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Music Theory For Guitarists • Modes Of The Major Scale Simplified • Scales, Tab, Videos, Practical Examples.

Updated on September 20, 2018
Lorne Hemmerling profile image

As a guitar instructor at Long & McQuade, I have taught countless students (beginners to advanced) how to play or improve their chops.

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The Ionian Mode

The Ionian Mode is the first mode of the major scale. In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on C: C D E F G A B C . This IS the major scale, the ever popular Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. Most melodies are based on the major scale. In order to understand the reason for learning the modes, start here. This order of notes (the intervallic structure: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone) has long been recognized as the most popular scale in music. When you shift the root and form a mode of this scale, the intervallic structure changes (in the same key, D Dorian would be: tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone). You must think of these modes as totally different scales in order to really get behind them.

C Ionian 7th Position

C Ionian Open Position

The Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale. In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on D: D E F G A B C D. In the key of D, this is the D Major scale starting on E: E F♯ G A B C♯ D E. The Dorian mode is prevalent in rock, metal and blues rock. Not quite as dark as the Aeolian Mode, it has a very pleasant sad sort of sound. The melody to Scarborough Fair is written entirely in the D Dorian mode. The lead guitar phrases in Metallica's For Whom The Bell Tolls are excellent examples of the E Dorian Mode. Also check out Jimi's solo in Purple Haze (E Dorian). Carlos Santana makes good use of the Dorian mode in his improvisation.

D Dorian 7th Position

This is the melody to Scarborough Fair, made famous by Simon And Garfunkel. Haunting tune. Note the B on the high E string. If the melody was in D natural minor (key of F Major), there would be one flat, B flat. That one natural B makes this beautiful melody strictly D Dorian.

E Dorian

For Whom The Bell Tolls Lead Guitar Phrases

The Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian Mode is the third mode of the major scale.In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on E: E F G A B C D E. The Phrygian mode has a bleak sound, however not as dark and bleak as the Locrian Mode

E Phrygian

The Lydian Mode

The Lydian Mode is the fourth mode of the major scale. In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on F: F G A B C D E F. This is a very happy sounding mode, used widely by Frank Zappa and Steve Vai

F Lydian

Steve Vai, 'For The Love Of God'

The Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian Mode is the fifth mode of the major scale. In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on G: G A B C D E F G. This mode is the basis of blues rock and funk. Many standard blues bass lines are formed around this mode. Used extensively by Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, etc.

G Mixolydian

This very common, simple blues riff is based in three different keys and modes. Measures one to four, seven, eight, eleven and twelve outline the G mixolydian mode. The overall tonality is G7. This chord is the dominant fifth of the C Major scale. When the C Major scale is harmonized, the resulting four note chords are: CMaj7, Dm7, Em7, FMaj7, G7, Am7, and Bdim7. There are no sharps or flats in the key of C Major. This is why the G7 contains a natural F, as opposed to an F sharp (key of G Major). The same applies to the C7 and D7. C7 is the dominant fifth of F Major (one flat: B flat), D7 is the dominant fifth of G Major (one sharp: F sharp). Obviously, these modes can be applied when improvising over these chords. This is a wonderful alternative to the minor Pentatonic scale (in this case: G minor), but not as easy to execute as playing in one scale. It is like driving a car without brakes…you have to plan ahead! The mixolydian mode is widely used in blues, funk and jazz.

The Mixolydian mode over the three chord progression

The Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian Mode is the sixth mode of the major scale. Next to the Ionian mode, this is the most used, most popular mode. In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on A: A B C D E F G A. Also called the natural minor scale, this scale is prevalent in all forms of music. Many melodies and solos are based on the Aeolian mode. The vocal line in Stairway To Heaven is sung entirely in this mode

A Aeolian

A Aeolian At The Twelfth Fret

This is a very important position for the C Major-A minor scale. Very easy to visualize and symmetrical. Plus all the notes are contained in four frets. Use the four fingers, four frets rule. Keep your hand in one position and stretch the fingers. This may be difficult at first, especially this high up the fretboard, but it is well worth the effort. Use the same fingers every time, this will aid in playing the right notes.

In the video below, I am improvising using nothing but this position and this mode. It is strictly diatonic. Using your ear, you should be able to solo endlessly in one position. In fact, this is a great exercise.

This a portion of the melody to Stairway To Heaven. This is another great example of how these modes sound so different from one another, yet they are all related to the parent Major scale (in this case: C Major). The melody is strictly diatonic, and is played in the twelfth position. This form is the same as C Major played in the open position, but sounds an octave higher. The entire melody is based in A Aeolian.

Stairway To Heaven Melody

Stairway To Heaven Melody

Live version from 1975.

The Locrian Mode

The Locrain Mode is the seventh mode of the major scale.In the key of C, this is the C Major scale starting on B: B C D E F G A B C. This is the darkest of all the modes. It is rarely used as a basis for a melody, but sounds great over the diminished chord that is formed from the scales seventh note.

B Locrian

Wrap Up

In conclusion, all the modes of the major scale are formed by shifting the root. There is no magical mystical theory involved. Try it. Find a major scale pattern you like and change the root to another note in the scale. Play from that note to the same note an octave higher. Your ears will hear the difference!

© 2011 Lorne Hemmerling


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    • profile image

      John Ramsnder 

      2 years ago

      I noticed that you mainly talk of the blues songs. Will these help me in my contemporary music and my church music which I plan to play?. I have been studying music for some time now an I would say I will fit into the beginners to the intermediate level and would like to advance. Kindly advise as I noticed that you explanations on the top is quite good.

    • profile image

      guitar retreats 

      7 years ago

      Great simple lesson as usual Lorne, thanks. I will use some of these examples for my students. Its always best when put into context with a well known piece of music.. you have chosen well!

    • profile image

      T M Hoffman 

      8 years ago

      Lorne and Ken - easy entry (thanx Lorne), expansive step (thanx Ken), but still in only considering possibilities through 'tonic shift.' Factor in modes of India (32,848 'basic scales' to start), Turkey, Persia, Arabia,Indonesia & we're talking intergallactic aural time & space travel!...I enjoy going way out there on my two Japanese instruments and voice, have a listen to our IJMEA website. Above all, 'sing on brother, play on drummer'

    • Lorne Hemmerling profile imageAUTHOR

      Lorne Hemmerling 

      8 years ago from Oshawa

      Ken, great point. Thought of that later, should have called it 'Modes Of The Major Scale Simplified.

    • Lorne Hemmerling profile imageAUTHOR

      Lorne Hemmerling 

      8 years ago from Oshawa

      Thank you, Ted. Simplest explanation I could do.

    • profile image

      Ken Cory 

      8 years ago

      And beyond modes based on the major scale we can discover modes based on the melodic minor scale (C D Eb F G A B C), the harmonic minor scale (C D Eb F G Ab B C), and the rare harmonic major scale (C D E F G Ab B C). These modes will transport you to India.

    • profile image

      Ted Schuhle 

      8 years ago

      Thanks you took the mystery out of modes.

    • Lorne Hemmerling profile imageAUTHOR

      Lorne Hemmerling 

      8 years ago from Oshawa

      @ Graham: yes, I was going to address that. The chords that are formed by harmonizing the scale..... In the key of C: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim in triads.......or CMaj7, Dm7, Em7, FMaj7, G7, Am7, Bdim7 as 4 note chords. Each mode fits over its respected chord. Great point, Graham.

    • profile image

      Graham Silbiger 

      8 years ago

      Hi is it worth mentioning that each mode has its respective chord ie: Dominant 7th for Mixolydian, etc etc

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      One thing I've always been a little unsure of with modes, is the ultimate point of knowing them! If (for ease of reference) I'm playing a song that is in C, and I'm playing over a C major chord, surely I have to be playing in the Ionian mode. The sing key and chord structure would dictate that. Or have I missed something!?

    • Lorne Hemmerling profile imageAUTHOR

      Lorne Hemmerling 

      8 years ago from Oshawa

      @Anna. Yes, whatever key signature the parent scale is in applies to all the modes of that scale. Example G Dorian (being the 2nd mode of F Major), would contain 1 flat.....B. Therefore G Dorian is G A Bb C D E F G. No matter where this scale is played on the fretboard the intervallic structure is the same. Try this: record or have someone play a Gmaj7 then move to Gm7. Over the GMaj7, play the first mode of G Major (Ionian mode) G A B C D E F# G. Then move to G Dorian for the Gm7. This change stands out a mile and sounds great!. Instant jazz!

    • profile image

      Anna 2835 

      8 years ago

      Does one use accidentals of the root scale while in major or minor?

    • manthy profile image


      8 years ago from Alabama,USA

      Very accurate Hub - Thanks for the info

    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 

      8 years ago

      Lorne, nice Hub. 'Following' you now, btw.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very useful


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