Guitar Modes – The Ultimate Guide to Learning the Modes

This 8-part blog series is, in my opinion, the ultimate guide to learning modes on the guitar.  I will not only demonstrate each mode and provide musical notation, but also give you expert insight to the most efficient way to learn these for good.

Before we get started, let me give you a quick preview/teaser as to what you will be able to do by the end of the series.  The following video clip is a demonstration of how modes can unlock the fretboard and allow someone to play in a key all over the fretboard.

What are Modes?

Guitar players know pentatonic scales and a major scale and think they don’t need to learn anything else.  They start to hear some of the Greek names of the Modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Locrian, etc…) and immediately stop listening just like I do when my wife talks about shoes.

But modes don’t have to be complicated.  This series will demonstrate how simple they can be.

The simplest way to understand every mode is to relate every note back to a single key signature.  So, for example, in the key of C major (no sharps or flats), the C Major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B.  This is the first mode of C Major which has a fancy name: Ionian.

Take the same scale but start on D.  This is the second mode of C, also known as Dorian.  Starting a C major scale from each note is a different mode so a major scale has 7 modes (since there are 7 notes in a major scale).

Here are the names of all the modes of a major scale starting on each scale degree of a major scale:

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

How are Modes different than Key Signatures?

If I handed you a chart (written musical notation) that showed a key signature with no sharps or flats, with no other information, you would think the tune is in C major or maybe A minor.  It is possible that the tune centers around F which might imply the 4th mode of C major or F Lydian.  Without looking at the rest of the chart, you would have no idea.

If I told you we are going to jam in E minor, you might assume that E minor is the relative minor of G major and thus use G major shapes (with 1 sharp).  Did you know there are many different minor scales?  There are 3 different types of minor scales alone in a major scale!

If I told you we are jamming in G Mixolydian, you would know exactly what scale and key center we are in.

A key signature doesn’t tell you the whole story. 

How to Learn the Modes?

There are 2 ways to learn the modes.  The first way, which is how I first learned them and quickly forgot them is by pattern.  This is just a method where you write out 7 scale patterns, 1 for each mode.  For example, you would learn C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc…  This method teaches you the pattern of each mode, but doesn’t really relate them across the entire fretboard.

The second method, which is how I will describe them here, is to learn all 7 modes relating to a single key signature.  So C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, etc.. 

This method allows for 2 advantages.  First, your ear is always hearing every mode in C.  So if you mess up a note in one of the modes, your ear will immediately tell you that something is wrong.  The second advantage is that after connecting all modes of the C major scale, you are essentially playing C major all over the fretboard.  You start to see the C scale across the entire fretboard!

Why are Modes so Complicated?

Modes by themselves are not complicated but with their Greek names and often poor explanations, they can seem to be complicated.  This series will attempt to explain a method of learning the modes that will help you unlock the fretboard and move fluidly up and down the neck.

The way I am going to present this material is to show each mode in isolation.  I will use 3 notes per string scale patterns for each mode and present a series of exercises to make sure you have the mode completely under your fingers.  Then I will show how you can connect each mode which will open up the fretboard.

How does Learning Modes Open Up the Fretboard?

I am glad you asked!  When I first learned these modes, it felt like I was stuck in these seven patterns.  I studied and practiced them too much.  But the more I connected the patterns together, the faster I realized that all seven modes of a major scale are just the major scale.

I started to see the notes on a fretboard naturally and I was able to move up and down the fretboard more fluidly.  The number 1 side effect for practicing the modes is how quickly they unlock the fretboard!

Let’s Get Started

This method I am about to show you is just how I naturally learned these modes.  I am not saying that this is the only way to learn the modes.  So, take from this series everything that works for you and leave out anything that you don’t agree with.  Let me know in the comments if you feel I could better describe something or if you have a better way of learning these modes.

With that said, I am super excited to show you my method on how I learned the modes and unlocked the fretboard!  At the end of each mode lesson, I will show you how to connect the previous modes and the fretboard will start to make a lot more sense. 

With that said, grab your guitar and let’s get started!

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