really going on with modal theory.

Now for the musical pendants out there I will go ahead and point out that the above pattern isn't the one you usually see listed as the Ionian position. Normally the pattern below is what is shown as the Ionian position...

Both patterns are actually the same notes. Notice that both patterns start on the G note on the low E string. I prefer the other pattern though. The traditional Ionian pattern above only has 16 notes represented where as the other pattern has 18 notes. I also enjoy the symmetry of the other pattern. It has three notes on every string and having two whole steps on each of the first two strings is great for dexterity and flexibility. But play each pattern and you'll see that they are actually the same notes.

So let's go ahead and just give a listen to the pattern....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5p1Rr7YobM

So there's the pattern played through without any flourishes. We'll take this one pattern and learn how to move it up and down the neck and, depending on the key of the song and whether it's a major key or minor key, make it express all six modes. Hopefully you'll be able to hear the character of each mode as we apply the pattern in each instance.

A big first question when working with modal theory is what key am I in? If you're writing all the music then you're the captain of the ship and you'll already know the key. If you're looking to contribute to a composition that someone else wrote then the question of the key of the song is the first thing you need to determine. In most instances you'll be collaborating with someone who will already know this but sometimes you'll be the one who has to figure it out. That's kind of beyond the scope of this guide but I'll give a few brief pointers on that. There are three general approaches to figuring out the key of a song...

1) What's the first chord or note played at the very beginning of the song? If you have the sheet music for the song or can rewind the song and figure out the first note or chord then that's almost always the key of the song. It's not 100% true, some of the more sneakier composers will start a song with a chord or note that is not the key of the song but for the most part your safe with the first note or chord.

2) If you're not sure what the first note or chord is or you missed the beginning of the song then just run your finger up the low E string while plucking the string until you find that sweet note that sounds better than all the others. It takes a few seconds but when you find that note then that's probably the key of the song. You'll get better at this with practice and a good exercise is to take a song with a known key and practice this on the low E string.

3) Get someone else to try one of the two above methods and tell you the answer. (This was the preferred method of the other guitar player in my old band.)

Ok, so you know the key of the song and you know what mode you want to play in. The rest is acedemic...


Full Speed Ahead...The Ionian Mode.

Ok, so you've decided you want to start with the Ionian mode? Ha, of course not. I decided that! No, seriously it's the first mode and it's a great place to start but for the sake of argument let's just say you've just written a nice chord progression in a sweet sounding major key and now you want to compose a nice melody for the tune. And at some point you're gonna want to shred some awesome, tear-jerking solo. Or maybe the band that you play lead guitar in has a new ballad and they need some cool guitar licks to flesh it out. Well if you've read my description of the Ionian mode and it's sound then you know that the Ionian mode is the mode you're looking for.


Check out the above image. Notice the yellow pattern (our "home base" pattern). See how the first dot is labeled "1"?

That's gonna be your reference point for the Ionian mode with this pattern. In this particular image, the pattern is placed so that the 1 position is on the G note (3rd fret, low E string, standard tuning).

What that tells you is that this position is the correct position if you want to play G Ionian. Or in other words, if you're playing along with or writing a song in G major and you want to shape a melody and tonality as described above when we talked about the emotion and feel of the Ionian mode, then you should take the pattern shown and position it on your guitar fretboard so that the first note of the pattern is a G.

Ok, let's say instead you have a song you are working with and it's in the key of D major. Simply transpose that pattern so that the first note of the pattern starts on D note of the low E string (10th fret on the low E string, standard tuning).

So here's an exercise, visit Youtube.com and do a search for "G Ionian backing track". Choose one of the links that the search returns and noodle around using the above pattern.

Here's a good one to start with...


G Ionian Backing Track


First just run up and down the scale a few times using our pattern above and in the previous video. Then try improvising through the scale, skipping some intervals, using forward and backward triplets. Use hammer on's and pull off's. Try bending some of the notes up to the next note pitch and back down again. Hopefully you will already know that those dots numbered (1) are the root notes. Try to start and end your melodies with the root notes because they are the notes of the key you are playing in. There are other sweet spots also and you should try and find those too. Usually landing on a note that matches the current chord in the progression is melody 101 stuff.

Here's an example of how that might go...



The above video is pretty no frills. You shouldn't approach this for the first time aiming for fret board fireworks. Just work it up and down and then just noodle around looking for sweet spots.

Experiment with different videos that advertise a G Ionian or major key and get to know the sweet, sincere mood of the G major scale. Or really I should say the sweet, sincere mood of the Ionian mode.

Well that should have gone pretty good, especially for an intermediate player. Don't worry if your phrasing and syncopation are sloppy at first. This isn't a tutorial on playing sexy blistering licks and runs. There are tons of vids out there for that and I encourage you to tackle those because your phrasing of this pattern and these modes are gonna go hand in hand with the theory and knowledge of how they work.

But for now we're just concerned with listening and feeling the notes of the mode. Go slow at first. Feel and linger on all the notes. Speed will impede your initial ability to get yourself familiar with each mode. You really want to use your ears when working the modes and make mental notes of the sweet spots in each mode.

Now on to the next mode....

Dorian

Source

Blues St. The Dorian Mode

If the Ionian mode made sense to you then the rest should be fairly acedemic!

For several reasons, we're gonna stay right on the same position on the fretboard. You need to understand how the exact same set of 7 notes can actually be 7 different modes in 7 different keys depending on what key signature you apply them to.

Ok, remember that Dorian is a minor mode. Also recall that Dorian is the 2nd mode. So here's how this works...


In the last section we wanted to play in the Ionian mode, or the 1st mode. We wanted to play the Ionian mode in G, or G Ionian. So we positioned the pattern so that the first note landed on a G note.

If we want to play in Dorian mode which is the 2nd mode, then we'll focus on the 2nd note as the reference point in the pattern. The 2nd note of the above pattern in it's indicated position happens to be an A note (5th fret on the low E string, standard tuning). So let's say you're jamming along with a song in the key of A minor (remember Dorian is a minor mode). What you would do is position the above pattern so that the 2nd dot fell on an A note on the low E string (which as already stated is conveniently the case with the above image).

Now as an exercise we just do the same thing we did with the Ionian mode execept we're gonna look on Youtube.com for a backing track in the key of A Dorian. Go ahead and do a search for "backing track A Dorian" on Youtube.com. Here's one I like...



And here's another example of a short jam over this backing track...


Notice how the pattern sounded when played over G major. Now notice how those exact same notes sound over A minor. Now it isn't sweet anymore. Now it has tension and a dark, blues feel. Also, because you're in a different key than before, you now have a different root note. Yes, you guessed it...now your root notes are the #2 dots. Try to start and end your runs and melodies on those notes, but don't ignore the other notes.

Players familiar with the minor pentatonic scale might notice that the A minor pentatonic is sitting amongst the notes of the A Dorian scale. This is no accident of course. For the most bang, I recommend not playing exclusively in either scale. Going full Dorian can get dull just as going full minor pentatonic can also. To make the Dorian pop, work the minor pentatonic starting out and then add in the Dorian notes here and there as really sexy accents.

I have a buddy I jam with every now and then. It never fails...we'll be playing a blues jam and I'll be working the minor pentatonic mostly. Then I'll throw in a Dorian run which is just the minor pentatonic with 2 extra notes added. He'll stop me every time and say, "Hey! What did you just do there???"

Remember that your A minor pentatonic scale is a subset of your A Dorian mode. And yes, it works that way in every key. E minor pentatonic is a subset of E Dorian, C minor pentatonic is a subset of C Dorian. The symmetry is beautiful.

For some fun I recommend looking up "Kiss" by Prince. If you can't find the Prince version, there is a Tom Jones one on Youtube.com

There really isn't a better scale to work with on that tune than D Dorian. The D minor pentatonic just leaves something to be desired. Transpose your home base pattern so that the 2nd dot falls on the D note on the low E string (10th fret). Noodle the pattern over the song Kiss and see how it sounds compared to just the minor pentatonic scale.

Remember, position the scale so that the 2nd dot falls on the D note, not the 1st dot. If you put the 1st dot on the 10th fret you'll actually be playing E Dorian. (See how that works?)

Source

Getting Exotic: The Phrygian Mode

Now we move on to the Phrygian mode. The one with the more eastern flavor.

By this point you should be getting the hang of it. The Phrygian mode is the 3rd mode so in our home base pattern we are going to focus on that 3rd dot in the pattern for playing in the Phrygian mode.

Above is the familiar scale we've been working. Those 18 notes have demonstrated the Ionian mode and the Dorian mode and now we will exploit them to show the Phrygian mode.

Notice that when the 1st dot is on the G note on the low E string, the 3rd dot falls on the B note on the low E string. Also recall that the Phrygian mode is a minor mode. That means that if you play this pattern in this position over a B minor chord progression, you will be playing in the B Phrygian mode.

If for example you wanted to play around in C Phrygian instead, you would transpose that whole pattern one half step (one fret) forward on the guitar neck so that the 3rd dot fell on the C note on the low E string. Hopefully I'm not annoying anyone by being redundant with these examples. I just want to be thorough and reinforce the concept as often as I can.

Anyway, for now let's stay in the same position and work the B Phrygian. Look on Youtube.com for a "B Phrygian backing track". Try several different ones and work that pattern and see if you can get a feel for the Phrygian mode and it's sound and mood. Some "B minor backing tracks" might work well with the B Phrygian mode, you just have to experiment and see. There are subtleties at play here with regards to the intricacies of these chord progressions. Building specific modal chord progressions is beyond the scope of this tutorial because it really requires diving into the nuts and bolts of chord composition. In a pinch though if you know the chords you're playing along with you may be able to modify them to fit with what you're doing. Any notes in the chords that are not in the modal scale you're working with are going to throw it off. If there's a cool chord you want to work into your Phrygian composition but it doesn't seem to be harmonious, experiment with locating the offending note and raising it or lowering it to a note that IS in your mode. You will probably have just discovered a cool new chord you didn't know existed.

Use this approach with all the modes. Sometimes a chord needs to be specially tailored for a certain mode.

Phrygian Dominant

As I stated earlier, a lot of players prefer a modified version of the Phrygian mode called Phrygian Dominant. Speaking technically it is the Phrygian mode with a raised 3rd, or natural 3rd. What that means practically is that instead of a minor mode, the Phrygian mode is transformed into a major mode as a result of this alteration. The upshot of this modification isn't so much a desire to hear a "happy" Phrygian mode as much as it is the fact that the intervals created with this change make for a strong middle-eastern/Arabian tonality. It is very unmistakable and extremely compelling.

What we mean by a raised 3rd is this:

Take the 3rd note of the scale. Now this is where it can get confusing. We're not talking about the dot labeled 3 in the pattern. Remember that the dot labeled 3 is actually our root since the 3rd dot is the reference for Phrygian. The 3rd dot is our root of the Phrygian mode. It should make sense that the root is actually the 1st note of the Phrygian scale even though it's the 3rd note of the G major (Ionian) scale we started with. So let's just go back over this logic for a second. What is the 1st note of the Phrygian (the root) happens to be the 2nd note of the Dorian scale in that same position and is the 3rd note of the Ionian scale in that same position. Hopefully this makes sense.

But in this particular case what we are interested in is the Phrygian mode. So we forget that we're playing a G major scale. In other words we forget that we're playing the notes of the G Ionian mode. Yes they are the same notes but in this context we're expressing a B Phrygian mode, so our root (which is the dot labeled "3" becomes the 1st note of our Phrygian scale and the 3rd note in the Phrygian scale is referenced from that. Confused yet?

So look at the scale above. The dot labeled "3" is our root. For all intents and purposes you could re-label that dot "1" and change all the other dots accordingly. If dot "3" is actually the 1st note of our Phrygian scale then dot "4" is technically the 2nd note and dot "5" is the 3rd. That's the note we're concerned with when we want to transform the standard Phrygian mode into Phrygian Dominant. We're raising that note a half step (one fret) and only that note. The rest of them stay right where they are.

I could have just said "take all the dots labeled "5" and move them to the right one fret but I did want to try and explain the music theory behind why we're doing that.

Now I'll go ahead and give you the Phrygian Dominant version.

You're not going to have much luck if you work this mode over a B minor backing track. Remember we've changed this mode from minor to major. Visit Youtube.com and search for "B Phrygian Dominant backing track". That should get you going. Notice that the really sweet spot of this mode is going to be that note we shifted. Noodling around with triplets forward and backward around that note will firmly express the exotic sound this mode can generate.


Some theory about natural 3rds...

You can skip this part if you like. It's just a little background about what a 3rd is and why it is important.

The third note of any western scale is usually key to determining whether the scale is minor or major. There is an absolute entity called the "natural 3rd". You can find the natural 3rd by finding the root of any scale and counting up 5 frets (including the root). If that note is in the scale you're playing then it's typically a major scale you're playing. If however you count up 5 frets looking for the natural 3rd and find that the 3rd note of the scale is actually shifted down one fret then that's called a flattened 3rd which makes the scale a minor scale.

Let's confirm what we just talked about.

We've said the minor modes are the 2nd (Dorian), 3rd (Phrygian), and 6th (Aeolian) modes. Look at the patterns to the right for these modes. You will see that starting with the 1st note and counting up, the 3rd note in those scales are on the 4th fret from the note and not the 5th fret. That's why they're minor scales. If you extrapolated out the three major modes along the low E string you'd see that including the 1st notes, the 3rd note of the scale would fall 5 frets away and not 4. In other words the Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian scales contain natural 3rds and that's why they're major modes.

As far as the Locrian mode, well let's just not get into it. The 3rd note would seem to indicate that it's a minor mode and indeed it technically is but the scale is so jacked up musically it's hardly even useful to think of it in terms of minor or major.

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