Basics of Guitar Modes Explained Easily

Guitar Modes

To keep things simple, if I were to explain musical modes to my grandmother while sitting around the campfire, I’d say the guitar modes are essentially scales that are derived from the major scale. The concept of musical modes originated from ancient Greece, but in modern music, they provide different harmonic and melodic possibilities.  Also, the major modes don’t only apply to guitar but make an important part of musical theory.  It’s a bit of a misnomer to label these as “guitar modes.”  Musical modes would be better.

The Seven Guitar Modes

There are seven guitar modes in total, each corresponding to a note in the major scale:

1. Ionian (the Major scale itself)

2. Dorian

3. Phrygian

4. Lydian

5. Mixolydian

6. Aeolian (the Natural Minor scale)

7. Locrian

Here is a basic description of each mode, based on the notes of the C Major scale (C D E F G A B):

1. Ionian: Starting from C (C D E F G A B). This is the major scale and has a happy or bright sound.

2. Dorian: Starting from D (D E F G A B C). This scale is minor (it has a minor 3rd) and has a somewhat jazzy or soulful sound.

3. Phrygian: Starting from E (E F G A B C D). This is a minor scale with a distinctive ‘Spanish’ or ‘Flamenco’ sound due to the flat 2nd.

4. Lydian: Starting from F (F G A B C D E). This is a major scale but with an augmented 4th which gives it a dreamy or ethereal quality.

5. Mixolydian: Starting from G (G A B C D E F). This is a major scale but with a flat 7th. It’s often used in blues and rock music.

6. Aeolian: Starting from A (A B C D E F G). This is the natural minor scale and has a sad or dark sound.

7. Locrian: Starting from B (B C D E F G A). This scale has a flat 5th (diminished fifth) and is rarely used in Western music because of its unstable tonality.

When you’re playing in a specific mode, you’re essentially shifting the ‘tonal center’ of the scale. For example, if you’re playing in D Dorian, you’re playing all the same notes as the C Major scale, but D is now your ‘home’ note.

Modes can be used in a variety of ways, from improvisation to composition, and understanding them can help you develop a deeper understanding of music theory and expand your musical vocabulary.

Origins of the Guitar Mode Names

The names of the modes come from ancient Greece. The Greeks had a system of music theory that involved modes, which were named after various regions or tribes in Greece, and they were thought to have certain characteristic sounds or moods.

1. Ionian: This was named after Ionia, an ancient region in the western part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Ionian mode corresponds to what we now know as the major scale.

2. Dorian: Named after the Dorian tribe in Greece. In ancient times, the Dorian mode was associated with masculinity and warfare.

3. Phrygian: Named after Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in the western part of central Anatolia (again, modern-day Turkey). The Phrygian mode was thought to have an emotional and passionate character.

4. Lydian: Named after Lydia, another region in Asia Minor. The Lydian mode was associated with happiness and cheerfulness.

5. Mixolydian: Named after the Mixes, a tribe in ancient Thrace, which is in the northeastern part of Greece and western Turkey.

6. Aeolian: Named after Aeolis, a region in western Asia Minor. The Aeolian mode corresponds to what we now know as the natural minor scale.

7. Locrian: The Locrian mode is named after the Greek regions of Locris. However, it’s worth noting that the Locrian mode was not used in ancient Greek music. Its name was coined by music theorists in the Middle Ages to complete the modal system.

These original Greek modes aren’t the same as the modern modes we use today. The system was reinvented during the Middle Ages, and the names were re-purposed. The Greeks didn’t use octaves as we do, and their tuning and tonal systems were different. The use of the Greek names in the Medieval period (and onwards to today) reflects more the educational and philosophical traditions of the time rather than a direct musical lineage from ancient Greek practices.  Hopefully, by now you’ll be have a better understanding that the seven guitar modes are actually musical modes. For a more detailed explanation, check out Wikipedia.

Songs in Ionian Mode

The Ionian mode is the same as the major scale, which is the basis for much of Western music, especially pop, folk, country, and classical. Here are 10 popular songs that are in the Ionian mode:

1. “Let It Be” – The Beatles

2. “Hey Jude” – The Beatles

3. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses

4. “Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey

5. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles

6. “Viva la Vida” – Coldplay

7. “I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston (originally by Dolly Parton)

8. “Dancing Queen” – ABBA

9. “Three Little Birds” – Bob Marley

10. “Imagine” – John Lennon

Remember that many songs may modulate or shift into different keys or modes, especially during the bridge or certain sections of the song. However, the songs listed above are primarily in the Ionian mode.

Songs in Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode, which is similar to the minor scale but with a natural (as opposed to flat) 6th, is less commonly used than the Ionian mode in popular music, but it still can be found in a number of pieces across various genres. Here are 10 examples:

1. “Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles: E Dorian

2. “Scarborough Fair” – Traditional English ballad (popular version by Simon & Garfunkel): D Dorian

3. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple: G Dorian

4. “Oye Como Va” – Santana: A Dorian

5. “Wicked Game” – Chris Isaak: B Dorian

6. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” – Pink Floyd: D Dorian

7. “So What” – Miles Davis: D Dorian

8. “Riders on the Storm” – The Doors: E Dorian

9. “Breathe” – Pink Floyd: E Dorian

10. “Mad World” – Tears for Fears (and covered by Gary Jules): E Dorian

Please note that the keys mentioned are based on the most common versions and original studio recordings of the songs. When performed live, these songs could be transposed to different keys. Additionally, these songs are generally in the Dorian mode but may contain sections that modulate to other keys or modes.

Songs in Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode, which is characterized by a minor second interval from the tonic, is often associated with Spanish music and is used less frequently in popular Western music. However, it does appear in a number of songs across various genres, often to evoke a sense of exoticism or tension. Here are some examples:

1. “White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane: F# Phrygian

2. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – Green Day: F Phrygian

3. “Surfing with the Alien” – Joe Satriani: E Phrygian

4. “Wherever I May Roam” – Metallica: E Phrygian

5. “Phantom of the Opera” – Andrew Lloyd Webber: E Phrygian

6. “The Trooper” – Iron Maiden: E Phrygian

7. “Viva la Vida” – Coldplay: (The verses are in C Phrygian, while the chorus is in its relative major of Eb)

8. “Army of Me” – Bjork: B Phrygian

9. “Epic” – Faith No More: A Phrygian

10. “Cry of the Black Birds” – Amon Amarth: B Phrygian

As with other lists, the keys given are based on the original versions of the songs and they could be transposed to different keys in live performances or different recordings. Additionally, these songs are generally in the Phrygian mode but may contain sections that modulate to other keys or modes.

Songs in Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode, which is similar to the major scale but with a raised fourth, is often used in music to evoke a dreamy, ethereal or “otherworldly” quality. Here are ten examples:

1. “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac: F Lydian

2. “Man on the Moon” – R.E.M.: G Lydian

3. “Here Comes My Girl” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: E Lydian

4. “Jane Says” – Jane’s Addiction: G Lydian

5. “Simpsons Theme” – Danny Elfman: C Lydian

6. “Flying in a Blue Dream” – Joe Satriani: C Lydian

7. “Prelude in C# minor” – Rachmaninoff: C# Lydian (at the climax of the piece)

8. “Unfinished Sympathy” – Massive Attack: F Lydian

9. “Royals” – Lorde: D Lydian (chorus)

10. “Super Mario Bros. Theme” – Koji Kondo: Bb Lydian

As always, remember that these songs may have sections that aren’t in the Lydian mode, and live or cover versions of these songs might be performed in different keys.

Songs in Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode, similar to the major scale but with a flat 7th, is commonly used in rock, pop, and folk music. It often gives a “bluesy” feel to the music. Here are some examples:

1. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses: (The verses are in D Mixolydian)

2. “Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd: G Mixolydian

3. “L.A. Woman” – The Doors: A Mixolydian

4. “Clocks” – Coldplay: (The verses are in E♭ Mixolydian)

5. “Norwegian Wood” – The Beatles: (The sitar solo is in E Mixolydian)

6. “Hey Jude” – The Beatles: (The outro is in F Mixolydian)

7. “Ramblin’ Man” – The Allman Brothers Band: G Mixolydian

8. “The Weight” – The Band: G Mixolydian

9. “Gloria” – Them (also covered by Patti Smith and others): E Mixolydian

10. “What I Got” – Sublime: D Mixolydian

Again, note that these keys are based on the original versions of the songs and may be different in live performances or different recordings. Also, these songs generally use the Mixolydian mode, but they may contain sections in other modes or keys.

Songs in Aeolian Mode

Sure, the Aeolian mode is the natural minor scale, and it’s used frequently in many genres of music. Here are some popular songs that primarily use the Aeolian mode:

1. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson: F# Aeolian

2. “Losing My Religion” – R.E.M.: A minor (A Aeolian)

3. “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix (Bob Dylan cover): C# Aeolian

4. “Back to Black” – Amy Winehouse: D# Aeolian

5. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – Green Day: F Aeolian

6. “Zombie” – The Cranberries: E Aeolian

7. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin: (The intro and verses are in A Aeolian)

8. “Nothing Else Matters” – Metallica: E Aeolian

9. “Hurt” – Nine Inch Nails (also covered by Johnny Cash): A Aeolian

10. “Somebody That I Used To Know” – Gotye: D Aeolian

Remember that many songs may modulate or shift into different keys or modes, especially during the bridge or certain sections of the song. However, the songs listed above are primarily in the Aeolian mode.

Songs in Locrian Mode

The Locrian mode is the least used of the seven diatonic modes in Western music. It is similar to the natural minor scale but with a flat 2nd and a flat 5th, which makes it difficult to write a conventional harmony because it lacks a perfect 5th above the tonic. 

Because of this, very few pieces are written entirely in the Locrian mode, but there are some songs and pieces that use Locrian in sections or make use of Locrian’s distinct sound:

1. “Machine Gun” – Jimi Hendrix: (the main riff is B Locrian)

2. “Symphony of Destruction” – Megadeth: (the main riff is E Locrian)

3. “Army of Me” – Bjork: (the bassline is in B Locrian)

4. “YYZ” – Rush: (some sections are in D Locrian)

5. “Enter Sandman” – Metallica: (the main riff is in B Locrian)

6. “Just Got Paid” – ZZ Top: (the main riff is in G Locrian)

7. “The Grudge” – Tool: (the main riff is in D Locrian)

8. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” – Frank Zappa: (the opening riff is in B Locrian)

The Locrian mode is rarely used for an entire song, given the dissonant tritone between the root and the fifth, which does not allow for traditional resolution in the home chord. However, sections of songs, particularly in genres like metal and jazz, sometimes use the Locrian mode for its unique and dissonant sound.

As you can see, finding 10 popular songs that primarily use the Locrian mode is quite difficult! This highlights just how infrequently this mode is used in popular music.

Don’t forget to check out 7 Rules a Guitarist Should Never Break.