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Learn to Improvise on the Guitar - the Lydian Mode

Updated on November 8, 2015
LisaMarieGabriel profile image

As a team leader for a group of guitar teachers I gave a lot of thought to teaching improvisation these articles arose from that experience.

What makes the Lydian Mode so special?

Magical, mystical, funny, regal, sweet, dreamy, comical, "the cartoon mode", pretty, exotic, humorous, religious, devotional, lovely, silly – these are all words used by different musicians to describe the Lydian mode. Basically the Lydian mode is major, the sharpened fourth gives it an exotic twist and makes it tricky to work with but gives it an edge that is in my opinion uplifting, bright and shouts out for attention.

Pentatonic with Lydian Superimposed

Five Positions of the Pentatonic, Lydian Notes shown in Orange
Five Positions of the Pentatonic, Lydian Notes shown in Orange | Source

Who uses the Lydian Mode?

The Lydian mode is used a lot in film music and dreamy progressive rock but it is not exclusive to these. Classical composers and pop artists have also fallen for the magic of the Lydian mode and in teaching it I often refer to it as “The Super Major” because it can present all the difficulties of major scale improvising but has a lovely quality when used well. Clues for Lydian mode soloing are major seventh chords and #11 chords but I am not about complex theory here, just about experiment and accessibility, so this page is about relating the Lydian mode to the pentatonic scale which, hopefully, you can happily play all day.

Pentatonic and Lydian Combined - Five Positions

Five Positions of the Pentatonic Scale with the extra Lydian Notes shown in Orange, Roots shown R and Fifths shown 5
Five Positions of the Pentatonic Scale with the extra Lydian Notes shown in Orange, Roots shown R and Fifths shown 5 | Source

Using the Scale Diagrams and Chart to play in Lydian Mode

If you want to play in C lydian it is actually quite easy if you follow these steps:

  1. Choose the pentatonic scale that fits for C. This is A minor pentatonic.
  2. Start with the first of the five positions checking it is in the correct part of the fretboard. (Fifth position for A minor and C major)
  3. Practice soloing in A minor pentatonic and add in those orange notes when you feel comfortable.
  4. Emphasize the notes C and G in your playing as this will give you "a sense of key".
  5. When comfortable with this you can try linking into the other positions. For C lydian, shape one is 5th position, shape two is in 7th position, shape three is in 9th position, shape four is in 12th position and shape five is in 14th position.

Keys Round the Cycle of Fifths

Major Key
Root (tonic) and Fifth (dominant)
Relative Minor
Root (tonic) and Fifth (dominant)
Use Pentatonic
C and G
A minor
A and E
A minor
G and D
E minor
E and B
E minor
D and A
B minor
B and F#
B minor
A and E
F# minor
F# and C#
F# minor
E and B
C# minor
C# and G#
C# minor
B and F#
G# minor
G# and D#
G# minor
F# (enharmonic with Gb)
F# and C#
D# minor
D# and A#
D# minor
Gb (enharmonic with F#)
Gb and Db
Eb minor
Eb and Bb
Eb minor
Db and Ab
Bb minor
Bb and F
Bb minor
Ab and Eb
F minor
F and Ab
F minor
Eb and Bb
C minor
C and G
C minor
Bb and F
G minor
G and D
G minor
F and C
D minor
D and A
D minor
When improvising in major keys, blues scales and modes, start with the minor pentatonic but change the emphasis by using the new "anchor notes" The pattern is the same for major and minor but Root (tonic) and Fifth (dominant) have to be different. Th

Typical Lydian Chord Progressions in C major

Of course it isn't really Lydian unless you have a backing to play with. Try getting a friend to play these chord progression for you to solo over or record them yourself.

Two chord vamp:

Cmaj7 / / / D / / / Cmaj7 / / / D / / /

Chord progression:

C / / / D / / / C / / / D / / / C / / / Em / / / Bm7 / / / C / / /

Vamp over suspended chords sounds very spacy:

Csus2 / / / Esus2 / / / Csus2 / / / Esus2 / / /

Long sustained chord:

C major7#11

Triads over pedal point in bass (The bass plays steady C notes while rhythm plays D and then C chords in treble range – very rocky!)

D/C / / / C / / / D/C / / / C / / /

Lydian Listening - Music that uses the Lovely Lydian Mode

If you are not familiar with the sound of the Lydian mode you should check these pieces of music out for inspiration. They are not the only examples of course but these are good demonstrations of the Lydian.

  • All I need - Radiohead (C Lydian)
  • Answers – Steve Vai
  • Balls of Gold - Steve Vai
  • Blue Jay Way - The Beatles (C Lydian with diminished chords)
  • Cathedrals - Jump Little Children (D Lydian)
  • Curve - John Petrucci (Lydian first riff)
  • Dancing Days – Led Zeppelin (main riff is G lydian)
  • Design for Life – Manic Street Preachers
  • Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough - Michael Jackson (A Lydian)
  • Dreams - Fleetwood Mac,
  • Every Little Thing She Does is Magic - The Police
  • Flying in a Blue Dream - Joe Satriani - mainly C Lydian
  • Flying Theme from ET - John Williams
  • For the Love of God - Steve Vai
  • Fourth Symphony, 2nd movement - Sibelius
  • Freewill - Rush
  • Here Comes My Girl - Tom Petty (Verses in A Lydian)
  • Hey Jealousy - Gin Blossoms
  • Hog Heaven – Frank Zappa
  • Hole Hearted – Extreme (Introduction)
  • How I Miss You – Foo Fighters (C# Lydian)
  • I believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake
  • Jane Says - Jane’s Addiction (G Lydian)
  • Jetsons Theme
  • Just Remember I Love You - Firefall
  • Karnov - Nintendo Entertainment System (Ab Lydian and B Lydian)
  • Kissing the Lipless - The Shins (B Lydian)
  • Lieutenant Kije – Prokofiev (Greg Lake recycled this for I believe in Father Christmas)
  • Lords of Karma - Joe Satriani
  • The Lost Woods Theme from The Legend of Zelda
  • Man in the Mirror - Michael Jackson. (End Section C# Lydian)
  • Man on the Moon - REM (the intro and verses - C Lydian)
  • Maria from West Side Story – Leonard Bernstein
  • Mazurka No. 15 - Chopin
  • Momentary Lapse of Reason - Pink Floyd (G Lydian Riff)
  • Oceans - Pearl Jam
  • Os Justi – Bruckner
  • Passion and Warfare – Steve Vai (Much of the album is Lydian)
  • Polonaise from Boris Godunov - Mussorgsky
  • Reba - Phish (Eb Lydian)
  • The Riddle - Steve Vai (Opens in E Lydian)
  • Sara - Fleetwood Mac (Opening is F Lydian)
  • Shut up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar - Frank Zappa
  • The Simpsons - Danny Elfman (Lydian and Lydian Dominant)
  • Stay Out of Trouble - Kings of Convenience
  • String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825), titled by the composer "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode) - Beethoven
  • Suicide Machine - Hum (C Lydian)
  • Tearing in my Heart - Sunny Day Real Estate (A Lydian)
  • Third Stone from the Sun – Jimi Hendrix (intro)
  • Together Alone – Crowded House
  • Tonight, Tonight - Smashing Pumpkins (verses)
  • Wanna Be Startin’ Something - Michael Jackson (D Lydian)

Movable Pentatonic with Lydian Notes - whole fretboard

This whole fretboard diagram is movable so you can use it anywhere, root (tonic) and fifth (dominant) shown as R and 5.
This whole fretboard diagram is movable so you can use it anywhere, root (tonic) and fifth (dominant) shown as R and 5. | Source

Lydian Mode over the Whole Fretboard

When you are happy with those five separate positions and you have done your homework listening to Lydian music you can try soloing over the entire fretboard. To jam with the C Lydian backtrack I found for you, the shape starts at fret five.

A Beautiful C Lydian Backtrack

The Greek Lydian mode is different from the mediaeval and modern versions

In Greek times the Lydian mode was actually just the major scale, which we now refer to as Ionian. For a purely theoretical exposition of modes you can read these links. There are so many theoretical pages on modes but I restricted it to these today.

What is your favourite mode?

What is your favourite mode for playing or listening?

See results


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