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Lesson 12 - Modes

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Previous page: Lesson 11 - Right and Left hand techniques Next page: Lesson 13 - Octaves

Lessons of The Week was a series of guitar lessons circulated in "News", in the pre-web days of the Internet. 29 lessons were written before it died out, and I happende to write the first three. They represent a little bit of internet history, as they may have been the first guitar lessons written for the internet.

The lessons were all written in txt format - they were written around the same time as Tim Berners Lee were sitting in Switzerland specifing the first version of html. I have converted them to html, and may have added a few links from the lessons.


Lesson: 12
Title: Modes
Level: Intermediate
Style: Theory
Instructor: Dave Good

In this lesson, I want to discuss and hopefully try to clarify the confusion surrounding the modes. The ability to understand and utilize the modes is one of the most important abilities for a modern guitarist to have. I have my own way of explaining the modes, which I feel makes more sense than the way most other teachers and textbooks explain them, so even if you have tried to learn the modes before and gotten confused, stick with this lesson and you should have a good idea of what they are and how to use them.

Before we begin, you need to know all the key signatures. If you don't, you can still probably understand this lesson, but I would suggest going back and applying this information in all the keys (as usual). All the examples will relate back to the key of C, as this is the clearest way to describe these ideas.

And now for the lesson

The Modes are, simply put, scales that are derived from the major scale. For example, most of you (I would hope!) are familiar with the minor scale and understand that it is built from the 6th degree of the relative major scale. Correct? Of course. Now, what you need to realize is that the minor scale is technically a mode, but is not usually referred to as such for various reasons (these reasons go back hundreds of years, but do not bear repeating here).

So far, we can make a chart that looks like this:

Key of C

Scale Degree        Note
1                     C
2                     D
3                     E
4                     F
5                     G
6                     A
7                     B
8 (octave)            C

Examining this, we notice that the key is C Major, and the relative minor key to C Major is A Minor which is the 6th degree of the scale. There is a concept at work here, in that you may build a scale starting on ANY degree of the major scale-in fact, this is where the modes are found.

If you were in the key of C, and decided to start on D instead of C, and continue through the key of C, you would have a scale that looks like this:


Notice it has the same notes as the key of C Major, but begins on the 2nd degree of the C Major scale. This is what is called the Dorian mode. If you were to get a friend, and have him play a C Major chord while you played these notes, it would sound just like C Major. But, if you had him play a D Minor chord, and you played these notes, then you would hear a difference in the sound of the scale (to see why I said D Minor instead of Major, see my earlier lesson on chord construction).

Similarly, you can do this with the 3rd degree of the C Major scale, obtaining E F G A B C D E for your next scale. This is called the Phrygian mode, and sounds darker and more mysterious than the Dorian mode. Again, play this over an E Minor chord to hear the distinctive sound of this mode.

Like I said earlier, you can do this for each scale degree, obtaining a different mode on each degree. The following chart presents a summary of the modes that are obtained on each degree, and the characteristics of each mode:

Key of C Major

Scale Degree   Mode Name        Characteristic Sound
1             Ionian (Major)    Major  (Majestic sounding)
2             Dorain            Minor  (Weepy. Used a lot in Country music)
3             Phrygian          Minor  (Dark, used a lot in Heavy metal)
4             Lydian            Major  (Sweet, used all over)
5             Mixolydian        Major  (The basis of rock and blues.)
6             Aeolian (Minor)   Minor  (The Natural Minor scale)
7             Locrian           Minor  (Vaguely oriental sounding)

Whether a mode is major or minor depends on the triad that is built on the root. For example, the Mixolydian mode is major because its' root triad is major. G Mixolydian is a major mode because in the Key of C, the chord built on G is a major chord. This list of modes will hold true for any key.

Before I give the next lesson, I want you to go through and write out all the modes in all the key signatures, so that you begin to know and get familiar with what mode is associated with what scale degree. In the next lesson I will show a second way of learning the modes, one that can be slightly confusing if you have not yet learned which mode is in what key signature. The next method will involve retaining the root note of the major scale, but changing key signatures, thereby changing mode and really showing the difference between the modes and the major scale.

 As always, feel free to write me if you have any questions.
                      Dave Good
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Previous page: Lesson 11 - Right and Left hand techniques Next page: Lesson 13 - Octaves