The 3 crucial questions you need answering about playing guitar modes


Guitar Modes. Why are they such a mindf#ck? Despite the huge amount of information to help with understanding modes of the major scale, it’s probably one of the most confusing subjects in music theory. And in practical playing terms… well, just forget it!
But when it comes down to it, you only really have 3 questions about modes…

1. How do I remember the guitar modes?

The modal names and the order in which they occur can be tricky to remember, so here’s what I teach: a mnemonic which goes “I Don’t Pick Lymes My Aunt Lied” where the purposeful mis-spelling of Limes to Lymes indicates the first L stands for Lydian while the L at the end of the phrase stands for Locrian. This gives us the first letter of each of the modes.


Modes are closely related to Chords in a Key in that they each have a pre-determined gender, number and order. The first mode is Ionian and is Major, Mode 2 is Dorian and is Minor, Mode 3 is Phrygian also Minor etc. Thus:

  1. Major (I) - Ionian AKA The Major Scale

  2. Minor (ii) - Dorian

  3. Minor (iii) - Phrygian

  4. Major (IV) - Lydian

  5. Major (V) - Mixolydian

  6. Minor (vi) - Aeolian AKA The Natural Minor scale

  7. Diminshed (viiº) - Locrian

Order is important. Phrygian always follows Dorian as sure as 3 comes after 2. Mixolydian follows Lydian and, Ionian follows Locrian (from 7 you return to 1).

Categorising and drilling down is the secret to learning modes

Rather than think of modes as 7 things you find confusing, separate them into two categories: Major and Minor. Anything that contains a major 3rd is considered Major, and anything that contains a minor 3rd (AKA b3 or flat 3) is considered Minor.

Then pick one category (let’s take minor) and drill down further, asking yourself “Which of these minor modes is most relevant to the music I listen to and play?

For me, being a blues/rock/funk/soul kind of player it meant that Dorian was most relevant, closely followed by Aeolian and, waay out in the distance was Phrygian (although I love Satriani) with the least “usefulness” in my practical playing.

So, that’s the place to start.

Pentatonic player? Congratulations! You’ve already done most of the hard work for learning modes

If you are a blues/rock/funk player like me you would have spent a lot of time with pentatonics. In fact, you may be struggling to “break out of the box” such is your reliance on pentatonic scales in your playing.


Why? Because you already know 71% of the modes!

The modes are 7 note scales BUT contained inside each one is a 5 note scale called a Pentatonic – the ones you have been using all this time!

Good News: you already know 71% of the modes - they’re called Pentatonics!

Guitar Modes are Pentatonic skeletons + 2

So now reframe your view of the modes! See them as a Pentatonic plus 2 extra notes. Major modes are the Major Pentatonic + 2 notes and the Minor modes are a Minor Pentatonic + 2 extra notes.

These 2 notes are the characteristic notes that give a mode its sound and colour.

Of course, each mode has a different pair of additional characteristic notes (although some are shared across several modes of the same tonality) but treating modes in this way means:

  1. You never get lost because you’re still thinking in pentatonics

  2. The shapes are easy to remember (you’re just adding 2 notes to the shapes you already know)

  3. Learning the other 29% is now not such a big deal

Visualizing Dorian Mode on the fretboard

The result of the categorisation process I did above ended with me self-selecting Dorian to learn first. As Dorian is a minor mode, we start with a minor pentatonic as a skeleton. Then add the two characteristic intervals of Dorian: the Major 2nd and the Major 6th.

The diagram below shows how these 2 additional intervals fit into Minor Pentatonic shape 1 over 2 octaves.


2. When can I use modes in my playing?

The answer is any time the environment allows (I’ll show you how to figure this out).

Before going further, let me introduce you to the concept of Total Harmonic Landscape

Total Harmonic Landscape (THL) is simply giving consideration to the entire musical environment i.e. the pitches generated by all the instruments, not just what you are doing on guitar.

Analyzing the Total Harmonic Landscape provides the answers to both when and where you can use you modes.

The rule is that: if a certain interval already exists within the Total Harmonic Landscape, you must play the same interval type in your soloing/mode choice.

That’s not to say you have to play that interval, but if you do decide to include it in your choice of notes, it must match what is given in the THL.

Let’s now run through some musical scenarios to demonstrate.

3. Which mode can I use?

Scenario 1 – Single Root Note Groove

Instruments: Bass, Drums and You (guitar soloist)
THL: A single G root note groove played on the bass

Modes you can play: Any of them!

The THL contains only G root note, and all the modes contain a root note so you’re good to go! (as long as you play in G, obviously). You can play major or minor modes or both. Because the THL doesn’t contain anything that dictates a tonality, you are free to move between major and minor.

Scenario 2 – Minor 7 Single Chord Groove

Instruments: Bass, Drums, Rhythm Guitar and You (Guitar)
THL: A single G root note groove played on the bass + Diads played on by the rhythm guitar at the 6th fret on the top 2 strings (this is a common funk vamp).

Giving consideration to the intervals in the THL, we have a G root note from the bass and 2 other intervals from the rhythm guitar. Analyzing these 2 intervals in relation to the G root we discover that they are the b3 and b7.

Anything containing a b3 defines a Minor tonality.

So the Total Harmonic Landscape = 1, b3, b7 which is (most of) a G minor 7 chord - the full minor 7 chord formula being 1, b3, 5, b7.

Modes you can play: Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian.

The THL is G Minor 7 therefore you can play any of the Minor modes in G which contain 1, b3 and b7 – which happens to be all of them.

Dorian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Aeolian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Phrygian: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7

As there’s no intervals included in the THL that might clash with your choice of minor modes, you are free to move between them.

Now let’s look at scenarios with potential clashes.

Scenario 3 – Minor 6 Single Chord Groove

Instruments: Bass, Drums, Keyboards and You (guitar soloist)
THL: A root note groove played on the bass + plus a minor 3, perfect 5th and minor 6 played on the keyboard.

Intervals in the THL = 1, b3, 5, b6. This makes a minor 6 chord.

Modes you can play: Aeolian, Phrygian

Aeolian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Phrygian: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7

Dorian can’t be used in this scenario because Dorian has a Major 6 interval and the THL contains a minor 6 interval, so these will clash. However, both Aeolian and Phrygian have a Minor 6 and so will work. Locrian’s b5 will clash with the perfect 5th in the THL and so must be discarded.

Remember: if a certain interval already exists within the Total Harmonic Landscape (b6), you must play the same interval type in your soloing/choice of mode.

Scenario 4 – 2 Chord progression: Minor 7 > Major

Instruments: Bass, Drums, Rhythm Guitar and You (guitar soloist)
THL: A bassline with the root and the Perfect 5th of both chords. Rhythm guitar playing a G Minor 7 to a C Major. This is similiar to Evil Ways by Santana.

Modes you can play: Dorian.

There are a few ways to get the answer to this one. One method is to recognise (through acquired knowledge) that this is a move from a ii chord to a V chord in the Key of F Major and the 2nd mode of F major is G Dorian.

But if you aren’t that sharp on music theory there’s another more graphic way:

  1. Combine the notes of both chords in one diagram.

  2. Define the Total Harmonic Landscape by analysing the intervals in relation to a single root – I’m choosing the root of the first chord.

  3. Match the appropriate mode.


In this instance we have a b3 which defines a Minor tonality, so we must use a Minor mode. We must select from:

Dorian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Aeolian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Phrygian: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Locrian: 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7

You can’t play Aeolian because it contains b6 and the THL contains a natural 6, resulting in a clash. And you can’t play Phrygian or Locrian for the same reason (plus its flat 5 will also clash), so your mode choice is Dorian.

Scenario 5 – 3 Chord progression: Minor Blues

Instruments: Bass, Drums, Rhythm Guitar, Keyboard and You (guitar soloist)
THL: A bassline with playing the root, minor 7 and perfect 5 of each chord. Rhythm guitar playing a G minor 7 to a D minor 7 to an E minor 7. Keyboard playing the 9 and 11 of each chord. This progression is similiar to Tin Pan Alley by Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Modes you can play: Aeolian.

Again, music theorists might recognise this as a vi, ii, iii progression in the key of Bb, but you may not so the same pen-and-paper process applies, as before.

You may also view this as a minor i, iv, v progression.


Listing the intervals present in the Total Harmonic Landscape we have:

1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 9, 11.

The major 9 interval is the Major 2nd one octave higher (2 + 7) The Perfect 11 is the Perfect 4th one octave higher (4 +7). So for the sake of interval analysis in the THL for the 9 just read 2 and for 11 just read 4.

The presence of the b3 indicates a minor tonality, so we can pick only from the Minor modes:

Dorian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Aeolian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Phrygian: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Locrian: 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7

You cannot play Dorian because it contains a b6 which will clash with the natural 6 in the THL. You cannot play Phrygian because although it contains a b6 it also contains a b2 which will clash natural 2 in the THL. You cannot play Locrian because although it has a b3, b6, and b7 it’s b2 will clash with the natural 2 in the THL.

Scenario 6 – Diatonic chord progressions/Chords in a Key

Progressions based on chords from the same key are usually straightforward from a modal point fo view. Commonly (but not always) the tonal centre corresponds to the first chord in the progression, so matching the roman numeral of the first chord with its corresponding mode is a safe-ish rule of thumb.

A ii, iii, ii, V progression in C major for example would require Mode 2 (ii): D Dorian. An Am, Dm, F to G progression is a vi ii IV V also in C Major which would require Mode 6 (vi): A Aeolian.

Aohter example is IV, I, V, vi in A major. It has the IV chord as its tonal centre, so you can play D Lydian (mode IV) over the whole progression, if you like.

Others prefer the changing mode (the so-called relative modes) approach, which is more about note emphasis in relation to the current chord than actually changing modes (although that is technically what is happening). In this case you’d play D Lydian over the IV chord, A Ionian over the I chord, E Mixolydian over the V chord and F# Aeolian over the vi chord.

But I think this makes it sound like a tonne of work when actually, if you stayed in position and kept all these mode changes within the same area of the fretboard, your experience as a player would be like you’re are playing D Lydian over everything but just landing on more of the chord tones of each chord, rather than aimlessly ambling in D Lydian.

Scenario 7 – Playing the standard blues I, IV V

Playing over standard blues changes is a bit different if you want to play modally. Blues chords are typically dominant 7 or 9 chords throughout the progression. But the THL is a moving target as I’ll explain in a moment.

Listing the intervals present in the Total Harmonic Landscape we have:

1, 3, 5, b7. (7th chord) or
1, 3, 5, b7, 9 (9th chord)
Either will do. Remember a 9 is the same as a 2.

The presence of the major 3 dicates a major tonality. So Major Modes to consider are:

Ionian: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Lydian: 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7
Mixolydian: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7

Ionian can’t be used due its natural 7 which will clash with the THLs b7 and the same goes for Lydian. So Mixolydian is the mode to use.

But as the chord type remains Dominant 7 throughout, to remain strictly modal you’ll need to treat each chord change as a key change with Mixolydian starting on a new root each time. So for blues in E for example, you need to play E Mixolydian over the I chord, A Mixolydian of the IV chord and B Mixolydian over the V chord.

But the Blues has more scope than this, as you’ll already know you can play both Major and Minor Pentatonics over Blues changes. If you wanted to, you could combine both into one scale: 1, 2, b3, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7

This is why Blues Players often use hybrid scales like the Country Blues Scale (a Major Pentatonic with a b7 and b5: 1, 2, 3, b5, 5, 6, b7) or Robben Ford’s popular Minor 6 Pentatonic (1, b3, 4, 5, 6). The blues is a veritable playground for note choice!

4. Bonus question: How I can sound modal?

First undertsand that a Modal scenario is only created by the interplay of two sound sources - the soloists notes and some kind of chordal backing (looper, backing track, other musician, droning open string). Without accompaniment you are simply playing slices of the Major Scale.

Once you’ve got your backing playing, a good place to start is by adjusting some of your trusty pentatonic licks to end on one of the characteristic notes.

And let it ring out!

Placing modal notes at the end of your phrases is a simple way to evoke modal colour in your lead playing without getting too hung up.

Got questions (I know you do) drop a comment below