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Dorian Mode on Guitar

In a previous lesson, I broke down the basics of guitar modes and hopefully made them a bit easier to understand. It can be one of the more confusing topics, but at its core it’s actually a quite simple concept. In this lesson we’re going to dive deeper into the dorian mode on guitar. We’ll take a look at what makes up the dorian mode, explore the dorian scale shapes all over the guitar fretboard, view some sample dorian chord progressions and cover a few approaches to soloing over a dorian chord progression.

What is the Dorian mode?

Dorian is the 2nd mode of the major scale. If you recall, there are 7 modes to the major scale:

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

These modes are built from each scale degree of the major scale. In the case of Dorian, you’re re-writing the parent major scale using the 2nd degree as the root. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Dorian Scale Formula

The major scale has a set pattern of whole-steps and half-steps that create the interval qualities of the scale. The whole-step/half-step pattern for the major scale is as follows:

W W H W W W H

This whole-step/half-step patterns gives you the following interval qualities:

Major scale intervals
Major Scale Intervals

Let’s work with the D major scale to create its Dorian mode. The D major scale contains the following notes:

D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

When applied to the fretboard, you can see the whole-step/half-step pattern and interval qualities clearly:

D major scale notes and intervals on the guitar

Now let’s take the D major scale and re-write it using the 2nd note, E, as the tonic starting point (root note). Notice we get a different whole-step/half-step pattern and the interval qualities for a given scale degree have some differences.

E dorian scale notes and intervals on the guitar

This gives us the Dorian formula of: Root – Major 2nd – Minor 3rd – Perfect 4th – Perfect 5th – Major 6th – Minor 7th

Interval qualities of the dorian mode
Interval Qualities of Dorian

Because Dorian has a minor 3rd, it’s considered a minor scale, or minor mode.

This is very close to the natural minor scale with the only difference being the 6 degree. In the natural minor scale the 6th degree is flat. The raised 6th in Dorian is what gives Dorian its unique sound.

Interval comparison between natural minor scale and dorian scale

Take a listen to both scales to hear the difference:

Natural Minor Scale
Dorian Scale

Now that we have the formula for the Dorian mode, let’s map the scale to the guitar fretboard.

Mapping the Dorian scale to the fretboard

Given Dorian is just a mode of the major scale and contains all of the same notes as its parent major scale, it will share the same scale shapes that you’re already familiar with if you know your major scale shapes.

The only difference is the root note for each shape will be different in order to reflect the 2nd note of the major scale now being the tonic note. In the diagrams below, we’re using E Dorian, but the shapes are movable and apply to any Dorian scale.

Fretboard diagrams for the 5 dorian mode CAGED positions on the guitar

As you can see in the diagrams, Dorian’s first position scale pattern is the same as the major scale’s second position pattern.

Guitar diagrams comparing the dorian mode to ionian mode (major scale)

Essentially you’re just shifting the major scale patterns up one position.

Transposing to other Dorian modes

As with the major scale itself, the scale shapes are transposable to other Dorian modes. You simply just need to start the patterns from another root note.

Fretboard diagrams for transposed Dorian mode

Connecting Dorian up the fretboard

Again, since we’re using the exact same scale patterns as the major scale, the Dorian scale patterns connect up and down the fretboard.

Dorian mode connected up the fretboard

Chords of Dorian

Dorian is probably one of the most popular modes in music, particularly with rock and progressive rock, as seen by the extensive use of the mode by Pink Floyd. It’s a good mix of minor moodiness with a touch of the uplifting feel of the major scale.

Dorian contains all of the same chords as its parent major scale, but we can re-number them based on the 2nd note being the tonic, so we get the ii chord moving to the i chord, the iii chord moving to the ii chord, etc.

In the Dorian context, we get the following chord qualities:

1234567
iiiIIIIVvvi°VII
MinorMinorMajorMajorMinorDiminishedMajor

If we take a deeper look at the chords we can gather some more useful information when it comes to identifying the Dorian mode and creating the Dorian sound with chord progressions.

Let’s stick with E Dorian.

E Dorian
1234567
EF#GABC#D
Em (i)F#m (ii)G (III)A (IV)Bm (v)C#dim (vi°)D (VII)
E – G – BF# – A – C#G – B – DA – C# – EB – D – F#C# – E – GD – F# – A

As noted earlier in this lesson, what separates Dorian from the natural minor scale is the raised 6th. It’s this note that gives Dorian its unique flavor. From the table above you can see that in E Dorian the 6th note is C#. Highlighting chords that contain this note in chord progressions helps bring about the Dorian sound.

Looking at the chord table above, you can see the ii chord, IV chord, and vi° chord all contain C#. Being the the vi° chord is diminished, its use will be limited, but progressions containing the ii or IV chord is a telltale sign that the progression is Dorian.

Let’s take a look at some real world song examples.

Example chord progressions

As I mentioned before, Pink Floyd has quite a few songs in Dorian.

“Breathe (In the Air)” – Pink Floyd

From The Dark Side of the Moon, “Breathe (In the Air)” might be the most obvious example as it’s based around a i – IV progression, which is a quite common Dorian progression.

E Dorian: Em9 – A

“The Great Gig in the Sky” – Pink Floyd

We don’t even have to venture to another album to find a second Pink Floyd based in Dorian. “The Great Gig in the Sky” also utilizes a i – IV Dorian progression.

G Dorian: Gm7 – C9 (verse)

“Wake Up” – Mad Season

From Mad Season’s sole album, Above, wake up features an A Dorian progression throughout the song.

A Dorian: Am – G – D – C

“Down by the River” – Neil Young

For the last example we’re revisiting the familiar Em – A progression we’ve seen before. This time Neil Young uses it in the song “Down by the River”, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

E Dorian: Em7 – A

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

From the Greatest Hits album, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” gives us a couple of Dorian progressions in the same song. The verse is A Dorian while the chorus is the familiar i-IV E Dorian progression.

A Dorian: Am – G – D (verse) | E Dorian: i – IV (chorus)

Soloing over a Dorian progression

When soling over top of a Dorian progression, there are three simple scale approaches that are quite easy to implement.

  • Root pentatonic (minor pentatonic)
  • Root pentatonic plus major 6th
  • Dorian scale

Let’s start by looking at the root pentatonic scale.

Soloing with the Root Pentatonic Scale

If you looked at the first position of the Dorian scale, you may have noticed a familiar pattern hidden within…the first position minor pentatonic scale.

E minor pentatonic within the E dorian scale

The minor pentatonic works just fine over a Dorian progression, but it does miss out on highlighting the raised 6th that gives Dorian its unique sound. With one small tweak to the minor pentatonic, we can bring this sound to life.

Root Pentatonic Plus Major 6th

To incorporate the true sound of Dorian into our solos, we can simply add the major 6th to the minor pentatonic scale.

E minor pentatonic with the added major 6th degree for the dorian sound

This keeps the scale pattern familiar and easy to play while also giving you the versatility to target the chord tones of the major IV chord. This works particularly well over the ii and IV chords

Dorian scale

Obviously, over a Dorian progression you also have access to the full Dorian scale, which gives you both the major 2nd and major 6th notes that are missing from the tonic minor pentatonic scale.

E Dorian mode across all positions
E Dorian – All Positions

Utilizing the whole scale gives you more options to add flavorful notes to your lines, but you also have to be a bit more careful about note selection. Utilizing triads and targeting chord tones is a good strategy to ensure you’re always landing on notes that resolve well to the underlying music.

Wrap up

Dorian is the second mode of the major scale. It’s a minor scale that encompasses both a feeling of sadness and hope due to the raised 6th degree. It’s a popular mode in rock, progressive rock, and pop music, and personally, one of the most fun modes to play in. Hopefully this lesson helped simplify the mode and its characteristics and gave you a solid foundation for identifying and playing in the Dorian mode.

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