Basics of Guitar Modes

Guitar modes has to be one of the more confusing topics when you’re first learning guitar (or even if you’ve been playing for years). What is a mode? Is it a scale? Something else?

In this lesson we’ll take a simplified look at the modes of the major scale and see if we can bring some clarity to the concept.

What is a mode?

A mode is a scale. Where it gets confusing is a mode is a scale that’s derived from another scale, or “parent” scale (ie. major scale).

A scale is just a sequence of notes. In the case of the major scale, we have 7 notes. If we start from the root of a given major scale, say C major, and play through each note we get a sound that is happy and bright.

C Major Scale

But if you recall, every major scale has a related minor scale, the relative minor, which is derived from the 6th degree of the major scale. For C major that scale is A minor.

Scale Degree1234567
C MajorCDEFGAB
A MinorABCDEFG

It contains all of the same notes as the C major scale, but if we listen to the A minor scale we can hear that it sounds more down, or sad.

A Minor Scale

So what we have is the same notes played in a different order giving us a different sound or mood because the tonal center (point of resolve) has changed.

What if we were to start from the 2nd degree of the C major scale?

D Dorian Scale – 2nd Degree of C Major Scale

This is the essence of modes. By starting a scale on a different note, you create a different set of interval qualities which gives each scale (mode) its own unique sound. The tonal center has shifted away from the root of the scale to another note in the scale, essentially creating a new “root” note.

By doing this for each note in the major scale we can create seven unique scales, or modes, of the major scale.

Let’s take a look at all the modes of the major scale and the qualities of each.

7 modes of the major scale

The major scale contains seven modes:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

Let’s go through each and take a look at the qualities of the scale and how they sound. For the examples, we’ll stick to the C major scale and work through each of the modes.

A quick note on naming convention before jumping in. Specific scale modes are named by combining the root note upon which the mode is based along with the mode name. For instance, in the case of the dorian mode in C major, the mode is D Dorian since D (the 2nd note in C major) is the “root” note from which the scale begins and dorian is the second mode of the major scale.

Ionian

Ionian is the first mode of the major scale and more commonly referred to as just the major scale. In this case, it’s the C major scale.

Fretboard diagram for C ionian mode
NotesCDEFGAB
Interval QualitiesRoot∆2∆3p4p5∆6∆7
C ionian guitar tab
C Ionian Mode

Dorian

The second mode of the major scale is dorian. If we start the C major scale from the 2nd degree, D becomes the root note and we get the D dorian mode. The interval qualities of the dorian mode are shown in the diagram and table below.

Fretboard diagram for D dorian mode
NotesDEFGABC
Interval QualitiesRoot∆2♭3p4p5∆6♭7
D dorian guitar tab
D Dorian Mode

Phrygian

The third mode of the major scale is Phrygian. Working from the 3rd degree of the C major scale, we get E Phrygian.

Fretboard diagram for E Phrygian mode
NotesEFGABCD
Interval QualitiesRoot♭2♭3p4p5♭6♭7
E Phrygian mode guitar tab
E Phrygian Mode

Lydian

The fourth mode of the major scale is Lydian. From the C major scale we get the F Lydian mode.

Fretboard diagram for F lydian mode
NotesFGABCDE
Interval QualitiesRoot∆2∆3#4p5∆6∆7
F lydian mode guitar tab
F Lydian Mode

Mixolydian

The fifth mode of the major scale is Mixolydian. From the 5th degree of the C major scale we get the G mixolydian mode.

Fretboard diagram for G mixolydian mode
NotesGABCDEF
Interval QualitiesRoot∆2∆3p4p5∆6♭7
G mixolydian mode guitar tab
G Mixolydian Mode

Aeolian

The sixth mode of the major scale is Aeolian. This mode is more commonly referred to as the natural minor scale. From the 6th degree of the C major scale, we get the A Aeolian scale, or A natural minor scale.

Fretboard diagram for A aeolian mode
NotesABCDEFG
Interval QualitiesRoot∆2♭3p4p5♭6♭7
A aeolian mode guitar tab
A Aeolian Mode

Locrian

The seventh and final mode of the major scale is Locrian. In the C major scale we get the B Locrian mode.

Fretboard diagram for B locrian mode
NotesBCDEFGA
Interval QualitiesRoot♭2♭3p4♭5♭6♭7
B locrian mode guitar tab

The table below summarizes the modes of C major:

Modes of C Major
1234567
CDEFGAB
C IonianD DorianE PhrygianF LydianG MixolydianA AeolianB Locrian

Modal qualities

Just as the major scale and natural minor scale have major and minor scale qualities, so, too, do the other guitar modes. Therefore, each mode can be described as either a major or minor based on the quality of the 3rd of the scale.

  • Major Modes (contain ∆3)
    • Ionian
    • Lydian
    • Mixolydian
  • Minor Modes (contain ♭3)
    • Dorian
    • Phrygian
    • Aeolian
    • Locrian

Constructing the modes on guitar

Just as the major scale has its own unique formula that can be used to create the major scale for any root note, modes have their own unique formula as well. If we apply that formula for any given root note, we can create each of the 7 modes for that root.

For example, let’s use G as the root note and apply each modal formula to create the mode for G.

Fretboard diagram for major scale guitar modes with G root

These formulas can be used to create the modes for any given root note.

Song examples for modes on guitar

To fully grip how modes work in practice it’s good to hear some examples. The two songs that come to mind for me when thinking about modes are Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses and Franklin’s Tower by Grateful Dead, both classic examples of the mixolydian mode. Let’s take a look at each.

Sweet Child O’ Mine

The verse chord progression follows the common mixolydian progression of V – IV – I – V. The chord progression consists D major, C major, and G major, all from the key of G major.

Key of G Major
IiiiiiIVVvivii°
GAmBmCDEmF#°

While the chord progression utilizes the I – IV – V chords of G major, the progression clearly centers around the D chord, putting it in the D mixolydian mode.

Listen: Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses

Franklin’s Tower

Grateful Dead is well known for utilizing the mixolydian mode. As an example, we can look to Franklin’s Tower, which consists of a similar V – IV – I chord progression, utilizing the A major, G major, and D major chords from the key of D major.

Key of D Major
IiiiiiIVVvivii°
DEmF#mGABmC#°

Again, despite being in the key of D major, the progression centers around the V chord, A major, giving us the A mixolydian mode.

Listen: Franklin’s Tower – Grateful Dead

Wrap up

Modes can be a confusing topic and it took me a little while before I had my “aha” moment. Hopefully this lesson helps pull back the layers of confusion and simplifies the concept. I think the key is just not overthinking it. It’s simply a way to identify and describe a shift in tonal center from the root note or chord to another note in a given scale.

Major scale modes thumbnail

Cheat Sheet: Guitar Modes

Download the cheat sheet for this lesson: