Bedrock Guitar Theory of the Pros Lesson #5: Become a Master of Modes

Music Modes

No single musical topic causes more curiosity and utter confusion than scale modes.

The real purpose and point to the modal concept escapes most guitar players, and lessons on modes are often incomplete and misleading.

Little known facts about guitar modes include:

  • Learning modes does not require you to learn new scale patterns
  • Modes are not necessarily created by starting positions
  • Generally speaking, you can’t impose a mode over a song
  • You can relate everything to a mode

Why Do Guitar Modes Matter?

Before we get into the details of modes, let me explain why knowing modes matters.

One of the biggest mistakes guitar players make is to assume that modes are just a theoretical idea without a practical purpose, but this isn’t true. Most music is modally based in one way or another, and recognizing modes is critical to understanding how music works.

Chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, riffs, lead guitar solos, and bass lines are all derived from modal scales in some way. Understanding modes is absolutely necessary if you want to be a better songwriter, lead guitarist, or you just want to know why your favorite songs sound so good.

How Guitar Modes Work

In a nutshell, here’s how modes work:

The major scale has seven notes, and you can use any one of them as the starting point, or the primary pitch, of a piece of music. In other words, you don’t always have to base music off of the first degree and chord of the major scale.

The sound of the scale changes depending on which degree is primary. For example:

When you play the G major scale in a way that centers on G, you hear the typical major scale sound, which is also known as Ionian mode. But if you compose a piece of music to center on the second scale degree, A, and the second chord, Am, you produce the jazzy minor sound known as Dorian mode.

In the Dorian mode example, your ear hears the note A as the tonal center of the music, and then everything else in relation to it. Santana’s “Oye Como Va” uses this trick. It uses chords ii and V out of the G scale, Am7-D9, with the Am7 functioning as the primary tonic chord.

But you don’t need to learn new scale patterns in order to produce a modal sound like Dorian mode. Instead, the mode is made by how you apply the notes and chords of the major scale.

If you’re looking to play modes by learning new patterns, then you’re missing the point. As the neck diagrams below illustrate, the very same notes that make the G major scale are used to play in A Dorian mode. The only difference is that in Dorian mode, the focus of the music is the second degree, A, not the first degree, G.

Both diagrams above illustrate the same G major scale notes on the fretboard. Since “Oye Como Va” centers on the 2nd degree, A, most musicians would count the A as “1” and call the scale A Dorian mode.

Both diagrams above illustrate the same G major scale notes on the fretboard. Since “Oye Como Va” centers on the 2nd degree, A, most musicians would count the A as “1” and call the scale, A Dorian mode.

Making Modal Sounds

You can’t fully produce the sound of Dorian mode by simply playing the notes of G from A to A. Instead, you need to play the notes over accompaniment that centers on the Am chord. The modal concept is one of tonal centers and harmony, not necessarily starting positions.

The following audio track, which features various grooves and progressions played in the style of popular A Dorian mode songs, has chord changes and bass lines drawn from the G major scale, but with the music always centering on the 2nd scale degree, A, and the second chord, Am. Play along using notes from the G major scale in any position and any pattern (referring to the diagrams above if need be) to hear the sound of A Dorian mode. Remember that as you play notes from the G scale, your primary note is actually A.

Dorian Mode Jam Track – Click To Download

Greek Mode Names

There are seven major scale degrees and seven possible music modes, each with a special Greek name: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Each mode has a unique structure and sound. You get to know modes by applying major scale patterns to modal chord progressions and playing familiar modal songs.

Before You Start On Modes

The concept of modes is really a combination of other, more fundamental concepts that you need to learn first. Specifically, modes are based on major scale patterns and chord progressions, so you need to learn these topics first, otherwise you’re getting ahead of yourself.

Make sure that you can cover the neck with major scales, build chords, put together chord progressions, play by numbers, and apply pentatonic and major scale patterns. Then you can explore modes.

Modes Video Preview

Modes are first introduced in Fretboard Theory Chapter 8. You can watch a free preview of this video instruction below.


To get access to the complete modes instruction, you can buy the modes video by itself or get the whole Fretboard Theory series below.

Fretboard Theory

To learn everything you need to know about guitar scales, chords, progressions, modes and more, get the whole Fretboard Theory video series.

guitar theory lessons

Coming Up Next in Lesson #6: The Fretboard

Coming up in lesson #6, we’ll take a deeper look at the guitar fretboard.

You’ll see how you can learn more about applied guitar theory in just two short weeks of instruction than you have in the past two years of studying music books, by focusing on the shapes and patterns that music makes on the fretboard. ?