Understanding & Hearing The Modes - A Quick Guide

There are so many big name players that swear by these illusive scales to create their musical statements; Satriani, Vai, Santana, Lennon & McCartney and even Hendrix had his ‘modal moments’. Generally, however, an investigation into the modes starts with an important but admittedly academic chat about theory; no wonder so many guitarists avoid going down this musical rabbit hole! In this blog we are going to give a brief guide to The Modes, what they are and how you can get the sound of each scale embedded in your musical ear, without studying for your PhD!


1. What are The Modes?

The idea is pretty straight forward actually - your 7 note major scale, with which all our favourite nursery rhymes are written, has 7 unique moods/flavours (whatever you want to call it) - basically one for each note.

Yes, your major scale sounds nice and happy, like a jingle from a cheesy upbeat commercial, but turn it on its head, change its order and you can create sounds ranging from Arabian, dark, jazzy, uplifting, sad and downright uncomfortable! Who knew that this everyday scale was hiding so many possibilities and personalities?! Pretty cool, right?

Each of these 7 modes has its own scale formulae, when you look at the intervals and theory attached to them. But we’ll leave the academic stuff for another time!

In short, the 7 modes are: Ionian (another name for our major scale), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian and represent each note in the scale as its starting note. These are responsible for each of those various sounds mentioned above.

2. Why should I care?

The chances are you have heard The Modes being used in tons of your favourite songs and felt their effect without realising it; Another Brick In The Wall and Eleanor Rigby (plus almost every Santana solo ever!) use the Dorian mode. White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, Wherever I May Roam - Metallica; get their dark, brooding or outright Metal sound & feel from using the Phrygian mode.

Simply put - harness the sound of the modes for yourself and you can create licks, solos, songs, melodies and chord progressions which create the same emotional impact which these songs had on you when you first heard them!

Not convinced? Well, if you are becoming bored and a little jaded playing those same old licks every time you jam (aren’t we all!), then getting a dose of The Modes into you could unleash a whole new dimension of sounds from your tired licks and solos!

3. How do I do that then?

OK, so there are a world of licks, songs and all manner of deep-dive theory you can go through to assimilate modal playing; but this is a short blog so lets get straight to the point! The first thing we really want to do is actually hear the sound of each mode and get our ears around it!

If we take our basic G major scale; there are three chords which scream G major! G,C and D. Who hasn’t heard that right? Want to really let people know you are playing in G major? Then play those same chords with a G in the bass and you are creating the most G major (G Ionian) sound you possibly can!

G Major Scale and C & D chord upper voicings

The same works for each of The Modes - for example - take a C & D chord and put note number 2 from our scale in the bass (A) and suddenly things don’t sound so happy and major anymore! This is the sound of A Dorian.

Many modal lessons will describe the sound or mood invoked by each mode, but where’s the fun in that! Try the chords below and you will hear each mode as you play. All we have done is taken those ‘character’ G major chords C & D and put each note from the scale in the bass to invoke the sound of each mode. How does each one sound? Do these conjure up a style of music, mood or remind you of a famous song?

Easy Modal Chords

If this has piqued your interest in learning more about The Modes, or you have previously dabbled in the subject and would like to give it another try, then there are a world of resources out there to help you. The most important thing (as we have covered in this blog) is to put your ears first!

Take a look at these Licklibrary courses and lessons covering using the modes to sound like big name players plus some next steps on the road to modal mastery!