Organizing The Guitar Fingerboard With Modes

Modes Part II - Derivative
Modes Part III - Parallel
Modes Part IV - Application


Now that you have triads, 7th chords and pentatonic scales worked out over the entire fingerboard, it's time to take a look at the modes.

Modes seem to cause a lot of confusion for the average musician. This confusion tends to sponsor two contrasting points of view. On one side of the fence are those who see modes as some sort of magic secret. On the other side of the fence are those who have a cursory understanding of the subject and therefore, tend to think of modes as not very useful.

The fact is that modes are not mysterious at all. They are also very useful. The magic secret is in having a way to organize the modes and understanding how to use them in your own playing. (Study the Modes lesson for the background information you will need to follow this section.)


The first step in organizing the modes is memorizing the interval structure of each:

1. Ionian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

2. Dorian - 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

3. Phrygian - 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

4. Lydian - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

5. Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

6. Aeolian - 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

7. Locrian - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7


The second step is to divide the modes into major and minor based on the 3rd interval within each scale:


major   minor
Ionian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Lydian - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

  Dorian - 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Phrygian - 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Aeolian - 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Locrian - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7




Let's take a look at the three major modes.

The first order of business is to recognize the major triad residing within each. This is the anchor that holds the rest of the intervals together and qualifies each mode as major.

Next, notice that the major pentatonic also resides within each of these three modes (1 2 3 5 6). This means that you really only need to be concerned about the unique combination of the 4th and 7th interval in each of these modes. These two intervals are what actually define the difference in sound quality between each.

If you look at the 7th interval for each of these three modes, you will see that the Ionian and Lydian each contain the major7 chord while the Mixolydian contains the dominant7 chord. (Study the 7th Chords lesson if this is not clear.)

Now, since the Ionian mode is the "good old major scale", and the major scale is king in western music, we will start with Ionian.

Here is the major pentatonic with the 4th and 7th intervals added. Since you already have the major7 chord plotted, you only have to add the 4th. The "x" in the diagram marks the 7th interval:




For the Lydian mode, add the #4:




For the Mixolydian mode, leave the 4th alone and add the b7:





The Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian modes qualify as minor scales due to the b3 contained within each. If we look at the triad, we find that Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian contain the minor triad, while the Locrian contains the diminished triad. The Locrian mode, being based off of the diminished triad, is not used nearly as often as the other three minor modes. For this reason we will treat the Locrian separately.

This leaves us with three minor modes to match our three major modes. If we compare each of these remaining modes to the minor pentatonic scale (1 b3 4 5 b7), we find that each of the three modes include the intervals of the minor pentatonic. Since the minor pentatonic includes the intervals that make up the minor7 chord, it is obvious that the Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian modes also include this chord.

What is missing from the pentatonic scale is the 2nd and 6th intervals found in each of the three minor modes. So, just like the major modes, all you need to be concerned about is adding two intervals to what you already have.

Now, since the Aeolian mode is considered "the" minor scale, that's where we'll start:




For the Dorian mode, you add the natural 6:




For the Phrygian mode, you add the b2:




Diminished and Dominant:

As stated already, the Locrian mode is not used very often in comparison to the rest of the modes. The fact that the diminished sound is very dissonant and unsettled makes it difficult to base a composition around that sound. Instead, you will find the dissonance of the diminished sound most often used to pass between two chords or set up a target chord. For this reason, I'll leave it up to you to work out the Locrian intervals.

One thing that may help you when working with the Locrian mode, is the realization that this mode is identical to the Phrygian mode except for the presence of the b5 in the Locrian scale.


Now, regarding the dominant7 sound and the Mixolydian mode, It's a good idea to work this scale out in conjunction with the dominant pentatonic intervals (1 3 4 5 b7). While the natural 3rd interval includes the Mixolydian in the major sound category, the addition of the b7 creates a unique sound. This unique sound is labeled dominant and is considered a separate sound from both the major and minor sounds.


Once again, keep in mind that you need to work with all of this material in every key. That ought to keep you busy for a while.