Modes have always been confusing to me, but thanks to one of Vinnie Moore’s instructional videos and many patient explanations by my musician friends, modes are finally starting to clear up a bit. What you find below represents the line of thought that finally helped me make a little sense of modes, and to start understanding how I could use them for something besides practicing scale patterns. At this point, you might want to open the Flash demonstration in a new window and keep it handy as you’re reading.
Major or Minor?
Part of my confusion was caused by tutorials that always take C major as their starting point for discussing modes. Admittedly, it’s easier to talk about intervals and scale degrees without having to deal with sharps and flats, but C major is, well, kind of bland and boring. It’s not particularly guitar friendly either. Why waste time messing about with happy major tonalities (GHAY!) when you can cut straight to the dark and evil sounding stuff? That’s why the discussion below starts with E natural minor(or E Aeolian in modal terms). Of course, Nigel Tufnel has conclusively demonstrated, D minor is the saddest of all keys. But E minor is definitely the most metal. It sure doesn’t hurt that it’s (arguably) the most guitar-friendly as well, at least in standard tuning.
Modal tonalities vs. scale positions
Here is the key (snort!): if you play, say, a C Lydian “pattern” over a backing that has a pronounced E minor flavor, it’s still not going to sound like the Lydian mode. For instance, if you start your melodic line on the 8th fret (C) and play the Lydian “pattern” over an E minor chord, it will still sound like plain old E minor (Aeolian)!
Herein lies the confusion — understanding the difference between static scale positions on the neck and the sound of true modality. Modes have distinct tonal flavors as a result of the intervals that they are made up of in relation to their tonic note and the tonic of the backing. If you’ve graduated from Metal Guitar 101 you can play E-minor scale patterns in positions all over the neck. Play them against an E-minor backing, and they will all sound like the Aeolian mode (E minor). To achieve various modal flavors using those same scale patterns, you need to change the tonic flavor of the backing to establish the modal mood you are after. The difference is far more difficult to explain than it is to hear. If your are confused, play around with the demo and listen to the different moods…that should clear things up.
About the demonstration
You need Flash Player 6 or higher to view the demo. If you haven’t done it already, then click here to open it in a new window.
The example begins with a diagram of the notes from the E (natural) minor scale (E Aeolian) from the open position to the 12th position. (Please note that the actual sound samples are in E flat minor because I tune my guitar down one half-step.) If you click on the mode names, you will see the different modes shown in a 3-note-per-string pattern covering all 6 strings. They are superimposed on the extended pattern (olive green) for reference. The root note of each mode is highlighted in turquoise.
You’ll can listen to two sound samples for each mode. Each sample features the same guitar part, but one is played over the “modal” backing note, and the other over an E. This lets you hear the same melody taking on different modal flavors due to the harmonic context within which it appears. The take-home point is that modes are context-dependent moods or flavors, not static scale positions!
Although the visual demo highlights only one 6-string pattern per mode, the patterns can actually be extended up and down the neck when you play. In fact, in the sound samples I don’t stick to the illustrated patterns, but extend the melodies up and down the neck. I’ve not included any sound samples for the Aeolian positions, because the other modes’ samples over E backing all sound Aeolian anyway!
I hope this will help you understand modes a little better. If none of this makes sense to you, just try to remember that modes are a sound, not a scale position. That’s really what it’s all about in a nutshell.
Note: This post originally appeared years ago on my static website at lorilinstruth.com. I never bothered to move it over to my blog, probably because I didn’t think the sound samples were clear enough and I couldn’t be bothered to re-do them and reauthor the Flash. Thanks to Alan and other readers who have written to ask about it, giving me a reason to dust off the cobwebs and upload the old demo to my new site. The perfectionist in me hates the sound of the old samples, but WTF. Sorry it took so long for me to pull my thumb out and get around to it!