Modes for Guitarists #5: Mapping the Fretboard


  • Mapping the Fretboard

  • One of the handiest aspects of the modes is that they can be used to map out the fretboard. By incorporating the idea of enharmonic modes (modes that are comprised of the same seven notes), we can map out the fretboard for any mode, in any key.

    The first thing we’ll have to do is come up with a fingering pattern for each of the seven modes. There are always multiple possibilities for how to play these patterns–some players prefer three notes per string, for example. But for now, we are going to stick with “positional” patterns that stay more or less confined to a single 5-fret position on the fretboard.


    Before we continue, I need to point out that there is overlap between some of these fingerings. The locrian and ionian fingerings are identical, except for the fact that their root note/starting point falls in a different spot (one fret away). The same is true for the phrygian and lydian fingerings.

    Throughout the materials on my website, I typically lump these together as the locrian/ionian and the phrygian/lydian fingerings. Sometimes I shorthand it to simply the locrian and phrygian fingerings. As you will see, it doesn’t really matter what you call them, as it will be the context that really determines their use and function. So what’s really important is that there are, in reality, only FIVE different fingerings that you will ultimately need to memorize. You’ll be able to use these fingerings to cover the entire fretboard in any mode of any key.

    Enharmonic Mode fingerings as a Map

    The lesson on “derivative thinking” discussed the concept of “enharmonic” modes, or modes that are comprised of the same seven notes. The best way to illustrate how to use this as a map of the fretboard is through some examples. It may be helpful, at this point, to review the lesson on chord scales, and you might also find a table of major scales to be a handy reference.

    Example 1: Let’s say you have a bright, happy-sounding chord progression in D major, which calls for the D ionian mode (later lessons in the HCG Modes Workshop will discuss how we know this…just trust me for now). We also know that D ionian is enharmonic with E dorian, F# phrygian, G lydian, A mixolydian, B aeolian, and C# locrian. So, using the seven fingerings above, we can map out the entire fretboard in D ionian by placing (starting at the lowest point on the fretboard):

    • The phrygian fingering starting on F# (2nd fret)
    • The lydian fingering starting on G (3rd fret)
    • The mixolydian fingering starting on A (5th fret)
    • The aeolian fingering starting on B (7th fret)
    • The locrian fingering starting on C# (9th fret)
    • The ionian fingering starting on D (10th fret)
    • The dorian fingering starting on E (12th fret)

    Also, take note (as discussed near the beginning of this page) that the phrygian and lydian fingerings fully overlap, as do the locrian & ionian fingerings. So in reality, you just have to know five fingerings.

    IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT TERMINOLOGY: It is important to note that there is a distinction between these fingering patterns, which are named after modes due to their starting points, and actually playing in a certain mode. Context determines everything. As long as you are playing in D major/ionian, you are not actually switching to F# phrygian, G lydian etc. as you move around the fretboard. You could say you are “thinking” in F# phrygian etc. to get around the fretboard and to know where to place each fingering. But all along you’re actually in D ionian. This is a major source of confusion for guitarists who are learning the modes. I wish there were a way to make this clearer, but for as long as I’ve been teaching the modes to people, this is the best I have been able to come up with. Just make sure that you understand that these fingering patterns are named after modes due to their lowest note, but that the context determines the mode you are playing in.

    Example 2: Let’s say that you’re playing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers, which is in the key of A minor, and calls for the dorian mode. Using the dorian fingering starting on the A note (5th fret) would be the obvious first choice. To determine the other fingerings that are available, note that A dorian is the second mode of the G major scale, so all of the fingering patterns derived from G major will apply:

    • The locrian/ionian fingering starting on F#/G (2nd/3rd fret)
    • The dorian fingering starting on A (5th fret)
    • The phrygian/lydian fingering starting on B/C (7th/8th fret)
    • The mixolydian fingering starting on D (10th fret)
    • The aeolian fingering starting on E (12th fret)

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