Ionian is the first diatonic mode, in most situations, we just call it the major scale – tomayto, tomahto! 🍅

The Ionian mode is the most commonly used set of notes in Western music. It’s vital to have a deep understanding of this mode if you’re a serious guitar player, no matter what style of music you play.

In this article, we’ll teach you

  • The scale pattern
  • Chord progressions you can solo over using Ionian
  • Tips to make a scale sound more musical

We’ll also include some exclusive Pickup backing tracks so you can practice soloing with the major scale.

Why you shouldn’t skip learning the major scale

It might seem basic, but the major scale is much more than just a beginner scale.

The vast potential of the major scale takes a lifetime to uncover –it’s the foundation of Western music theory.

Even great music maestros still have epiphanies while exploring the mysteries of the major scale.

Once you learn the major scale, you can derive a lot of information from it:

  • This is the parent scale from which all seven diatonic modes are born.
  • The chords that naturally live within the major scale (the so-called diatonic chords) are a great starting point for songwriting.
  • You can use the major scale as a starting point and exchange/or leave out notes to turn it into any pentatonic pattern.

How to play the major scale

Ionian contains seven notes. If you learn the following sequence, you can create the Ionian mode (major scale) from any starting note.

whole | whole | half | whole | whole | whole | half

  • Whole = moving up two frets
  • Half = moving up one fret

Here are the notes and scale degrees for C Ionian:

The chord that embodies C Ionian best is the Cmaj7 chord.

Get to know the Ionian mode in four steps

Step 1: Start with one octave and memorize the location of each note in reference to the root note (1st degree).

Step 2: While you play each note, say the scale degree out loud.

Step 3: See if you can sing each note before you play it.

Use the lower octave for steps 1-3:

Step 4: Learn the full pattern for the Ionian mode:

Apply the Ionian mode in a musical context

Before you use a scale, make sure to familiarize yourself with how it sounds.

Below is a backing track centered around a C major chord. Play the scale pattern slowly and listen carefully to the unique harmony each note creates.

How to solo using the Ionian mode

Ionian is more of a vanilla-sounding scale compared to other modes.

Use your ear to hunt for that special melody and bring it to life with phrasing and expressive techniques – it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it!

  • Rhythm is one of the most important things to consider when soloing.
  • Little variations like starting on an offbeat have a huge impact.
  • Slide into notes for a more laid-back vibe.
  • Use vibrato, bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.

Now it’s time to make some music! C Ionian will work well over the backing track below.

  • Come up with a rhythmic motif that you can repeat using different notes.
  • Experiment with singing a short line and then playing it.

Examples of chord progressions

You can use the Ionian mode for both chord progressions but you’ll notice it might feel a little bland in some contexts.

  • ‘The blanket approach’ is when we use only one scale to improvise over an entire song/progression.
  • As you become a more advanced guitarist, you will learn how to use different scales over each individual chord in a progression.

Chord progression #1

Ionian works well as a blanket solution over a simple progression in a major key, in this case, G major.

Chord progression #2

Ionian is a good choice specifically for tonic I major chords in a major key. We could still generalize this entire jazz- / neo-soul-leaning progression with Ionian.

However, this jazzier progression deserves a lot more sonic color than just a blanket Ionian solo.

The dos and don’ts of using the major scale

Here are some practical tips for your next guitar solo:

  • Ionian doesn’t work well over maj7#11 and IVmaj7 chords (for the latter use Lydian).
  • Ionian can sound simple so make sure you keep things interesting in the rhythm and phrasing department.
  • If you’re more familiar with the major pentatonic, you can use it as a starting point – then slowly add the4th/11th and 7th for the Ionian mode.
  • In the land of jazz, Ionian is a great choice for the I chord of a jazzy ii-V-I progression.

What you should learn next

If you enjoyed learning about the Ionian mode, we have great news – we’re covering all seven modes this month! 🎉

  • Ionian is best followed up by studying Mixolydian – it only differs by one note and is perfect for blues jams.
  • If you’re into more melancholic sounds, give Dorian a try.

Remember: Theory is there to help expand our musical options, not box us in.

A scale shouldn’t dictate what you play. It’s important to learn which notes to play, but even more important to know how and when to play them.

Our Soloing Learning Pathway covers both: You’ll learn all modes and how to turn scales into a great guitar solo. The course includes daily lessons, live band backing tracks, and personal feedback on your playing.

Author: Julia Mahncke