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Modes: Taking a closer look.

Most guitarists tend to get confused and bewildered by modes and everything to do with them. The strange thing is that most guitar players seem to "understand" the basic theory of modes, but when it comes to using and incorporating them in their playing, it's really difficult for them because of their lack of solid understanding of what the modes really are and how to use them as an expressive tool for creating music.

As you may already know, the Greek Modes come straight from the major scale, and there are 7 different modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. Each mode has unique harmonic features that makes them different from every other scale, and to really understand them, we have to know those features inside out and what they do, harmonically speaking.

To make this article really helpful, let's forget about the technical side of guitar playing and concentrate on the harmonic capabilities of the music we play with our musical tools, be it a guitar, sax, violin, flute or any other instrument. Hence, we won't focus on scale fingerings or technique in the examples I'm going to show you below, allowing you play them in the way that suits you best while encouraging you to find different ways to play the things you want to play.

To begin our study of modes, we have to review the major scale as a reference point. As I told you before, modes are just variations of the major scale itself, so let's get to it.

The Major Scale

This particular scale is the cornerstone for most Occidental music. The major scale has seven different tones or degrees, and it has an unique formula, as every other scale we know. The formula for the major scale is 1(Scale Root) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. All of these degrees are just major intervals to the root of the scale, so there's no minor third, diminished fifths, or anything confusing. Bearing that in mind, let's build a couple of examples of major scales using different roots.

(All examples are also available as powertab, pdf and midi - you can find them at the end of the article)

By reviewing this formula, we can see a very important feature in the scale: It has two semitone-based intervals, or minor 2nds, between the third and the fourth degree, and another one between the seventh degree and the last degree, which is the octave of the scale. In the case of C, those minor 2nds are between E and F and between B and C; in the D example, the minor 2nds are between F# and G, and between C# and D.

Now, by understanding the basic structure of the major scale, we can already cover the modes and their structure, since modes are just slight variations of the major scale.

The Ionian Mode

The first mode we'll cover in this article is the Ionian mode. It's the first mode of the major scale, and it's formula is exactly the same as the major scale i.e. They're the same scale after all.

The Ionian mode is frequently used to imply a "happy" feeling, but depending on the player's skills, the Ionian mode can drive the listener to a more relaxed, tranquil state of mind.

The intervals that make this mode sound the way it does are the major third (this is the interval that makes it sound "happy" or major, in a more technical way of saying things), the perfect fifth and the major seventh. In most cases, the Ionian scale is used over major-sounding chords like maj7, maj9, sus2, but again, as the possibilities in music are endless, you may use C Ionian, for example, against Am-based chords like Am7, Am9 and so on. Here are a couple of examples for you to learn and play.

The Dorian Mode >>