Welp. It’s time to get acquainted with the modal oddball. Locrian is quite literally the most unsettled of our seven diatonic modes – both theoretically and sonically.
While most musicians shy away from this dissonant monster, here at Pickup we love a challenge! So let’s cautiously unlock the cage door and try to tame the beast! 👹
In this article we’ll cover all the essentials:
- Some basic theory
- Locrian scale patterns
- Best chords to use with Locrian
- Listening examples and exercises
What’s the Locrian mode?
If you thought the Phrygian mode was moody, prepare yourself – Locrian takes it to a whole new level.
- The reason this mode sounds so dissonant is that it contains the most accidentals (sharps/flats).
- The major scale has no accidentals and is considered the most consonant (harmonious).
- Usually, the more accidentals a scale has, the darker it sounds.
Here’s a comparison of three scales – notice how more flats (b) means a darker/more dissonant sound.
You can see all the scale degrees in Locrian are flat except the 1st and 4th.
The unique interval in Locrian is the b5 AKA the tritone – it’s what makes this mode so difficult to work with harmonically.
That’s enough numbers. It’s time to see how this all translates onto the guitar neck.
Minor scale fretboard diagram
We usually divide the modes into two qualities – major and minor. Locrian falls into the minor category, so let’s compare it to the natural minor scale (AKA Aeolian mode).
Locrian fretboard diagram
Here’s the scale pattern for Locrian.
- All you need to do is take the minor scale and flatten the 2nd and 5th.
- This is a pretty symmetrical shape, so shouldn’t be too tricky to memorize.
What does Locrian sound like?
In a word: DARK! Very few musicians delve into the Locrian depths – there are a few reasons for this.
- Many genres just don’t suit such an unsettling tone.
- It can be very difficult to create a satisfying progression with a diminished chord as the tonic.
- Diminished chords have tension and want to resolve somewhere else.
- There’s no sense of ‘home’ or resolution with this mode.
Songs that use Locrian
The only example of a chart-topping song that uses Locrian is Army of Me by the ever-esoteric Björk.
The unusual arrangement can make it difficult to figure out what is happening harmonically. Here’s a quick rundown to help make sense of things:
- The vocal melody is technically in Phyrigan, as Björk never sings the b5 (our defining Locrian interval)
- The b5 comes from the bass line, which hits both the C (root) and Gb(b5).
As we move into the verse, the dark tone continues, but we fall away from true Locrian.
- The bass starts using a natural 2nd (not b2) which means this is no longer Locrian.
- Björk also sings a perfect 5th (not b5) in the melody.
Nevertheless, it's a great example of successfully harnessing this awkward mode and utilizing its gloomy atmosphere.
Best chords for Locrian
The min7b5 is our chord for highlighting the Locrian sound.
The diminished triad consists of a 1, b3, and b5. To make a m7b5 we just add one more note.
The table below shows how to build this chord starting with B as a root note.
When to use Locrian
We've spent a lot of time talking about the difficulties of Locrian, but there are certain genres that gravitate toward its sound.
Thrash metal players love the Locrian mode for its unforgiving nature. The sense of harmonic tension can be a powerful tool for crafting brutal riffs that never let up.
Jazz guitarists also enjoy the challenge of taming Locrian. Finding interesting ways to make Locrian work is a theoretical brain-teaser – hours of face-scrunching fun.
When not to use Locrian
Let’s be totally honest. In most musical situations, Locrian isn’t getting invited to the party. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hang out once in a while!
Locrian exercises for guitar
Like all modes, you need to get familiar with the sound of each interval and the sequence of notes as a whole.
Internalize the mode
This is about taking the time to learn the unique relationship each scale degree has with the tonic.
- Take your time to play through the scale.
- Use a drone note of the tonic to give yourself a solid reference point.
- Try to zone in on the quality of each note, specifically the amount of tension – where is it pulling you?
Sing the mode
Let’s take off the training wheels. You don’t need a great voice for this, we just want to know the scale without relying on the guitar to provide the notes.
- Again we need a reference point – strumming the I chord or a power chord of the tonic is fine.
- Now use your voice to either hum, sing, or whistle the mode.
- It can also be helpful to say the intervals as you sing them, e.g. “1, b2, b3, 4”.
As you get more confident, challenge yourself by singing the notes out of order or even singing arpeggios from within the mode.
Locrian Jam tracks
Check out this backing track and see if you can navigate over the changes using Locrian.
We’re moving between:
- Cmin7b5 (Locrian) and;
- Bbmin7 (Aeolian)
- Both of these chords stem from the Db major scale.
You can play C Locrian over the Cm7b5 and the Bb Minor scale over the Bbm7.
Don’t get disheartened if you’re struggling to use this mode, it’s a tough one to get right. Just keep practicing and you’ll get the hang of it – we believe in you.
Check out the other articles in our modes series if you haven’t already. You’ve only got six more to go!
- Ionian mode (major scale)
- Aeolian mode (natural minor scale)
- Locrian mode
If you’re looking to take your modal playing and melodic soloing to a whole new level, check out our Soloing Learning Pathway. It features daily practice exercises (so you always know what to work on), guided jams, and opportunities to get personalized video feedback on your playing from professional guitarists.
We’re even offering a 14-day free trial so you can see how awesome our courses are without paying a penny!
Author: Richard Spooner
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