Modes (and modal guitar scales) can feel really confusing. In this post you’ll find movable scale shapes for each mode–simple, one octave shapes that you can build on. For starters, find the tonic (the starting note of the scale) and apply the shape and you’re playing modal scales!
Different teachers present this lots of different ways. The way it clicked for me was understanding it in the context of a key. Each mode uses the same notes as every other in the key. It just starts at a different note in the sequence.
The first mode is called Ionian. You may simply know it as your major scale. Here’s a simple way to play it starting on either your 6th (E) or 5th (A) string. If you were playing in the key of C, your tonic (the note with the black circle around it) would be a C (8th fret on 6th string or 3rd on 5th string).
The 2nd scale is the Dorian. It may be the most common modal scale used after our standard Major and Natural Minor (Aeolian) scales. The way I like to think about the Dorian scale is that it starts on the 2nd scale degree of your Major scale. If you were playing in the key of C, you would use your D Dorian scale. That means the notes used would be DEFGABCD. Try playing the patterns below with D as your tonic. Place your first finger on D on either your 5th string (5th fret) or 6th string (10th fret) and work through this pattern:
Our second modal scale is called Phrygian (FRIH-jee-an). Think of this as starting on the third scale degree of your major scale. If you were playing in the key of C, you would play EFGABCDE. Another way to say this is to play your E Phrygian scale. I like to play these scales ascending (going up) and descending (going down) without double striking the octave to maintain a sense of flow. Once you’re familiar with each pattern, it’s a great practice to move from one mode immediately to the next.
The fourth mode is called Lydian (LIH-dee-an). In the key of C, you would play your F Lydian scale, using the following notes: FGABCDEF.
The Mixolydian Scale is another common scale. There are many moments it is very useful. If playing in the key of C, we would use our G Mixolydian Scale, or GABCDEFG. Notice that this is very close to a Major Scale. One way of thinking of this scale is that it is a Major Scale with a lowered (b) 7th.
Our Aeolian Scale is probably familiar to you. We call this the Natural Minor Scale. It begins on the 6th degree of the Major Scale, so again, playing in the key of C, your notes would be ABCDEFGA. Find your A note (5th fret on 6th string and 0 or 12 on 5th string) and try playing this as your A Aeolian Scale.
The last scale we’ll cover here is the final mode, perhaps the least common, called Locrian (LOH-kree-an). It begins on the seventh degree of the Major Scale. If playing in the key of C, your notes would be BCDEFGAB.
For more practice playing modal guitar scales, you can see other posts on my site and there are many good diagrams online that show the connection of these modes across many different positions. My 2 Octave Modal Scales post would be a great next step.
Feel free to leave a comment if you have questions!