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. Aug 22, 2016 at 17:02

6 Answers 6


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, 2016 at 18:11
  • 1
    @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, 2016 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, 2018 at 13:14

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, 2016 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, 2016 at 3:23
  • I might be nitpicking, but shouldn't C Dorian be rather be described as as having the notes of a Bb major scale than those of a A# major scale? A Dorian scale starts on the second note of the major scale, and the second note of the A# major scale is a B#. Sure B# and C are enharmonic in ET, but I still think it's much better. Using only sharps and exploiting enharmonics would render the scale as "A# C D D# F G A #A", which I think is very confusing compared to "A# B# Cx D# E# Fx Gx A#" (or "Bb C D Eb F G A Bb"). (I use x to denote double sharp)
    – EdvinW
    Dec 20, 2020 at 13:38

There are way more than 84 shapes to learn. They are worth practicing but if you are having trouble making melodic patterns that respect the mode then you don't have it in your ear and that's where it counts. The guitar can become a very "pattern oriented" pursuit but at the end of the day you ear has to lead you.

One thing that helps is learning how the various patterns connect. Starting with the major scale, it is just two tetra chords separated by a whole step (2 frets). The beauty of the symmetry is that it's the same 4 notes. SO you learn the 4 note lick, shift a whole step and play the same 4 note lick. After some time you start to realize that there aren't really that many patterns. Also, many of the scales have common patterns on 2 string pairs (E, A), (D, G) and (B, e). This is a common shredder trick, play the following finger patterns shifting appropriately. For example play (1, 2, 4) on (E, A), shift a whole step and repeat on (D, G) shift again then play on (B, e). This is just Locrian minus one note (which is right under your index finger when you change string groups). There are similar patterns. My point is that in terms of finger dexterity once you get the basic patterns (1, 2, 4) + (1, 2, 4), (1, 3, 4) + (1, 3, 4), (1, 2, 4) + (1, 3, 4), (1, 3, 4) + (1, 2, 4) and a few others down all the patterns you are discussing fall into place without memorization.

As for learning to hear modes it would help to listen to good examples of music played on modes. You mentioned Dorian. Have you completely digested So What by Miles Davis? Try transcribing the solos on that tune. You can find plenty of examples of tune in all genres of music in various modes. Another trick I teach my students is to take a simple common melody and play it in the different modes. A simple example is the opening line to Joy To The World since it's just a descending major scale from 8 to 1, it is distinguished by the rhythm. Play it in all the modes to hear the difference. You can do this with any tune.

  • Side-note: If a 4-note lick is used and played as 2-notes-per-string (to ascend the major scale for example), then it will also produce a rotatable 7-strings tall pattern where a unique mode can be associated with each of those seven strings. Modes/degrees would then appear in the order 1,3,5,7,2,4,6,1. Also kinda neat, the first notes of each string spell out 'the' diatonic progression. N-note-per-string patterns where N=1,2,3,4,5,6 also work, as they're all coprime to 7... they all make 7-strings tall patterns with a unique mode on each string.
    – Derek E
    Dec 20, 2020 at 2:58

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.


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, 2016 at 8:10

A little necro, but maybe future readers will be interested...

You could try rotating a single vertical 3-note-per-string pattern (that is 7 strings tall) when you go to play your modes. This might emphasize the modes as all being part of a single structure (an equivalence class defined using rotation equivalence) with relative relationships, rather than as separate independent things.

For example, on a 14-string guitar (to see the pattern twice) and tuned as [B, E, A, D, G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E] (i.e. tuned in fourths, to ignore the standard tuning's +1 semitone correction on the B-string), the pattern for the major scale and all of its modes goes as (in C major)...

--F-G-A- // String: 14, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Lydian,     Numeral: 4
--C-D-E- // String: 13, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Ionian,     Numeral: 1
--G-A-B- // String: 12, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Mixolydian, Numeral: 5
--D-EF-- // String: 11, Pattern: W-S, Mode: Dorian,     Numeral: 2
--A-BC-- // String: 10, Pattern: W-S, Mode: Aeolian,    Numeral: 6
--EF-G-- // String: 09, Pattern: S-W, Mode: Phrygian,   Numeral: 3
--BC-D-- // String: 08, Pattern: S-W, Mode: Locrian,    Numeral: 7
-F-G-A-- // String: 07, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Lydian,     Numeral: 4
-C-D-E-- // String: 06, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Ionian,     Numeral: 1
-G-A-B-- // String: 05, Pattern: W-W, Mode: Mixolydian, Numeral: 5
-D-EF--- // String: 04, Pattern: W-S, Mode: Dorian,     Numeral: 2
-A-BC--- // String: 03, Pattern: W-S, Mode: Aeolian,    Numeral: 6
-EF-G--- // String: 02, Pattern: S-W, Mode: Phrygian,   Numeral: 3
-BC-D--- // String: 01, Pattern: S-W, Mode: Locrian,    Numeral: 7

Each '-' is a fret/semitone and I used notes to show where your fingers go as well as the direction of ascension. Strings 01-07 are one instance of the pattern. Strings 08-14 are a second instance of the pattern.

You can vocalize the pattern as "two 1-2's, then two 2-1's, then three 2-2's", where 1-2 is in reference to S-W, etc... So, relatively cheap to memorize.

To play it on a standard tuned guitar, you need to "sharpen" the whole pattern when you ascend into the B-string, or "flatten" it when you descend from the B-string. Also, "sharpen" (or "flatten") the pattern when you restart it (for example, see the transition going from string 07 to string 08).

The B-string isn't too problematic, so I tend to think of the pattern as effectively transposable both vertically and horizontally (and I just auto-correct the B-string, like I do when tuning my guitar).

Additional Notes:

Similar patterns can be made for any heptatonic grouping of rotationally equivalent scales. Again, similarly so for pentatonic groupings, but I think it's often nicer to use 2-note-per-string patterns there. For a pentatonic example, the pattern will only be 5 strings tall, so you will see the full pattern on a guitar fretboard. Just look at and/or try rotating the 2-note-per-string minor pentatonic scale. (e.g. Play A minor pentatonic, then key change so that you play it's third mode in the key of A, meaning just rotate the pattern down one string... note: you'll need to first deduce the pattern and then account for the B-string to do this correctly.)

The reason things work out well for heptatonic and pentatonic scales is because they have prime numbers of notes. N-note-per-string patterns are essentially in correspondence with different circles of modes, and we can make full circles as long as our 'delta' N is coprime to this total number of notes. (The numerals in the "major grouping" above spell out a modal circle of thirds, roughly x+3 mod 7... 1, 4, 7, 3, 6, 2, 5, 1... and since all 7 degrees are present this circle is full/complete, meaning all the modes are represented in the pattern.)

One "can" work out patterns for non-prime things like octatonic scales, but the coprime condition still needs to be satisifed. To keep the horizontal motion down, one can do something like use a 5-notes-per-2-strings pattern (5 being coprime to 8), but then the string height is 2x8=16, so it may be more practical to try and view such things as heptatonic scales with an additional chromatic passing (and hence not care about representing the mode/degree of the chromatic passing in the pattern). Going the other way, a similar argument could likely be made for identifying the hexatonic blues scale with a pentatonic scale (which we kinda do anyways), for example.

Edit: An Example Application Of Naming Notes On The Fretboard:

Naming notes on the fretboard can be seen as an instance of these ideas. The pattern is 1-note-per-string and also follows a 'modal circle', with the underlying scale being the chromatic scale.

The circle of course is the Circle of Fourths. So, you just pick a note, then start going vertically up (e.g. along a fret), vocalizing the Circle of Fourths to name all the notes in that "line" (you'll also need to correct when you get to the B-string, but otherwise the pattern won't shift like the major grouping did when going from string 07 to string 08).

The coprime condition applied to the chromatic scale means only 4 full circles can be made (using a fixed 'delta'), because there are only 4 numbers less than 12 that are coprime to it. These numbers are 1, 11, 5, and 7, which are the circles of Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths, Perfect Fourths, and Perfect Fifths, respectively. In mod 12 (roughly), 5 and 7 are inverses (as are 1 and 11).

This means that, up to clock-direction/handedness, there are essentially only 2 different circles for the chromatic grouping. On guitar, one of those circles is what is travelled when you move horizontally (along a string) and the other is what is travelled when you move vertically (along a fret).

(I say 'roughly' in mod 12 because I'm counting the modes/intervals/degrees starting at 1 instead of 0 and doing that translation in my head. For example, 12 mod 12 = 0, but I 've been calling it 1 in various places. So rather than saying "x-1 mod N = Y => Degree=Y+1", I've just been saying 'roughly'.)

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