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I'm comfortable with all 5 basic box positions and 7 3-note-per-string patterns for diatonic scale. I can switch among these positions fairly well. Problem is, when I try to emphasize on a mode, it feels like I'm drawing on a blank sheet. E.g., let's say I'm trying to play dorian. If I think of it as an independent scale, i.e. not relating it to its parent ionian, but using the intervals to define it, then I need to memorize all of its position from scratch. As the starting/ending note of this mode is different than that of the ionian, my existing knowledge of scale shapes doesn't help me. This is true for any of the modes.

So, at this point I've started to think if I'm missing something. Because memorizing all 7 mode would require memorizing 7*(5+7) = 84 shapes. I'm not very sure if that is the optimal way to do it. Any help is appreciated.

  • When I was learning the modes, I found it easiest to think of them as they compare to either a major or a minor scale. Lydian is major with #4, Mixolydian is major with b7, Dorian is minor with Major 6, Phrygian is minor with b2 and Locrian is minor with b2 and b5. There's still some memorization there but not necessarily having to consider every note, assuming you know major and natural minor well. It can also be helpful to connect them to songs/bands/genres. For example, Tool writes in Phrygian a lot, Grateful Dead's Fire on the Mountain is in Mixolydian and a lot of funk songs are Dorian. – Basstickler Aug 22 '16 at 17:02
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I think there are three approaches complementing each other that work for most people:

  1. See the modes as "filled up" pentatonic patterns (assuming you can dream those): ionian, mixolydian, lydian => major pentatonic; dorian, phrygian, aeolian => minor pentatonic (doesn't work with locrian because it lacks a perfect fifth, but who wants to play locrian anyway? :) By the way, relying on pentatonic boxes and filling them up will be a nice addition to your 3-notes-per-string patterns, because you'll be able to play a mode in one position, without moving up the neck as you play on all 6 strings, as happens with 3-notes-per-string patterns.

  2. You can use your knowledge of (7-note) scale patterns (e.g., ionian, if you know that one well). You'll learn to see the patterns just as patterns, without necessarily relating them to a root note (a mode). So there is only one diatonic pattern for all modes, just the roots are different. I know that you know that, but try to see it on the fretboard.

  3. Also try to learn to play more intuitively, by ear. In order for that to work you need to learn two things: first, you need to be able to hear each mode (try to sing them); second, you need to be able to play what you hear. It's important to realize that after having learned both, you wouldn't need any patterns at all. You might not get there quickly, but work on it and you'll see that you get more and more independent of visual cues. (Exercise: close your eyes and play a mode up and down the neck).

  • Thank you for such a comprehensive answer. I'm aware of the 1st point, but never really thought it would help my understanding of modes. I'll surely explore it to greater detail. Your 2nd point basically hit the nail on the head. I was associating each pattern with ionian mode. I guess now I've to re-imagine each pattern as a container with the tonics as floating (pivot) points. And regarding the 3rd point, well I'd have to be at-least level 49 to reach there, but hey, better late than never. – Bitswazsky Aug 20 '16 at 18:11
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    @Bitswazsky: I think your formulation "the tonics as floating (pivot) points" is right to the point, that'll help you a lot. As for the 3rd point, just start working on it, it's fun and really necessary for becoming a better musician; it's indeed a never-ending journey, but even after a few weeks of practice you'll notice the difference in your playing. – Matt L. Aug 20 '16 at 18:19
  • It's useful to learn locrian so that if you want to move up or down the neck while improvising in one key you can change between the different modes as you move. Of course, you could jump from Aolian to Ionian while ascending, but that's just a patch that covers the gap. – Aric Aug 20 '18 at 13:14
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Understanding modes really took my playing to the next level and introduced me to a bunch of different sound flavors. Playing different modes over pieces really changes the mood, and gives way to a lot of experimentation while in the home studio.

Of all the modes explanations, I found the approach offered at this link to be the best: http://www.justinguitar.com/en/SC-501-ModesIntro.php

The reason it is the best is because this course actually teaches you to understand the parent scale for each mode in a certain key. Not just pick a scale and play from a certain note, like most teachers try to approach the subject. By sitting down and going through these lessons, when somebody says they are playing C Dorian, you will be able to quickly understand that he/she is playing the A# major scale and starting on the C note.

I studied scales at Berklee and really struggled with the modes part of that course. That required memorization of the various sharps and flats without a system. Also, sit down to a backing track in a certain key, and play all the modes across that track to understand the type of sounds that are produced.

  • Thanks for sharing that link, certainly a lot of good information there. Although this question was more about being able to play modes throughout the entire fret-board, assuming one has the ability to invoke a specific modal sound, It surely helps to come across different views on the subject. – Bitswazsky Aug 23 '16 at 13:43
  • I learned five different major scales at Berklee then mapped those scales to the relevant pentatonic scales as outlined in the CAGED system. That is outlined here: groovenue.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/… Now I can play either pentatonic, major, or minor scale in five different keys in the same position. This knowledge and combined with that modes understanding, makes five different modes accessible from a single position in any given key-mode. – blusician Aug 24 '16 at 3:23
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The easiest way to visualise them on the guitar is to have you basic Major shape and then just begin and start on different notes on the scale.

If you, for instance, have you natural minor / Aeolian mode you can use your A major scale shape and just begin and end on F#. After all Aeolian mode is the one where you have C major beginning on A note.

You don't have to learn new scale shapes. Use the basic ones you already know and just start on the correct note.

  • Yes, but that is the approach that I warn against and gets most players no where to start with. I do agree that it is simple, but almost useless. With that understanding, if I look at a guitarist and tell him to play in F# Aeolian, then he will not know the parent scale. Or, he sits there staring into the air with his fingers moving up and down. Learn how to get the parent scale quickly FTW!! – blusician Aug 24 '16 at 8:10
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Was going to elaborate in comment, but was way too long... elaborating because noticed the question was about 'around the fretboard'.

In reference to this link (and comment):

I learned five different major scales at Berklee then mapped those scales to the relevant pentatonic scales as outlined in the CAGED system. That is outlined here: http://www.groovenue.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Berklee-Major-Mapped-CAGED-Pentatonic.pdf Now I can play either pentatonic, major, or minor scale in five different keys in the same position. This knowledge and combined with that modes understanding, makes five different modes accessible from a single position in any given key-mode.

Pattern 4 root is the pinky on the 1st or 6th string. Pattern 3 root is the pinky on the 5th string. Pattern 2 root is the pinky on the 4th string (or middle finger on 1st or 6th string). Pattern 1 root is the pinky on the 3rd string. Pattern 1A root is the pinky stretched one half step up on the second string. Or, the index finger stretched one whole step down on the first string (same note).

Beyond that the pattern starts all over. This gets me up and down and sideways on the fretboard in patterns, but also (usually) know what note I am hitting at the same time. That last part is just a matter of time and speed recognition, hearing...

So, if I am playing C-Dorian, then play an A# (and focus on the C note and iii-V-VII, etc...) major scale with any of the given patterns and connect sideways or play up-down the fretboard, connecting the patterns that follow. They connect just like C-A-G-E-D - 3-1-4-2-1A.

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