Flynn Amps and the value of enthusiasmK is for Knopfler, MarkM is for Modes

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M is for Modes
January 2, 2014

Ah modes. The guitarists obsession. Don’t ask me why but it seems that more than any other class of slightly obsessed musician if you get a guitar player started on modes then you’d best be settled in for a long lecture. But it’s one thing once you understand them, it’s quite another to explain it to someone. I’ve spent more time teaching modes than I really should because there’s so many ways of looking at, playing and understanding them. Still, I’m going to try and do it in one blog post!

Modes are scales created by playing the notes of an existing scale starting from a note other than the original keynote. The most common ones played on the guitar are the ones formed from the major scale as follows;

  • The Dorian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its second degree
  • The Phrygian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its third degree
  • The Lydian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its fourth degree
  • The Mixolydian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its fifth degree
  • The Aeolian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its sixth degree
  • The Locrian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its seventh degree

Even though the major scale (also known in this context as the Ionian mode) and its modal variants have the same notes, because they do not simply start form the same keynote they do not share the same tonality or ‘feel’. For example the major scale has a major third interval (distance) from its root to its third nor and a major seventh interval from its root to its seventh note while Locrian has a minor third and a minor seventh meaning it is a form of minor scale.

This is another way of remembering and playing shapes for the modes, Aeolian is simply what we would refer to as natural minor, the minor scale that most people would recognise. Ionian is our standard major scale and the modes can be thought of in relation to those two, Dorian is a minor scale with a major sixth interval as the sixth note, Phrygian is a minor scale with a flattened second, Lydian is major with a sharp fourth, Mixolydian is a major scale with a flat seventh and Locrian is a minor scale with both a flattened second interval and a flattened fifth.

Using modes is almost easy once you understand them! Two main approaches to using modes are normally taken the first being that the modes are treated as key centres in thier own right with a group of chords to accompany each modal scale. For example D Dorian could be used in a D Dorian minor key centre containing any of the following chords: Dm, Em, F, G, Am and C. Advanced players sometimes use modal scales as chord scales. Using a different scale over each chord. For example using the Dorian scale again it fits of the minor chord built on the second degree of the major scale (Dm in the key of C).

I hope that gives you a little insight into modes, although if it helps you understand why guitar players are so fixated on them, let me know, because after 20 years I’ve still got no idea!

/harry