The Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Modes and Scales

Understanding guitar modes isn’t as hard as many people believe it to be. The theory can be a bit confusing, but once you get a hold of the basic concepts, it’s actually quite easy to use modes on the guitar. In this lesson, you’ll learn what the modes are, how they look on the guitar and how you can use modes in your solos and improvisation.

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What Are Guitar Modes?

Scale Modes are nothing new, the modes as we use them today were formalized around 1675. Modes are not limited to jazz, but used in a wide variety of genres. They are not limited to guitar either, but used on most melodic instruments.

Definition:

Modes are scales derived from a parent scale. All 7 modes have the same notes as the parent scale, but start on a different note, which defines the tonal center.

What is the difference between a scale and a mode? While the words mode and scale are used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. Modes are inversions of a scale. For example, the 7 modes on this page are inversions of the major scale. Every mode is a scale, but not every scale is a mode (the melodic minor scale or the blues scale for example are not modes).

Why should you learn and use guitar modes?  Being able to play and use guitar modes is an important skill for any guitarist to have because each mode has a unique feel and sound that you can use to make your improvisation more colorful and interesting. Studying modes helps you to navigate the guitar neck and helps you to understand the relationship between scales and chords.

In this lesson, we’ll concentrate on the modes of the major scale (the major scale being the parent scale in this case). There are other parent scales as well, such as the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale.

 

Guitar Modes Chart

Here’s a chart containing the 7 modes of the C major scale. It shows the most common position for each mode, but each mode can be played over the entire guitar neck and should be practiced that way.

Make sure to read on and play the exercises below the chart to understand how these modes work on the guitar.

 

Guitar modes chart

Guitar Modes Explained – Music Theory

The first step in understanding guitar modes is defining the parent scale.

You probably have played modes on the guitar before, probably without realizing you were playing them. Can you play a C major scale? Then you know the first mode (out of 7), the Ionian mode…

In the following examples, the C major scale is the parent scale. The C major scale runs from C to C and has no sharps or flats. The C major scale is also our first mode, the Ionian mode.

Here’s a list of all 7 modes of the C major scale in order:

  1. C Ionian mode: the major scale that is the basis for most Western music
  2. D Dorian mode: minor scale with a characteristic natural 6th (sounds like Carlos Santana)
  3. E Phrygian mode: minor scale with a characteristic b2 (sounds Spanish)
  4. F Lydian mode: major scale with a characteristic #4 (sounds hip)
  5. G Mixolydian mode: dominant scale (sounds bluesy)
  6. A Aeolian mode: the natural minor scale
  7. B Locrian mode: half-diminished scale, to be used over m7b5 chords

 

Let’s go back to our parent scale, the C major scale (aka C Ionian mode). In music theory, we number each note of the scale, going from 1 to 7. This is called the scale formula.

 

C Major Scale (= C Ionian Mode)CDEFGAB
 Formula1234567

 

Let’s play the C major scale starting from the second note (D). This is the second mode, called the Dorian mode. The 3rd and 7th note are a half step lower compared to the Ionian mode, that’s why we put a ‘b’ before 3 and 7. Here are the notes of the D Dorian mode:

 

D Dorian ModeDEFGABC
 Formula12b3456b7

 

Now let’s play the C major scale starting from the third note (E). This is the third mode, the Phrygian mode. The 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th note are a half step lower compared to the Ionian mode. Here are the notes of the E Phrygian mode:

 

E Phrygian ModeEFGABCD
 Formula1b2b345b6b7

 

We can continue this for the other notes of the major scale, but I guess you get the picture by now. If you scroll down a bit you’ll find a list of all 7 modes.

Each mode has its own unique sound. This sound depends on how the intervals are mapped across the scale. Although the notes in both scales are exactly the same, the sound of the scale is completely different because the tonal center has changed. In the C Ionian mode, the tonal center is C. In the D Dorian mode, the tonal center is D.

Each mode has a related chord. We can find that chord by stacking thirds on the first note of the mode. We’ll only touch briefly on this subject here. If you’re not familiar with this essential part of music theory, head over to this lesson: Jazz Guitar Chord Theory.

Let’s do this for the C Ionian mode: C E G B. The result is a Cmaj7 chord:

CEGB
1357

 

If you build a chord on the first note of the D Dorian mode you get D F A C, a Dm7 chord:

DFAC
1b35b7

 

Here’s an overview of the 7 modes of the C major scale, their formula and corresponding chord:

I C Ionian (Cmaj7)CDEFGAB
Ionian Scale Formula1234567
II D Dorian (Dm7)DEFGABC
Dorian Scale Formula12b3456b7
III E Phrygian (Em7)EFGABCD
Phrygian Scale Formula1b2b345b6b7
IV F Lydian (Fmaj7)FGABCDE
Lydian Scale Formula123#4567
V G Mixolydian (G7)GABCDEF
Mixolydian Scale Formula123456b7
VI A Aeolian (Am7)ABCDEFG
Aeolian Scale Formula12b345b6b7
VII B Locrian (Bm7b5)BCDEFGA
Locrian Scale Formula1b2b34b5b6b7

 

How to memorize guitar modes?

You should memorize the names of the modes + the formula. Here’s a mnemonic trick to help you remember the names (the letters in bold correspondent to the first letters of the modes):

I Don’t Play Like My Aunt Lucy.

Which modes are major, which modes are minor? Here are the 7 modes grouped according to chord quality:

Chord QualityMode
MajorIonian, Lydian
MinorDorian, Aeolian, Phrygian
DominantMixolydian
Half DiminishedLocrian

 

How to Use Modes on the Guitar + Examples

Next, you’ll learn how modes are played on the guitar. We’ll also have a look at some typical examples (there is a sample lick included with each mode so you can hear how guitar modes are used).

Use all your senses when learning guitar scales: use your ears (most important), your eyes (recognize the pattern on the fretboard), your brains (memorize the guitar scale formulas) and your fingers’ muscle memory.

Legend:

Guitar Fretboard Legend : Root  represents the root or 1 of the guitar scale. The letter inside the box is the note name.

Guitar Fretboard Legend : Note  represents a guitar scale note.

The grey numbers below the music notation is the fingering (1=index finger, 2=middle finger, 3=ring finger, 4=pinky finger).

 

 

1. C Ionian Mode

The Ionian mode is also known as the major scale.

  • Formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
  • Use: on major chords (Imaj7)
  • Related chord: Cmaj7
  • Characteristic notes: 3 (e) and 7 (b)
  • The 4 (f) is what is called an avoid note over major chords. For example, the f (4) played over a Cmaj7 chord will sound dissonant because it’s a half step higher than the chord note e (3), creating a b9 interval. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use the f in your lines. You can play the f (like I do in the example lick below), but I wouldn’t keep it hanging for too long, unless you really like that sound.

 

Listen & Play Along


C Ionian mode diagram

 

Ionian mode guitar fingering

 

The following example lick only uses notes of the C Ionian scale. It starts with a 1235 pattern on the 5th, followed by an enclosure of the 3rd and finishes with a descending scale run.

There is also a longer Ionian scale study more below in this lesson.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Ionian mode guitar lick

 

2. D Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is almost identical to the Aeolian mode (or natural minor scale), except for the 6th note.

  • Formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
  • Use: on minor chords (the ii of a ii V I), on minor modal tunes such as So What.
  • Related chord: Dm7
  • Characteristic notes: 6 and 9

 

Listen & Play Along


D Dorian mode diagram

 

Dorian mode guitar fingering

 

The following lick only uses notes of the D Dorian scale and puts emphasis on the 6 and the 9, 2 characteristic notes of the Dorian mode.

There is a longer Dorian scale study more below in this lesson.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Dorian mode guitar lick

 

3. E Phrygian Mode

  • Formula: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
  • Use: on minor chords (iiim7). Played on a Im7, the Phrygian mode has a Spanish flavor (one of the guitar scales frequently used in flamenco).
  • Related chord: Em7
  • Characteristic notes: b9 and b6

 

Listen & Play Along


E Phrygian mode diagram

 

Phrygian mode guitar fingering

 

The following example only uses notes of the E Phrygian scale and puts emphasis on the b9 and b13, two characteristic notes of the Phrygian mode.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Phrygian mode guitar lick

 

4. F Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode is almost identical to the major scale, except for the 4th note (#4).

  • Formula: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
  • Use: on major chords (IVmaj7)
  • Related chord: Fmaj7
  • Characteristic notes: 7 and #11

 

Listen & Play Along


F Lydian mode diagram

 

Lydian mode guitar fingering

 

The following example only uses notes of the F Lydian scale and puts emphasis on the 7 and #11, two characteristic notes of the Lydian mode.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Lydian mode guitar lick

 

5. G Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode is almost identical to the major scale (or Ionian mode), except for the last note (b7).

  • Formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
  • Use: on dominant chords (V7). The Mixolydian scale is often used in blues (on I7).
  • Related chord: G7
  • Characteristic notes: 6 and b7

 

Listen & Play Along


G Mixolydian mode diagram

 

Mixolydian mode guitar fingering

 

This next lick is based on the G Mixolydian scale.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Mixolydian mode guitar lick

 

6. A Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian mode is the same scale as the natural minor scale.

  • Formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
  • Use: on minor chords (vim7)
  • Related chord: Am7
  • Characteristic note: b6

 

Listen & Play Along


A Aeolian mode diagram

 

Aeolian mode guitar fingering

 

This lick is based on the A Aeolian scale and focuses on the characteristic note (b6) of the Aeolian mode. By emphasizing this note, you outline the sound of the mode in your lines, differentiating it from other minor modes such as the Dorian mode, which has a major 6.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Aeolian Mode Guitar Lick

 

7. B Locrian Mode

  • Formula: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
  • Use: on half diminished chords (the iim7b5 on a minor ii V I)
  • Related chord: Bm7b5
  • Characteristic note: b5

 

Listen & Play Along


B Locrian mode diagram

 

Locrian mode guitar fingering

 

The following example only uses notes of the B Locrian scale. I emphasize the 11 in this lick because it adds a nice color played over m7b5 chords.

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Locrian mode guitar lick

Using Guitar Modes Over Modal Standards

What is modal music?

A modal standard is a standard that uses modes instead of chord progressions as its harmonic basis.

The most famous modal compositions are So What (Miles Davis) and Impressions (John Coltrane).

Both standards use the same AABA form:

  • A1: 8 bars of Dm7 (D Dorian scale)
  • A2: 8 bars of Dm7 (D Dorian scale)
  • B: 8 bars of Ebm7 (Eb Dorian scale)
  • A3: 8 bars of Dm7 (D Dorian scale)

In the following solo over So What (or Impressions) I play only notes of the D Dorian scale over the A sections, and the Eb Dorian scale over the B sections:

D Dorian Scale (A sections)

D Dorian Scale Diagram

Eb Dorian Scale (B section)

Eb Dorian Scale

In bar 26, you’ll notice I switch to another position on the guitar neck. On that part, I play the A Aeolian scale shape, which might be confusing for those that just started studying modes. This is because a lot of guitarists think in shapes rather than in notes.

D Dorian has the same notes as A Aeolian (both come from the C major scale), they just start on a different note. Because the harmonic background of this tune is D minor, the A Aeolian shape will sound like D Dorian.

You can also play all the other mode shapes of the C major scale over So What (C Ionian, E Phrygian, etc). They will all sound like D Dorian because the tonal center of the tune is D.

The diagram below shows you a D Dorian scale that looks like the A Aeolian scale shape. Notice how the red root note is D, not A:

A Aeolian Scale

D Dorian = A Aeolian. Although it is ok to visualize scale shapes as you improvise, realize that they are just a set of 7 notes that depend on the tonal center of the tune you are playing. The A Aeolian shape played over D minor, will not sound Aeolian, but Dorian (confusing, I know).

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

So What guitar solo page 1

So What guitar solo page 2

So What guitar solo page 3

Using Modes over Chord Progressions (Guitar Modes Made Easy)

Next, you’ll learn how to apply modes over chord progressions, a ii V I vi (C major) in this case.

Dm7G7Cmaj7Am7
iim7V7Imaj7vim7

 

Theoretically, you play a different scale over each chord:

  • Dm7 (ii): the D Dorian scale.
  • G7 (V): the G Mixolydian scale.
  • Cmaj7 (I): the C Ionian scale.
  • Am7 (vi): the A Aeolian scale.

In practice we don’t think like that because it’s too hard to switch scales on each chord.

If we have a look at the 4 modes of these chords, you’ll notice they all have the same notes:

 

D Dorian ScaleDEFGABC
12b3456b7
G Mixolydian ScaleGABCDEF
123456b7
C Ionian ScaleCDEFGAB
1234567
A Aeolian ScaleABCDEFG
12b345b6b7

 

So, these 4 modes all have the same 7 notes: C D E F G A B

This means we can play one scale (the scale of the Imaj7 chord for example), and use that scale to play over all chords (as long as the chords don’t modulate).

  • The C Ionian scale played over the Dm7 chord will sound like the D Dorian scale.
  • The C Ionian scale played over the G7 chord will sound like the G Mixolydian scale.
  • The C Ionian scale played over the Am7 chord will sound like the A Aeolian scale.

 

In the following example I use the C Ionian scale over a ii V I vi chord progression:

 

Backing Track

Listen & Play Along

Guitar modes over a chord progression page 1

 

Guitar modes over a chord progression page 2

 

Here finishes our introduction to guitar modes. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to post them in the comment section below.

What to learn after guitar modes? The best tool for improvisation are arpeggios.  Learn all about them in our Introduction to Guitar Arpeggios.

 

PDF DownloadThe Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Modes PDF

 

 

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  • Ron Money Sr. says:

    Proud & blessed to be 80 & still playing my guitar!!! But up & down the internet, I have learned MORE musical theory since I Joined your group. Been playing for many years in bands, enjoy all music genres. Thanks for allowing me aboard!

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hi Ron, thanks for the kind comment! It’s nice to get feedback in these strange times…

  • Rex says:

    Very wonderfully explained.

  • Venkat says:

    I know that C Lydian and C Myxolidian modes be played over C Major Chord but when the song is in C Major scale won’t there be foreign notes F# in C Lydian and B flat in C Myxolidian? Would it be ok?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hi Venkat, the Lydian mode is usually played on the IVmaj7. In the key of C major, that would be on the Fmaj7 in a chord progression. The notes of F Lydian are F G A B C D E, all the notes of the C major scale. The Mixolydian mode is played over the V of a chord progression. In the C major key, that would be over G7. The notes of G Mixolydian are G A B C D E F, again all notes of the C major scale, so no foreign notes are introduced. I hope that clears it up…

  • Colin says:

    Dirk,thank you for your lesson,it‘s very helpful for the beginners in jazz guitar study,like me. 😛
    I have one question: when we play one scale,such as C Ionian,over different chords like Dm7,G7,Cmaj7 and Am7,is there any notes we should emphasize for different chords?Thank you!

  • Colin says:

    Dirk,thank you for your sharing! In Phrygian mode,the 6th note are also a half step lower compared to the Ionian mode,but it seems that you’ve missed it in the text. Maybe you can revise it.

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hi Colin, thanks for pointing that out, I added it to the text…

  • Garry scott says:

    Are modes similar to learning scales using sharps and flats?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Yes, all modes are scales, but not all scales are modes. The parent scale of the modes on this page is the C major scale (without sharps and flats), but you can get the modes in any key. The modes of the Eb major scale, for example, all have 3 flats, but on different places in the scale. Eb major is Eb F G Ab Bb C D. If you start that scale on the second note, you get the F Dorian scale: F G Ab Bb C D Eb. Both scales have 3 flats, but on a different spot.

  • Larry says:

    Great theoretical and applicable distillation of an essential component in guitar improvisation. This site is the fountainhead for jazz guitar knowledge based on sound principles and practical application. Thank you for sharing.

  • Géraud says:

    Hi Dirk !!!
    Thanx for this awesome video.
    This is perfect, each modes with one superb lick !
    And bravo for your website wich is a goldmine to learn jazz stuff.
    I wonder where to find a backing track like the one in the video ?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hi Géraud, thanks for the feedback! The backing tracks of the video can be played or downloaded by clicking the play or download button above the individual lick examples.

      • Géraud says:

        It works !!! (it did not the day I sent last message cos of my browser maybe…)
        Thanx again Dirk, I can start training 😉

  • Gary says:

    Too much is made of this mode concept as it pertains to the diatonic scale. Just learn the diatonic scale starting from any scale degree. F G A B C D E is still the C diatonic scale. Time would be better spent simply understanding how the seven fundamental chords of any major key signature are just built from the scale.

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Do you think C major when you’re playing over So What?

  • Yann Pineault says:

    Thanks Dirk, this is a great guide and a good future reference when I will be working a song in terms of modes. Creating good content creates high expectations : I look forward for a more advanced guide with other great examples like these one! The only thing I miss in this guide is ways to understand and use modes in a song to put forward their own particular colors or moods.

  • Tony Hudd says:

    Thanks, Dirk. Sounds great!

  • Tony Hudd says:

    Amp?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      I used a Roland JC-120 and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb for this one…

  • Tony Hudd says:

    Sorry to be a guitar nerd but may I ask what gear you were using? Many thanks.

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      It’s an Epiphone ES-175, a very affordable, but great guitar. Aren’t we all guitar nerds here?

  • Tony Hudd says:

    Your 2516 solo at the end is an absolute gem, Dirk. Really beautiful rhythmical ideas. Many thanks.

  • Bob says:

    Beautiful Dirk. Thank you. I love your 8 minute video covering all of these modes each with a rif and then breaking each down into its own audio practice sections with music sheets. This has really inspired me to work on learning these modes. In the past I would try to experiment with the modes but would usually give up quickly. I’m not sure how long it will take me to get up to your speed but I will start slowly and see what happens. Thanks for all your work producing this.

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Thanks for the feedback Bob!

  • antoine says:

    !!!!!!!

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