Jul 1st, 2007
Understanding how to apply modes is one of the tougher concepts for guitarists new to music theory. Before you even try and understand how to apply modes on guitar you have to first make sure you understand what modes are and how they are created. If you are not crystal clear on those concepts than read my post Modes- An introduction to learning modes before reading any further.
Why you should use modes
Before we start talking about how to use modes, lets talk about why you should use modes. One reason of using a mode is to melodically outline the harmonic changes of a song. What do I mean by that? Well by outline the chord changes of a song is your solos it makes your solos more interesting and relevant. It helps the listener hear the chord changes and keeps your melodies in sync with the harmonies.
Another reason to use modes is for composition. If you harmonize notes of a mode by stacking 3rds the same way you would with the major scale, you will have unique chords and the diatonic harmonies would be a lot different. (If that is confusing just keep reading).
Different approaches to soloing with modes
There are two different approaches you can take when improvising over chord changes. Both are equally valid and have their places. The first is called the horizontal approach to using scales. This approach means that you would use one scale to player over any related group of chords. So you would use the tonic scale to play over any group of chords in the same key. So if you have a chord progression Cmaj7, Dm7, Fmaj7, G7 you would use the C major scale for all three chords because they are all in the key of C major. This approach is good to use because it allows you to play melodically over a chord progression without having to memorize tons of scale and switch every chord.
The other approach is called the vertical approach, in which you play a different scale over each chord. So with the same progression you would use the following scales over each chord: Cmaj7 (C Ionian mode), Dm7 (D Dorian mode), Fmaj7 (F Lydian mode), G7 (G Mixolydian mode). This approach is usefully because using a different scale over every chord will help you outline the harmony a lot clearer because each chord has a mode played over it that highlights that chord’s tones.
Another way to use modes is to harmonize them to create interesting chord progressions. You harmonize a mode the same way you would the major scale (See my post on harmonizing the major scale and composing with diatonic harmony). By stacking thirds of a mode we can create a new diatonic progression. Here is an example of the D Dorian mode harmonized:
So we can assign roman numerals to these chords to create a diatonic progression to D Dorian:
i - Dm7
ii - Em7
III - Fmaj7
IV - G7
v - Am7
vi° - Bm7b5
VII - Cmaj7
If you composed a song in this key you could use the horizontal approach to soloing and play the D Dorian mode over all the chords, or you can use the vertical approach.
Highlighting a mode’s qualities
Another thing to keep in mind when soloing with a mode is that you want to highlight that mode’s tonal qualities. The reason a mode is a mode is because it differs from the major scale so you want to take the notes that are different and accent them so the true flavor of the mode comes out in your playing. How do you do this? Well if you read my intro post to modes you will know all the notes of the modes that differ from the major scale. So for example the Dorian mode has a b3 and a b7. So by accenting those notes when playing D Dorian the listener will hear that mode’s quality.
How does that work? Well if you are playing D Dorian and you don’t play the b3 or the b7 then essentially you are just playing notes that are in the D major scale as well. So the mode won’t sound like D Dorian until you play the notes that are special to D Dorian.
Remembering mode shapes on guitar
Since learning modes means remembering more scales it may be difficult to remember all the fingerings of all the modes in each key. But since all the modes of the major scale are derived from the major scale there is a trick you can use to help remember. Instead of remembering a different fingering, play the major scale shape that you already know, but start on that modes first note. For example, if you are playing over the ii chord in the key of C major, which is Dm7, and you already know the C major scale shape, all you have to do is play the C major scale but start on the second note of the scale, which is the D. Then you will be playing the D Dorian mode. You can do this for any mode in the major scale. Just start on that chords note within the scale.
It also helps to know the mode fingerings not in relationship to the major scale. But it will take a bit of time and practice to get that down. I will post these fingerings in the future. But if you have any guitar book I’m sure you already have them there. Keep on the lookout for my postings on the shapes.
If you have anything to add or any questions please post to the comments section below or post a question in the forum.