Using Modes in Your Music

Now that you have learnt all the modes from Ionian to Locrian and have also tasted the theoretical concepts, their construction, relevant chords and some famous compositions of each mode, you are in a better position to know how to actually use these modes in your music.

There are many techniques used by guitar masters for using modes in music and we will try to incorporate some of these techniques here. I know it might have been very boring for you to read through all the lessons on individual modes but the thing is you have made it.

You may have become known of the main difference between scales and modes by now. If not, I strongly suggest going back and reading the first lesson again. Anyways, let’s start with learning how to use modes in your music. First things first, you do know that modes are used to create emotions or fill emotional characteristics in your compositions. It won’t be possible without modes to produce good music, in other words, music would be dry without modes.

For learning how to use modes in your music we will take G Major Scale as an example. First of all choose a chord progression in the key of G major. The chord progression we chose is G, Bm, D7, G. After this you need to ask yourself, what scale you should play over these chords. The obvious answer that first comes to your mind is that I should play G major scale over this chord progression. Yes, this is right G major scale is the perfect scale for this progression but everyone does that! This literally means that it is common for people to use natural major scales over a chord progression and compose music using the only natural major scale without putting in extra efforts to use modes.

Every Chord is related to a Mode

After you have used G major scale over G, Bmin, D7, G, it is time to go one step further and use modes. A quick reminder is worth mentioning here, G Major has the following modes;

Our chord progression represents chords taken from I, iii, V and then again I degrees of G major scale. Remember, in the relevant chords section you were told that the root chord of every mode is constructed by using the first (root) note of the mode. How does it help here? The answer to this question is that when you are playing G major chord, the best mode to play over this chord is G Ionian because both G major chord and G Ionian have the same root note. Got it right? This is the trick how you use modes. For the other two chords in our progression we can use other modes of G major scale; B Phrygian for B minor chord and D Mixolydian for D7 chord. For every chord you can use different mode (based on its root note).

Techniques to Improve Your Mode Application

One of the most rewarding techniques to improve your mode application is to cover songs which use a particular mode and then improvise over these songs. You can also cover part of an instrumental as a reference/reminder. The key is to know which modes you can use over which chords and then play solos using techniques such as bends, legatos, sweep-picking etc. Another very helpful technique to tune your brain into a particular mode is to use pedal tones. A pedal tone is the note that keeps on ringing in the background and you use it as a reference note while playing solos over it or improvising over it.

If you have a friend who plays bass guitar or any other instrument such as key-board or even if he plays guitar, you have a perfect companion for learning modes. You can ask your friend to play G chord and you can improvise over it using G Ionian mode. There are several tools which you can use to improve your improvisation/soloing skills. You can also consider using PC software to record a backing track and playing it in the loop while improvising over it. A pedal tone can also be played by the guitar in your own hand. You can keep playing open A string and then use A Aeolian mode over it on strings other than A.

Remember to first develop a chord progression and then start using a mode over it and improving your playing by experimenting along the way. Spend time on learning other theoretical concepts such as advanced chord construction, circle of fifths etc. so that you can become a better guitarist with a good understanding of theory and practice.

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Ahmed is a regular contributor to GuitarChords 247 and brings you in-depth guitar lessons and music theory.
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  • hello,thanks for the article, now is much more I’ve a doubt: you said than over each chord I must use a specific mode, I can understand it…but sometimes I ear about “X artist use x mode”..

    for instance…Steve Vai – Building the church (Main melody) use the phrygian-mode…is he follow the same rule?…that means than when he is over the chord III is he playing the phrygian mode??..or he play this mode even over other chords??…thanks