Modes for Guitarists #4: The Unique Sound of Each Mode

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  • Modes 4: The Unique Sound of Each Mode

  • As you may have figured out by now, each mode has its own sound. Likewise, each mode is associated with a certain type of chord or chord progression; in other words, each mode sounds particularly appropriate over certain chords (or groups of chords).  And this is really the most important thing you should take away from these lessons about the modes.  They have a certain sound, and in order to use them effectively, you have to be familiar with that sound. Let’s go through each mode individually and hear some examples of what they sound like.  Click on the “play” button to hear a brief (one minute or so) sample from each song.

    The Ionian Mode (no # or flat notes)

    As we learned before, the Ionian mode is virtually the same thing as a major scale.  It has a bright, “happy” sound that makes perfect sense even to the ears of non-musicians.  Generally speaking, the Ionian mode is used over major chords. Some examples of songs with guitar solos (or at least chord progressions) that are primarily played in the Ionian mode:

          Blue Sky (Allman Brothers)

          Cliffs of Dover (Eric Johnson)

          Harry Hood (Phish)

          The Wheel (Grateful Dead)


    The Dorian mode (b3, b7)

    The Dorian mode is a minor mode, but has a brighter sound than the other minor modes (Aeolian and Phrygian).  It is very commonly used in improvisation, and works in many different contexts, especially rock, jazz, and even blues.  Played over minor chords.  Oddly enough, works pretty well over blues progressions too. Some songs featuring the Dorian mode:

          Elizabeth Reed (Allman Brothers)

          Mike's Song (Phish)

          The Other One (Grateful Dead)

          So What (Miles Davis)

    The Phrygian Mode (b2, b3, b6, b7)

    The Phrygian mode is a minor mode, and can have a very dark sound, depending on how it is used, and is in fact frequently used by heavy metal guitarists.  It is also a sound that might be associated with flamenco guitar.  Works over minor chords, and strangely enough, kind of works over dominant 7 chords if you’re looking for an exotic sound. Some songs that feature the Phrygian mode:

          Frank-Zappa-Black-Napkins
          Lost Sailor

    The Lydian Mode (#4)

    The Lydian mode is a major mode (because it has a natural 3rd degree), but has a unique sound that is not as typical as the Ionian mode (because of the sharp 4th degree).  Seems to be a favorite mode of some of the guitar shredders like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, also used frequently by Frank Zappa in his guitar solos.  It works over major chords, though you have to be careful with this one because that #4 can be dissonant when not handled properly. Some songs with a Lydian sound:

          Reelin' In The Years (Steely Dan)
          Inca Roads (Frank Zappa)
          Lady With A Fan (Grateful Dead)

    The Mixolydian Mode (b7)

    The Mixolydian mode might be the most commonly used mode. It is favored by a lot of “jamband” guitar players like Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio.  It works great over dominant 7 chords, and in all kinds of contexts from rock to blues to country to funk. A few of the many, many songs that are played in the Mixolydian mode:

          Let It Rain (Eric Clapton)
          Third Stone From The Sun (Hendrix)
          She Said She Said (The Beatles)
          Bathtub Gin (Phish)
          Dark Star (Grateful Dead)

    The Aeolian Mode (b3, b6, b7)

    The Aeolian mode is also called the “natural minor” scale.  When people refer to a “minor scale”, the Aeolian mode is often assumed, even though there are quite a few other types of minor scales.  It has a darker sound than the Dorian mode, and is used somewhat less often, at least in rock music.  It works over minor chords.

          Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
          All Along The Watchtower (Hendrix)

    The Locrian Mode (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)

    If anybody can find me a solo that’s truly in the Locrian mode, I’ll be impressed. The Locrian mode works over m7b5, or half-diminished, chords.  It is rarely used in improvisation, except over passing chords.  The reason for this is simply that a m7b5 chord IS, by nature, a passing chord.  It is an inherently unstable-sounding chord, and is virtually always used in passing toward another chord.  So, one might briefly use the Locrian mode over a m7b5 chord, but chances are that chord won’t be around for very long because its sound is so dissonant and unstable. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll write something in the Locrian mode…somebody ought to do it, eh?

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