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How to Improvise on Guitar with The Dorian Mode

Updated on November 8, 2015

What is the Dorian Mode?

The Dorian mode is often explained as "simply the white notes on the piano starting on D". As a young guitarist and composer I found the approach of relating modes to the C major scale, although theoretically correct, was no help whatsoever. To be comfortable as a composer with the Dorian, you need to understand all its key variations and its basic harmony, you have to transpose the characteristic intervals in your head. This takes time. As a guitar player you don't need to do this to enjoy its versatility and interesting sound. To be comfortable as a guitarist you only need to relate it to fretboard shapes you already know. The best shape to attach it to is in fact the minor pentatonic. This page will show you how to do this and become confident soloing with the Dorian mode.

The Minor Pentatonic Box

The minor pentatonic is the skeleton on which I want to hang the Dorian mode.
The minor pentatonic is the skeleton on which I want to hang the Dorian mode. | Source

What do you need for this lesson on the Dorian mode?

  1. A little experience as a guitar player.
  2. The drive to learn to improvise rather than just copy other solos.
  3. A practical knowledge of pentatonic scales and positions.
  4. Something to listen to music on.
  5. A guitar and the will to succeed with new things.

The most important thing is to be able to use the pentatonic scale so if you haven't already done so, I suggest you check out my pages on improvising in the pentatonic box and extending the pentatonic scale. Without that familiarity, it will be more difficult (though not impossible) to pick up this lesson on how to solo in the Dorian mode.

For a sound basis in Dorian improvisation...

If you are less experienced with pentatonic improvisation, check out these lessons on how to improvise in the pentatonic box and how to extend the pentatonic scale over the fretboard.

A Minor Pentatonic to A Dorian

Starting with A minor pentatonic is probably best as it is a common key in rock music and fits the five shape model quite easily. Many guitarists start their lead guitar improvising with the "blues box" in the fifth position so it should be familiar to you either as A blues or A minor pentatonic. There is only one note difference between the two. Beginners can use open chord shapes for the harmonies too.

The notes in A minor pentatonic are:

A , C, D , E , G

The notes of A dorian are:

A , B , C , D , E , F# , G

You can see there are two notes added to make the Dorian mode, those notes are B and F# and will give a clue to Dorian harmony.

A typical chord progression for A minor pentatonic improvisation would be:

Am / / / Em / / / Am / / / C / / / Dm / / / Am / / / Em / / / Am / / /

Something more suggestive of the Dorian mode might be:

Am / / / D / / / Am / / / G / / / D / / / Bm / / / Em / / / Am / / /

We can use D and Bm because of that F#. or raised 6th. That note is characteristic of the Dorian mode and gives it a personality that is equally at home in folk, hard rock and even jazz.

I want to keep the theory simple for this lesson because the emphasis is on making it easy, but I think understanding what the special note is means we can use that note to convey the Dorian sound.

Five positions of the pentatonic
Five positions of the pentatonic | Source

Five positions of the Dorian Mode superimposed on the Pentatonic

I prepared this chart which converts the minor pentatonic to the Dorian mode. The blue and green notes are anchor notes. The orange notes are "Dorian" notes.
I prepared this chart which converts the minor pentatonic to the Dorian mode. The blue and green notes are anchor notes. The orange notes are "Dorian" notes. | Source

Learning to solo in the Dorian Mode.

Assuming you are familiar with the pentatonic box then first look at the diagram on the top row, first on the left. If you compare that with the image of the pentatonic box in the chart above it you will see it has more notes added. Technically speaking, these notes are the second and the sixth of the minor scale, the sixth is raised by a semitone using the sharp sign #

In pentatonic scales there are five different notes and in regular scales there are seven. That is why modes have more variety and character. The reason I relate the Dorian mode to the pentatonic is that it is much easier for beginners to cope with than relating it to the major scale as textbooks do. Trust me, it works and we can handle complicated theory later. This is what I want you to do:

  1. Strum an A minor chord, then make up a short musical phrase that starts on a blue note and uses close notes.
  2. Do the same, but take your phrase to the nearest orange note and back again.
  3. Explore the first pattern thoroughly in short 5, 6 or 7 note phrases. Try to avoid too much "jumping" around the box but keep the phrases close so you could easily hum along with them. Try to avoid just playing the scale by moving back and forth from the blue note.
  4. Do the same thing using the green and orange notes as your focus and Em as your starter chord.
  5. Record or play a vamp of Am and D chords (or get a friend to do it) then enjoy yourself making up a few licks over the vamp.

If you can set up a loop with digital delay pedal, then do so and practice the above with each of the following chords: Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim, G

What we are doing with all this is just getting familiar with the notes you can use and the sounds of the Dorian scale. The not so technical term guitarists for this is noodling.

To make the other Dorian mode shapes work with the chords in A minor (Dorian)

You need to know which position to play each shape. Position is determined by which fret your first finger is on or where the shape starts on the neck. Here goes for the key of A minor or A Dorian mode:

Making the shapes work for A Minor Dorian harmony

Top Row:

Left shape is fifth position

Centre shape is seventh position

Right shape is ninth position

Bottom Row:

Left shape is twelfth position

Right shape is fourteenth position

A Great Dorian Backtrack to Noodle With!

Connecting the shapes for the Dorian mode

When you really do have a feel for the A Dorian mode then it is a good idea to practice connecting these shapes. You should be happy to slide in and out of each shape by now but you will most likely have to record a chord progression, buy an appropriate backing track or ask a friend to play rhythm so you can "noodle" with the whole fretboard.

Remember these shapes are completely movable and my next lesson is going to focus on movable chords and scales.

Backing Track for A Minor Dorian

Backing and Jam Tracks for Guitar, Vol. 1
Backing and Jam Tracks for Guitar, Vol. 1

A lovely smooth latin backtrack to practise Dorian mode soloing with.


A Dorian Whole Fretboard Map

Here is the whole fretboard version of A Dorian, the second and sixth notes are in orange and the pentatonic notes in black. Note names are for information only.
Here is the whole fretboard version of A Dorian, the second and sixth notes are in orange and the pentatonic notes in black. Note names are for information only. | Source

A List of Dorian Songs

Sometimes a good place to start is just to listen to a few songs that use the Dorian Mode either in the melody or in a solo. The variety is huge but here are a few that are generally acknowledged to be good listening:

  1. All Blues – Miles Davis (mixolydian moving to parallel dorian and back again)
  2. All The Pretty Little Horses
  3. All Through the Night
  4. Along Comes Mary - Association
  5. Another Brick In The Wall – Pink Floyd – the whole song is virtually D Dorian
  6. Bachelor's Hall
  7. Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 (not THE Toccata and Fugue – but another one)
  8. Bad Horsie - Steve Vai
  9. Beat it! - Michael Jackson
  10. Be Thou My Vision - Hymn
  11. Billie Jean - Michael Jackson - intro and main verse vamp
  12. Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair
  13. Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Green Day
  14. Break On Through (To the Other Side) - The Doors
  15. Breathe - by Pink Floyd (the first part of the intro and verse are in E Dorian over and Em-A7 chord vamp.
  16. Brush with the Blues - Jeff Beck
  17. Cindy, Cindy
  18. City of New Orleans - Arlo Guthrie
  19. Clinch Mountain Backstep
  20. Cluck Old Hen
  21. Cool #9 - Joe Satriani (which is full of great sounding Dorian licks)
  22. Cripple Creek
  23. Dear Companion
  24. Dear Old Stockholm - Miles Davis
  25. Drowsy Maggie
  26. Drunken Sailor
  27. Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
  28. Et incarnatus est - Credo movement from Missa Solemnis by Beethoven
  29. Evil Ways – Santana
  30. Get Lucky - Daft Punk
  31. Great Gig in the Sky – Pink Floyd (the final section is in G dorian)
  32. Hey Ho Nobody Home - Round
  33. Horse With No Name – America
  34. Hughie the Graeme
  35. In the Pines
  36. Knockin' on Heaven's Door – Bob Dylan
  37. Light My Fire – The Doors – solo section has groove in A dorian over a Am7-Bm7 vamp.
  38. Little Sadie
  39. Long Train Running by The Doobie Brothers
  40. Maiden Voyage - Herbie Hancock Dorian and A Aeolian
  41. Milestones - Miles Davis,
  42. Moondance – Van Morrison – mostly dorian except for the prechorus which is minor
  43. My Little Welsh Home
  44. Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia - Vicki Lawrence/Bobby Russell
  45. Norwegian Wood - mainly mixolydian but moves to dorian over middle eight
  46. Nottamun Town
  47. Over the River Charlie
  48. Oye Como Va - Carlos Santana
  49. Paradise - Coldplay,
  50. Pretty Polly
  51. Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix - solo: E dorian
  52. Riders on the Storm – The Doors
  53. Sailor's Song
  54. Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel
  55. Shady Grove
  56. She's Not There - Zombies mostly A dorian (Am-D7), but with some A minor key chords (F, Dm, E).
  57. Shine on you Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd second part of intro riff over Gm-C = G dorian
  58. Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
  59. Sovay
  60. So What – Miles Davis - the tonality changes between D Dorian and Eb Dorian over AABA form (A sections D Dorian and B section is Eb Dorian)
  61. Star of County Down
  62. Star of Munster
  63. Stairway To Heaven - Led Zeppelin - mainly middle section
  64. Surfing With The Alien – Joe Satriani
  65. Swallowtail Jig
  66. Tender Surrender by Steve Vai
  67. This Diamond Ring – Gary Lewis and The Playboys
  68. Wedding Dress (a.k.a. Little Doney Gal)
  69. Who Will Save Your Soul – Jewel solo
  70. Wicked Game – Chris Isaac
  71. Wondrous Love - Hymn
  72. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot
  73. You Know You Know - Mahavishnu Orchestra - E Dorian

Are modes easy or hard?

Modes have complicated names and theory but are they easy to work with?

See results

© 2014 Lisa Marie Gabriel


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