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How to Solo With Modes

If you are serious about playing the guitar, you must learn how to solo with modes. You already know that major and minor pentatonic scales work well for almost every solo. But, using modes to improvise will add richness and interest to your playing. Understanding guitar modes requires a thorough knowledge of music theory, including major scale construction and harmonization, as well as seventh and extended chord formulas.

Originally used in ancient Grecian sacred and folk music, scale modes for guitar soloing are now predominantly used in jazz, but they are useful in any music genre. Each degree (note or tone) of a major scale has an associated mode, and the mode should be played over a chord built on the same scale degree. Beginning with the first major scale tone, the names of the corresponding guitar modes, in order, are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. With the exception of the Ionian and Aeolian modes, which are, respectively, true major and minor scales, the other soloing modes for guitar are scale variations. They retain major, minor, or dominant tonal character while adding a unique twist to the sound. It may seem difficult, but knowing how to solo with modes is a lot easier than you think

To play a mode for guitar soloing in any key, start the scale on the desired note and play to the same note an octave higher. For example, to play a C Ionian mode, play from C to C in a C major scale. For a D Dorian mode, play from D to D in a C major scale; for an E Phrygian mode, play from E to E in a C major scale. You get the idea. The concept is simple, so play all seven modes and pay attention to fingering patterns. Always remember the key signature – don’t add or remove any sharps or flats.

Another way of having guitar modes explained, and to learn how to solo with modes, is to compare the notes in a given scale mode to its related major scale. The D Dorian mode has no sharps, yet the D major scale contains an F# and a C#. Therefore, the D Dorian mode is really a D major scale with a flatted third and flatted seventh. The G Mixolydian mode is a G major scale with a flatted seventh. The F Lydian mode is an F major scale with a sharped fourth. And so on. Depending on the key, understanding modes for guitar using this approach can get rather confusing. The altered scale method seemingly lends itself to having to learn several new patterns. That’s a good thing, of course! You probably already know the major scales in several positions, so playing from degree to degree may be an easier concept. Ideally, you’ll incorporate both viewpoints of using modes in your playing. Knowing how to physically play the modes, however, is only half of the equation for understanding guitar modes.

Learning how to solo with modes requires chord knowledge, too. When harmonizing a major scale by building seventh chords (in thirds) on each scale degree, the pattern of chords is the same, regardless of the key. Chords constructed on the first and fourth degrees are always major; the second, third, and sixth degrees are always minor; the fifth is dominant; and, the seventh degree is a half-diminished (or, easier to remember, a minor 7b5) chord. The preferred nomenclature for the chords uses Roman numerals to indicate the position and function – upper case are major or dominant, and lower case are minor. Thus, designated as Imaj7, ii7, iii7, IVmaj7, V7 (dominant), vi7, and vii7 (a little circle with a slash through it). In the key of C, the chords are Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7, and B half-diminished (Bm7b5). To get started learning how to solo with modes, play (and record if possible) an easy ii – V – I jazz progression in the key of C. Play each chord for one or two measures using a slow swing rhythm.

Cmaj7, Dm7, G7, Cmaj7, Em7, A7, Dm7, G7, Cmaj7

Now, using modes to improvise, play the C Ionian mode over the Cmaj7 chords; the D Dorian mode over the Dm7 chords; and, the G Mixolydian mode over the G7 chords. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? If you harmonized the C major scale, you know that the Cmaj7, Dm7, and G7 chords belong to the key of C. But, what about the Em7 and A7 chords? Good question!

Well, the Em7 also belongs to the key of C so, understanding guitar modes, playing an E Phrygian mode seems like the logical choice. True, but it’s not the correct one. As the Em7 is followed by an A7, which does not belong to the key (Am does, but A7 doesn’t), notice that the chords form an unresolved ii – V progression in the key of D. The song briefly changed key for a couple of measures! If correctly using modes to improvise, you should play an E Dorian mode (E to E in a D major scale) over the Em7 and an A Mixolydian (A to A in a D major scale) over the A7 chord.

Focus on playing chord tones on accented beats when using modes for guitar, and pay attention to which tones are common to multiple chords. The Dm7 and G7 chords both contain an F. The Cmaj7 and G7 chords both contain a B. Let’s say you play an E – the Cmaj7 already has one, but the extra note expands the Dm7 to a Dm9 and the G7 becomes a G7/6, or G13. That will add some color and sound great! Watch out for fourths, though, as they’re tricky and may result in an unwanted sus4 chord. Learning how to solo with modes gets a lot more complex as you begin to substitute more “exotic” chord forms that contain altered scale tones. Memorizing key signatures is imperative for understanding guitar modes and effectively using modes to improvise. And, learn the fretboard!

Using modes is also an important element of heavy metal music. The widely used Phrygian mode, in particular, creates a dark, somber mood for riffs and solos. Understanding modes for guitar will help you to create a heavy intensity in your compositions. As metal chord progressions and voicings are less complex than those in most jazz tunes, using a single mode for guitar improvising will usually suffice (C, D, or E Phrygian, for example). The minor character of the Dorian mode makes it another favorite with hard rock and metal players. Remember that pentatonic scales only contain five notes – modes contain seven. Since you now know how to solo with modes, experiment by trying other “unusual or unexpected” modes over the chord changes. They just might work! Memorize a few mode patterns in different positions and start shredding!

Hopefully, having guitar modes explained in an understandable manner will help you expand your music horizons and learning how to solo with modes will enhance your overall musicianship. You’ll begin to play more melodic lines instead of simply combining “a bunch of licks” (they work well together, of course.) You’ll improve technique and have a better understanding of scale and chord relationships. Plus, you’ll learn the fretboard! So, enjoy using modes to improvise. The rewards are there if you experiment a bit with using modes. You’ll be amazed by how awesome you sound!

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@pauljones   4 years ago
Dorian is my favorite mode, but I like to incorporate more than one mode when soloing. Sometimes I like to start playing dorian, then switch to aeolian, and if the context allows it, I'll play phrygian to create an increasingly tense sound.