For a lot of guitarists, modes are like that ‘friend of a friend’ that we’ve crossed paths with but don’t know too well.

“Oh Modes! Yeah, I met them briefly at that jazz gig a while back. Pentatonic introduced me to Dorian – we hang out occasionally. Didn’t really get to know the others though. I remember that Locrian dude was just sitting in the corner looking awkward.”

It’s time to be formally introduced and we’re here to help break the ice – you’ll be fist-bumping the cool kids in no time. 😎

In this article we aim to explain modes for beginners and answer some important questions:

  • How do you use modes on guitar?
  • Which modes work over certain chords?
  • What’s the best way to practice modes on guitar?

What are musical modes?

They’re like the spice rack of the musical world. Modes make it easier to select a specific flavor for your melody or guitar solo.

You can think of modes as scales that highlight the unique sound of a specific chord.

Derived from the major scale, each mode starts on a different note, resulting in seven distinct sets of intervals, each with its own sound or mood.

Why should I learn modes on guitar?

Besides having more interesting sounds at your disposal, modes are a great way to internalize intervals and make your guitar playing more intentional.

  • Knowing which notes complement a chord becomes way easier once you learn modes.
  • This deeper understanding will help you broaden your musical horizons, as well as boost your improvisational game.

The seven diatonic modes on guitar

Each mode stems from a degree of the Ionian mode – AKA the major scale.

The major scale has seven degrees resulting in seven modes.

  • Each mode has a chord that it best relates to.
  • The modes ascend in a specific order, but today, we’ll group them into two categories or ‘qualities’ – major and minor.

Major guitar modes

If you want to dive deeper into major modes we’ve got an in-depth video on our Youtube channel for you to check out:

Ionian mode

Intervals: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Flavor: Bright, cheerful

We’ll provide a fretboard diagram for each mode – all with the root note (1) starting on the 8th fret (C).

  • The dots show which frets to press down to play the scale.
  • The numbers inside the dots represent the scale degrees/intervals.
  • The sound of this scale should be fairly familiar to everyone – the classic Do-Re-Mi!
  • Play this scale slowly over a Cmaj7 chord.
  • Try to sing along with each note – this will help to internalize the sounds.
  • Pay close attention to the feeling of suspense the 7 creates before resolving back to the 1.

Lydian mode

Intervals: 1 – 2 – 3 – #4 – 5 – 6 – 7

Flavor: Dreamy, magical

  • Lydian has a really unique, uplifting sound.
  • You’ll notice it’s very similar to Ionian – the only difference is the #4.
  • Practice this mode over a Cmaj7 focusing on the feeling that the #4 creates.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous try out this Cmaj7#11 to get that true Lydian vibe!

Mixolydian mode

Intervals: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – b7

Flavor: Funky, bluesy

  • One of the most versatile modes – it works really nicely across a whole range of genres.
  • The b7 gives this mode its unique sound, so when you play this mode concentrate on that note.
  • Mixolydian will sound great over dominant chords, try playing over a C13 (also known as a dominant 13).

Minor guitar modes

Because we’re feeling so generous, we’ve decided to give you another free video lesson for the minor modes too:

Dorian mode

Intervals: 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – b7

Flavor: Soulful, melancholic

  • Dorian is one of the more familiar modes for us guitar players, due to the fact it fits so well around our favorite minor pentatonic shape!
  • This is the only minor mode with a major 6th interval – this gives it a more uplifting jazzy sound.
  • Dorian sounds great over any minor chord, but try it over a Cm6 for the full flavor.

Aeolian mode (natural minor)

Intervals: 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6b7

Flavor: Dark, sorrowful

  • If you’ve been playing guitar for a little while you should already know the natural minor scale AKA Aeolian.
  • This mode is ubiquitous in all genres of Western music – second only to Ionian, so make sure you internalize the sound of this scale.
  • The defining note of Aeolian is the b6 – move between the 5 and the b6 to really get a feel of what this mode is all about.
  • This is the go-to scale when playing in a minor key or over minor chords. Cm9 is great for outlining the sound of Aeolian.

Phrygian mode

Intervals: 1 – b2b3 – 4 – 5 – b6b7

Flavor: Mysterious, exotic

  • One of the less commonly used modes but still totally worth exploring.
  • You’re likely to hear this sound in flamenco or metal.
  • The b2 is the real stand-out note in this scale – being so close to the root note creates a lot of tension, so be mindful not to linger too long before resolving.
  • It’s more common to play the b2 up an octave (as the b9) the higher register gives the note some distance and helps avoid muddiness and dissonance.

Locrian mode

Intervals: 1 – b2b3 – 4 – b5b6 b7

Flavor: Unsettled, dissonant

  • The problem child of the mode world, Locrian refuses to resolve!
  • This is by far the least common of all the modes.
  • You’ll occasionally hear it in jazz as a display of theoretical mastery.
  • It’s also used in thrash/death metal to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as possible.
  • The b5 (AKA tritone) really gives this mode that super dark quality.
  • Practice this scale over a Cm7b5 chord. If you have a hard time finding that sense of ‘home’ when playing this mode, don’t worry – it’s the nature of the beast!

Tips for practicing modes on guitar

It’ll take some time to get comfortable playing all the modes on guitar, but here are some ways to speed up the process.

Tip #1 – Sing!

We know you’re here to learn guitar, not vocals. However, if you can sing a mode, it means you’ve internalized the sound and will be able to identify it much more easily.

  • A good way to do this is by strumming a chord related to the mode, then slowly singing the notes of the mode – ascending and descending.
  • It may help to sing the number of each interval as an anchor.

Tip #2 – Practice in context

  • Once you’re fairly confident with a scale shape, start using it.
  • There are plenty of backing tracks available online – just find one tailored to the mode you're practicing.
  • Try different styles and genres to see how modes work and sound in different settings.

Tip #3 – Stay musically aware

  • One of the most important parts of understanding modes is learning how each interval interacts with the chord you’re playing over.
  • Try to avoid mindlessly running up and down the scale – take it slow and really absorb the feeling of each note.

How to memorize all the modes on guitar

There’s one trick that can make things easier, and it’s based on a whole-step/half-step approach.

  • The major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
  • Pick a root note then follow this pattern and you’ll always get a major scale!
  • Every other mode follows the exact same pattern, it just starts in a different place.


There it is – a crash course on the seven major scale modes!

  • From the bright and cheerful sounds of Ionian to the unsettled and dissonant tension of Locrian, these modes will add some serious flavor to your music.
  • Remember, learning modes is like getting to know a group of friends. It might take some time to become acquainted, but once you do, you'll wonder how you ever did without them.
  • If you find yourself feeling a little lost in Locrian land, don't worry – it's all part of the adventure.

Time to grab your guitar and create some spicy melodies and new harmonious friendships!

Author: Richard Spooner