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How to Improvise on the Guitar with Mixolydian Mode

Updated on November 8, 2015

What is the Mixolydian Mode?

First of all, don't worry about the long name. A lot of scales in music have long and technical sounding names which derive from music theory and the history of music in particular. Mode names originate from the Greek names of the scales used in plainsong and even earlier. Technically the mixolydian scale is the major scale with a flatted seventh which gives it a more mellow quality. It is frequently used in guitar improvisation particularly in blues and jazz and it is easy if you know the pentatonic scale. This page will show you a couple of tricks for using the mixolydian. I hope you enjoy it.

A Mixolydian Scale - Whole Fretboard

Graphic I prepared of A mixolydian over the whole fretboard. Note names given for reference only.
Graphic I prepared of A mixolydian over the whole fretboard. Note names given for reference only. | Source

Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scale

The minor pentatonic is the most fundamental scale to master. It is very easy to improvise with as tricky notes (fourth and seventh) are not there to cause clashes with chords. The minor pentatonic easily converts into the blues scale we all know and love. The next illustration shows the minor pentatonic in the "box" position. You should know this before moving on.

You don't actually need to memorise all these notes if you don't want to - knowing the shape is more important. After all, when you start it in a different position the notes will be different too.

A minor pentatonic - 5th position

This is the "box" position of the minor pentatonic. Probably the most used and abused scale shape in guitar history.
This is the "box" position of the minor pentatonic. Probably the most used and abused scale shape in guitar history. | Source
This is the A Blues Scale in box position. It has an extra note, the flatted fifth.
This is the A Blues Scale in box position. It has an extra note, the flatted fifth. | Source

The Pentatonic and Blues Scales over the Whole Fretboard

For the moment I am going to keep this in the key of A because this is probably the most guitar friendly key. With movable shapes you can cover virtually any key and go much deeper but A is a very good place to start. I am going to show you the whole fretboard version of the A minor pentatonic and the whole fretboard version of the A blues scale next. Ideally you would be familiar with 5 positions of the pentatonic too and that follows in a little while. When you use whole fretboard scales you can either move across or along the strings sliding in and out of different regions of the fretboard. Your anchor notes are A and E and if you know none of the others at least try to memorise those. In music theory terms they are called the Tonic and the Dominant and they give the key its character. I call them "anchor notes" because they are the notes that keep you safely in tune with the chords.

Whole fretboard versions of A minor pentatonic, A blues and A mixolydian

A minor pentatonic over the whole fretboard.
A minor pentatonic over the whole fretboard. | Source
A Blues Scale over the Whole Fretboard
A Blues Scale over the Whole Fretboard | Source
A Mixolydian over the whole fretboard. Notice it has C# instead of C natural? That major third gives it a much brighter sound than the blues scale.
A Mixolydian over the whole fretboard. Notice it has C# instead of C natural? That major third gives it a much brighter sound than the blues scale. | Source

Upbeat Backing Track for A Mixolydian and A Blues

Mixolydian Mode has more notes

The mixolydian mode has more notes because it is nearly the regular major scale. This could make it more difficult to use but if you relate it to the five pentatonic shapes we know and love it becomes much easier to play with.

My next two graphics show the five movable pentatonic shapes but to use the mixolydian mode correctly we have to go back to that "relative minor" thing I talked about last time. So, if using A mixolydian, we need to base it on F# minor pentatonic in order to get all the correct notes. No problem, that is just three frets back from the regular blues scale and of course you will need to change the "anchor notes".

To combine pentatonic and mixolydian scale correctly, move your shapes back three frets from the regular blues scale position.

Minor Pentatonic and Mixolydian Combined

This is the minor pentatonic as we are used to it from previous lessons.
This is the minor pentatonic as we are used to it from previous lessons. | Source
This is the same minor pentatonic but with mixolydian notes added in red. Play three frets back and emphasise Root (tonic) marked R and Fifth (dominant) marked 5.
This is the same minor pentatonic but with mixolydian notes added in red. Play three frets back and emphasise Root (tonic) marked R and Fifth (dominant) marked 5. | Source

To see how relative minors work with all this and play in any key centre, you can check my hub page on Moveable scales and chords if you haven't already. This explains about relative minors in detail and has a lot of helpful information.

Mixolydian Songs for Listening and Enjoying

I am not going to go into the arguments about modal songs, modal harmony and modal theory that guitar players love to indulge in or go into complicated scale theory. You can get that from a book and there are so many different "takes" on it. For me, modal harmony is whatever chord the scale produces and how you use them is open to a myriad of interpretations. Let's not make rock too rule bound folks. Instead let's enjoy the sound of the mixolydian scale wherever and however it raises its head. Here is a list of mixolydian-ish songs I compiled for your listening pleasure. Take a trip over to Youtube or raid your Dad's (or Grandad's or big brother's) collection of vinyls or CDs and just enjoy yourself.


  • Alright Now – Free
  • Axis Bold as Love - Jimi Hendrix
  • Back In Black - AC/DC
  • Cherub Rock - Smashing Pumpkins
  • China Cat Sunflower - Grateful Dead
  • Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young
  • Dark Star - Grateful Dead
  • Dear Prudence - Beatles
  • Don't Stop Till You Get Enough - Michael Jackson
  • Highway to Hell - AC/DC
  • Hungry Like the Wolf - Duran Duran
  • On Broadway – George Benson
  • I Can't Explain - The Who
  • (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction - Rolling Stones
  • Juice - Steve Vai
  • L.A. Woman – The Doors
  • Lola - Kinks
  • Louie Louie - Kingsmen
  • Marquee Moon – Television (Solo)
  • No Rain - Blind Melon
  • Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - Beatles
  • Number of the Beast - Iron Maiden
  • Old Joe Clark
  • Seven Bridges Road – The Eagles
  • She Moved Through the Fair - Traditional
  • She Said She Said - Beatles
  • She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult (Verse)
  • Southern Cross – CSNY
  • Stop - Jane's Addiction
  • Summer Song – Joe Satriani
  • Sweet Child of Mine – Guns n Roses (Verse)
  • Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Sympathy For the Devil - Rolling Stones (goes in and out of blues scale too)
  • Thank You- Led Zeppelin
  • Tones of Home - Blind Melon
  • The Visitors - ABBA
  • The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot


Using the Mixolydian

Do you like the sound of the Mixolydian Mode?

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