Modes For People With Better Shit To Do

If you’ve ever tried to wrap your head around modes, you know that there are countless articles & methods, most of them confusing, and many of them contradictory.

You can spend a dozen hours studying them, only to be no closer to answering the most basic questions:

  • What are modes?
  • Why do I need to know modes?
  • How do I actually use modes to make music?
  • Should I even learn modes?


Much of our confusion about the topic stems from the fact that there are three distinctly different things that guitarists call “modes.” Let’s look at each of them briefly, and then dig a little deeper on the only one of them that’ll move the needle on your guitar playing.


Modes #1: For Theory Wonks

Take the notes of C major:

But play them over a static Dm chord:

They’re still the notes of C major, but they don’t resolve in the same places they would over a C chord.

So theory wonks call them by a new name: the D Dorian mode.

When you’re playing So What, you’re (mostly) playing D Dorian.

You can do this re-contextualization for each of the naturally-occuring “diatonic” chords in each key.

(And then this same thing for the other 11 keys.)


As anyone with ears can tell, songs (or even sections of songs) with only one chord are pretty damned rare.

But you can make a strong argument that songs that resolve to a chord other than the parent key ought to be called by their modal name.

For example, Bill Withers’s Use Me goes between Em-A for the entire song. Those are the notes of D major, but they’re centered around Em.

If you call Use Me at a gig, I might say “I don’t know that one. What key is it in?”

You’d reply “E minor” (and not “D major”).

You start playing Use Me and I start noodling over the top using the plain old E “natural” minor, and it sounds… bad, because the C in E natural minor clashes with the C# in your A chord.

So maybe you lean over and say, “no, E Dorian,” and if I know what E Dorian is, I can make a switch and suddenly things sound much better.

So yeah: modes can be pretty damned handy.


Should you learn the Theory Wonk version of modes?

Well… not directly.

You can learn these pretty much on accident by studying other, more useful concepts like note names, the circle of fifths, chord construction, & nashville numbers. When you have those all sorted in your mind, learning modes becomes trivially easy—you’re just putting a name to something you’ve seen a whole bunch of times.


Modes #2: 3NPS

Another version of modes is as names for the 3-note-per-string shapes that are popular among the heavy/shred crowd:

The argument here is that the starting note of each shape is its de facto harmonic center, and so it makes sense to call the scale shapes by their modal names.

The counterargument is that that’s only true when you’re practicing scales in a vacuum. Briefly playing the A on the 6th string in no way negates the G chord that the band is playing.

The mode-iness of it depends entirely on what the band plays, not which shape you play:


“E Phrygian” 3NPS shape + a static C chord = C Major

Any of the 3NPS shapes derived from C + static Dm chord = D Dorian


Try it. Here’s a static C chord vamp…

…and here’s a static Dm chord vamp…

The “C major” or “D Dorian” qualities come from the chords underneath—NOT from the shape you play.


Calling a scale shape a mode is probably a mistake. It’s certainly misleading. And it teaches you to ignore the chord(s) you’re playing over, which is definitely a mistake.


Should you learn 3NPS shapes? Sure, if they appeal to you.

Should you call them by modal names? I wouldn’t. No need to muddy the waters. And if your solos involve fanatical adherence to a shape and ignoring what your ears are telling you, you’re not ready to study modes anyway. They can wait.


Modes #3: Scale Degrees Over Changes

The third version of modes is something that’s better know as “playing the changes”—soloing in a way that outlines the notes of the chords as they change.

After playing in time, it’s the most useful skill a soloist can have, and it’s applicable to any style of music that involves chords. (So… uh… all of them.)

As David Hamburger puts it, it allows you to “lead up to the music instead of chasing it.”

How can you learn this skill?

If you were a trumpet player, you’d need an immense amount of knowledge about chords and scales in order to know how to play that one perfect note that’s in the chord (but not necessarily in the key), right at the moment that the chords change.

But guitarists have a huge amount of visual information available literally at our fingertips.

We don’t need a thesaurus of theoretically viable scale choices for each chord, because (as we saw in the reCAGED Overview) every chord is in every position.


We can simply visualize the chords and try to call out the notes in them as they pass.

Check out the second lick from the Hotel California solo—it’s outlining the Bm chord, but ends on the A# at the exact moment the chords change to F#7.

That’s playing the changes!


If you played that A# a half second sooner, it’d sound terrible:

But where a piano player could do that once and play it exactly the same in every octave…

..we guitarists have to work out how to play it multiple ways…

…and that’s not even counting playing it in other octaves!


So What’s A Guitarist To Do?

The first step on this path is to learn to be able to see all the chords in every position—exactly what we did in the first phase of the Playing The Changes course.

From there, we need a way to describe the interaction between notes and chords. Not a description of where we play them (like TAB), or what their names are in that particular key (like notation), but a description of their function.


Scale Degrees

This is why we spent time learning our chords not just by their note names, but by their scale degrees:

And it’s also why we talked about the navigational tools of pilotage & dead reckoning—if you know a few key “signposts,” you can reason your way into the rest.

Chord Rules Apply

Pilotage & Dead Reckoning are also great for working out the major scales you’re less familiar with. Which is handy, because the twin rules of chord building apply:

  1. treat each chord as the center of its own universe, and
  2. use the major scale as our measuring stick.

Each chord is the center of its own universe means that we talk about it in relation to its root note. For C that’s C, for Dm that’s D, and for F that’s F.

Use the major scale as our measuring stick means that every note is referred to in relation to the major scale. The note above the 5th scale degree is the “sharp five.” The note below the 7th scale degree is the “flat seven.”

Which means that although you’re playing in the key of C, when you’re talking about notes played over the F chord, you gotta compare those notes to the measuring stick of F major.

If you play the note B over an F chord, it’s a “sharp four”:

Which brings us back to the topic at hand: modes.


Is This A Mode?

According to the theory wonk version in Modes #1, it may or may not make sense to refer to this set of notes as being “F Lydian.”

For my money, it depends a great deal on the context.

If you noodle on a C major scale over this C-F loop, I think it’s BS to say that you’re switching between C Ionian and F Lydian (unless your brain is working overtime to clearly work out the scale degrees in real time AND you’re super adept at the modal names).

And if you learned modes in the normal scale-shape way we saw in Modes #2, the things you’re playing probably sound horrible, (since you’re trying to anchor each chord with a certain starting note).


So again: is playing the changes the same as modes?


It doesn’t matter.


The important things:

  • can you dissect something and see how the notes relate to the chords?
  • can you describe it with scale degrees?
  • can you use that information to play it in different keys?
  • or in the same key, but on a different part of the neck?


Because once you can do that, you have most of the music theory knowledge you’ll ever need.

And armed with that, you can focus on the two things that’ll make the biggest difference in your playing:

  • copping licks, lines, & solos from things that catch your ear
  • developing those into your own voice.


Should you learn modes?

If by “modes” you mean “playing the changes,” then HELL YES you should learn it.

In our next lesson, we’ll take this concept from vague, abstract concept to concrete, guitar-in-hands useful knowledge.

And a little further on down the road, we’ll revisit this whole scale degrees discussion and provide some “maps” for you.


See on the next one,


Complete and Continue