Using Modes in Solos
In this lesson I’m going to talk about using modes in solos. This presumes some understanding of music theory. If you’re feeling confused after the first couple paragraphs of this article, I invite you to visit my website, http://www.jrsmoots.com, which has a complete set of lessons explaining modes and basic Major scale theory.
The modes I’m going to show you how to use are: Ionian, Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. I’m leaving out Phrygian and Lochrian modes, not because they worthless, but for the sake of keeping this lesson manageable. Perhaps I’ll be back again to show you the others!
So, let’s jump in and talk about using the modes in solos. As I see it, there are two basic ways to approach soloing.
The first way to solo is to figure out the key of the chord progression you’re playing over, and play in key. This is called diatonic playing. For example, if you have a chord progression that is in the key of C Major, then you would solo in the key of C Major. Here’s the Major scale you would use. Note that it is also called Ionian mode.
The second way to solo is–instead of playing in the overall key of the song, follow each chord with a mode of your choosing. So for example, if we had a chord progression that went C Major, F Major, G Major, we would choose a mode for each chord, and change modes as the chords change. This approach to soloing is common in jazz, since the chord progressions in jazz don’t often stay in one key.
So, we have two ways to think about soloing. We can play over the chord progression, staying in the key of the chord progression. Or, we can break down the chord progression, and play a different mode for each chord. Let’s look closely at a some modes and see how we can start to use them.
The first mode is Ionian. It is simply the Major scale. The Ionian mode is defined as the major scale, starting on the first degree of the scale. So, if we were in the key of C Major we would have the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C (octave) in our Ionian Mode. Refer to the graphic above to play the Ionian Mode.
Now, let’s analyze the Ionian to see what chords it will fit over. Why are we doing this? Because we want to play modally, instead of diatonically. We’re going to pick a mode for each chord we play over, instead of just staying in the same key.
Our goal here is to figure out what chord (or chords) could be constructed from the Ionian mode. From this we’ll know when to use the Ionian mode. Why? Because we’ll know that the chord being played and solo we’re playing share common notes, so they’ll sound good together.
We’ll look first to see if the Ionian mode creates a Major or minor chord. In the case of Ionian, we have it easy. The Ionian Mode creates a Major chord. Take the first note, C and then the third note (E) and the fifth note (G), and you have a Major chord. Going a little further, let’s see if the chord is a dominant seventh or a Major seventh chord. It turns out that the chord is a Major 7th chord. The seventh note, B, has not been flatted.
Now we know that whenever a Major chord is played, Ionian mode will fit over it. Why? Again, because the chord and the mode share common notes. We also know that whenever a Major 7th chord is played, Ionian will fit. Pretty cool. (By the way, don’t worry about the theory behind these analyses right now, that’s the topic for another lesson! For now, trust the Force).
To illustrate this, let’s say you have a chord progression that goes C Major 7, F Major, G Major. Using our analysis, we now know we can play C Ionian over the C Major 7th chord, F Ionian over the F Major chord, and G Ionian over the G Major chord. On guitar this means that you’ll be moving the Ionian mode so that it’s root (first note) starts on whatever chord is being played. So, when the chord is C Major, start playing the Ionian mode at the 8th fret. When the chord changes, move your mode so it starts on same note as the name of the chord.
Ok, you made it this far, and you’re saying, big deal. I’m playing the stupid Major scale (Ionian mode), just moving it to follow the chords. What’s the point? Well, this intro leads you into playing the other modes, which have more interesting sounds than the Major scale. Gotta do the basics first though, right?
Let’s analyze the next mode in sequence. Dorian mode can be defined as the Major scale, starting on the second degree (note) of the scale. So in the Key of C Major, our notes for Dorian would be D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D (octave). Now, we figure out whether this makes a Major or minor chord. Looking at the root, third and fifth degrees in this mode, it turns out that this combination of notes creates a minor chord. Let’s go farther and check the seventh. It turns out that the seventh note (C) has been flatted. Again, don’t worry about the theory behind these analyses right now, just run with me. Our analysis of the Dorian mode determines that it creates a minor chord, and a minor 7th chord.
This is valuable information. We now know that we can play Dorian mode over a minor chord, or a minor 7th chord, and it will fit. We’re not limited to playing the minor scale over minor chords anymore. Now we have a new sound to try out.
Let’s check out Lydian mode. This is one my personal favorites. You’ll hear player like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Vinnie More and Tony MacAlpine use this mode. It has a very cool, exotic sound.
Lydian mode can be defined as the Major scale, starting on the 4th degree of the scale. In the Key of C Major, that means the notes would be F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F (octave). Now, we figure out whether this makes a Major or minor chord. Our analysis of the Lydian mode determines that it creates a Major chord, and a Major 7th chord.
Once again, new, valuable information. Now we know that when we see a Major chord or a Major 7th chord, we can try out the Lydian mode. No more boring Major scales for us! Try it!
Moving onward, here is Mixolydian mode. Another cool mode, this has an upbeat, slightly bluesy sound to it. B.B. King uses this mode on occasion. It also works well in country music.
Mixolydian mode can be defined as the Major scale, starting on the 5th degree of the scale. In the Key of C Major, that means the notes would be G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G (octave). Now, we figure out whether this makes a Major or minor chord. Our analysis of the Mixolydian mode determines that it createsa Major chord, and a dominant (flatted) 7th.
This unlocks some more of the mystery of modal playing. Now we know that when we see a Major chord or a dominant 7th chord, we can try out the Mixolydian mode.
I’ll bet you’ve seen this before. Aeolian Mode is also the natural minor scale. I include it here for your reference. Like the other modes, you can use it for modal playing. Aeolian Mode creates a minor chord and a minor 7thchord.
Getting the Sounds of the Modes into your Head
The easiest way to get comfortable with playing the modes is to practice them over one chord. What I mean is; create a rhythm track loop that plays a single chord, say, E5 (no Major or minor third). Or if you have band, have them play a riff over and over that sticks to E5.
Now that you have the E5 going under you, pick a mode. Start the mode on the same note as the chord being played. In this case, E. So, start your mode of choice on the 12th fret.
Your job is to solo using the mode for at least 8 measures. Then, with your rhythm loop still going, switch to another mode, but stay at the same fret. Now you’ll start to hear the differences in the modes. Try all the modes in this lesson–you’ll probably find a few you really like.
More advanced practice would involve creating a chord progression, then choosing a mode for each chord. Let’s say we have a chord progression that goes C Major, D Major, E minor. This chord progression is the key of G Major. Playing in key (diatonically) we could just noodle away over all the chords using our G Major scale, and we would be safe. Or, we can play modally. Let’s play C Lydian for the C Major chord, D Lydian for the D Major chord, then E Dorian over the E minor chord. Now we have some new sounds to play with. Try it!
We’ve only scratched the surface of modal playing. There is so much more to learn! Hopefully this lesson will get you jump-started on trying out the modal playing. I think you’ll enjoy it!
Text and graphics ©2001, Jeffrey Ryan Smoots. Usedby permission.