Modes for Guitarists #2: Derivative Thinking


  • Modes 2: Derivative Thinking

  • There are two different ways of thinking about the modes: derivative and parallel. Each way can be useful for different reasons, but you have to understand both ways to really “get it.”  Let’s look at derivative thinking first.

    Derivative Thinking

    “Derivative” thinking is pretty much what was happening in the first lesson in this section; to think of the modes, we think of the major scale from which they were derived. We know that D Dorian is derived from C Ionian (C major) by taking the notes of C Ionian, but going from D to D (and playing over a D root note). The same goes for E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian.  All of these are derived from C Ionian–so in other words, they all contain the exact same seven notes.

    Now let’s look at some of the implications of this using a couple of examples:

    Example 1-A

    Let’s say you’re playing a solo over a funk groove on a G7 chord.  The obvious choice of modes to complement a G7 chord would be G Mixolydian (because both the dominant 7 chord and the Mixolydian mode contain the b7 degree–as covered later in the Modes Workshop).  You can also THINK of it as C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, A Aeolian, or B Locrian. All of these modes contain the exact same seven notes.  Modes that contain the exact same notes are referred to as “enharmonic” modes.

    As long as you are playing over a G7 chord with these seven notes, you are technically still in the mode of G mixolydian (because the chord you are playing over is what really determines the mode you are in). It will sound best if your improvised lines target the notes of the G7 chord (this is where the CAGED system can come in handy), but you can “think” in C ionian, D dorian, etc. because they all have the same notes, and are derived from the same “parent” scale.

    How does this help me?  There are a couple of major benefits from this–as you will see once you get to practicing the modes, this can be very helpful for getting around the neck of the guitar.  It can also help you come up with fresh ideas by getting you to think in different ways and break you out of familiar patterns.

    Example 1-B

    Now let’s say the chord that you are playing over changes to a Dm7 chord.  You can keep using these same seven notes, but because the root is now Dm, you are actually in the mode of D Dorian. You can still “think” as though you are in G Mixolydian (or A Aeolian, B Locrian, C Ionian, etc.) if you like because the notes are all the same, and they are derived from the same parent scale.

    An important point to take away here is that the chord you are playing over is what really determines the mode that you play in.  But it can be useful to “think” in terms of the enharmonic modes.

    Let’s change keys now.

    Example 2

    Frank Zappa’s famous guitar solo in “Black Napkins” (on the album Hot Rats) happens over a repeated chord progression (a “vamp“) that goes back and forth from C#m7 to Dmaj7.  If you refer to the lesson on chord scales (along with the information contained in the Table Of Major Scales), you can see that both of these chords would occur in the key of A major, or A Ionian–C#m7 is the III chord, and Dmaj7 is the IV chord.

    Because the two chords are derived from the same “parent” major scale, they are “enharmonic.”  You could play C# Phrygian over the C#m7 chord, and D Lydian over the Dmaj7 chord.  And you don’t really have to change anything in the process, because C# Phrygian and D Lydian are enharmonic–they have the same notes.  Both of these modes are derived from A Ionian, therefore they contain the same notes as the A major scale.

    So is the song in C# Phrygian or D Lydian?  Well, it depends on which chord you consider to be the root, or the “home” chord.  You could argue that it’s C# Phrygian because that’s what it starts on.  To my ears, the progression actually sounds more resolved, more like “home,” when it’s on the Dmaj7 chord.  But truthfully, it doesn’t matter what you call it because they are the same thing anyway–they are enharmonic, and they are both derived from the A Major scale.

    I should mention here that if you are soloing over this type of vamp–where the chords don’t change too quickly–you still want to be aware of which chord you’re over and when, even though the same mode can be applied over both.  You want to be conscious of how the notes you are playing sound in relation to the chord you’re playing them over, and how those notes may (or may not) resolve to the next chord.  This is how good melodies are created.  BUT you can use the mode fingerings (covered later in this tutorial) and the CAGED system to help get yourself situated on the neck of the guitar, to find the “right” notes.

    And while I’m at it, I’ll also add that you are by no means limited to the seven notes in a given mode when you are soloing.  There are lots of possibilities of what you could do.  But using the modes will give you a great start.

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