The Modes: De-Mystified
A multi-part workshop to help you get up and running with the modes
The Modes De-Mystified: An Introduction
The Modes Workshop:
1. How The Modes are Created
2. Derivative thinking
3. Parallel Thinking
4. The Unique Sound of Each Mode
5. Map of the Fretboard
6. Choosing a Mode for a Given Chord
7. Choosing a Mode for a Given Progression
What are the modes?
Long story short, the modes are groupings of notes, much like scales, that can provide musicians with a palette of musical colors to play with. Bright, happy, triumphant, sad, contemplative, dissonant, nasty–it’s all possible with this simple system.
In addition to that, they can also provide guitarists with a roadmap to the neck of the guitar, so that you can have any of these musical colors at your fingertips, in any key.
Who “Invented” the Modes?
The modes, or something like them, can be traced back to the earliest forms of western music. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle writes about them, and their potential to affect peoples’ moods. Since we obviously don’t have recordings from that era, nor do we have any kind of musical notation that dates back that far, we don’t know for sure that the ancient Greeks’ idea of the modes was exactly the same as ours. Early church music, such as Gregorian Chant, is based on modes, though they were not quite the same as the modes we use today.
Wikipedia has a very good page about the modes, if you really want to geek out on it for a while. Miles Davis is the first musician to be credited with the contemporary idea of using the modes as a basis for improvisation. His album Kind of Blue, with songs like “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches,” are considered groundbreaking in this area. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were arguably the first musicians to bring modal improvisation into a rock and roll context.
Who uses the modes now?
All sorts of artists, from all genres, use the modes in their compositions and their improvisations (though it’s worth noting that not all musicians “think” in terms of the modes–yet their music can still be analyzed in terms of the modes).
The Allman Brothers, Phish, and many of today’s “jambands” still use the modes as the basis for much of their improvisation. Jazz musicians continue to find new ways to use modes, and variations of them, in their composition and improvisation.