The Efficient Guitarist - Part I - Mad About Modes

I’m mad. I’m mad because modes are greatly misunderstood. I’m mad because modes are amazing. I’m mad because modes are easy. I’m mad because no one understands modes. Let me explain....

Part of the frustration about modes comes in the way that they’re typically taught. Modes are often thought of as a rite of passage. “You’re not ready for modes,” they say. Let’s try to break this down, because there’s no way you can play modern music on the guitar and not need to deal with modes in some shape or form. It’s going to take me a few articles, but I think I can make them much easier to deal with.

Start with Pentatonic

Many guitarists are taught pentatonic scales as their first foray into improvising. It’s how I was taught. The pentatonic scale was awesome! It always worked no matter what song I threw at it. As I progressed, I learned about major and minor scales. Unlike pentatonic scales, these didn’t always work when I wanted to use them. Some songs just clashed with pure major and minor scales. I went back to pentatonic, and all was right in the world. My musical rebellion was supported by guitarists everywhere who got a ton of mileage out of the pentatonic scale.

In the Scholastic Mode

I eventually learned about modes one summer. They were this mystical advanced topic that had absolutely no impact on my life. I understood what I was taught: Modes were derived from major scales. They made sense on paper, but whenever I played them, they sounded exactly like the parent major scale from which they were derived.

Play Example 1 followed by Example 2.

Example 1 is the C major scale. Example 2 is the D Dorian scale. To me, they sounded exactly the same. My ear was driven back to C no matter which scale I played. I’m willing to bet that this has happened to you at some point. This became my understanding of modes for several years. I understood them intellectually, but I had little use for them in my own music.

Think Different

When we’re taught about scales, we’re often taught scales on paper—they never seem alive. For the next few columns, I’m going to help you breathe life into scales and modes. Here’s how we’re going to start: We’re going to stop thinking of them as scales, and we’re going to think of them as counterparts to chord progressions. Here’s a simple fact: Unless you’re playing avant-garde 20th century classical music, you’re playing melodies over chord progressions. This is how tonal music works, regardless of whether you think that way.... The melody to your favorite song is in a scale (or mode) that fits together with the chords that accompany it. I’m going to help you think about scales and modes by shifting your attention to the chords themselves. Let’s be honest--no matter how much we love to solo, we spend the majority of our time playing chords....


Have you ever heard of a one, four, five progression? Most people have heard the term.  It’s time for a quick primer. It’s often much easier to think about chord progressions as they relate to numbers. Instead of calling it a G, C, and D chord progression, you could call it a one, four, five. Music theorists use Roman numerals, so let’s switch to that. A I-IV-V progression means that you’re building chords from the first, fourth, and fifth notes of a given scale. In our case, it’s the key of G major, so we get the following notes:

G = the first note

C = the fourth note

D = the fifth note

Pretty simple, right? I - IV - V is a really important progression, and thousands of songs are built using it. Let’s turn that chord progression into something more visual.

High Rise

When you look at a chord on the neck (or music paper), it is typically a vertical stack of notes. Take a look at Example 3 to see the written music and tab for a I - IV - V in G major.

When I see chords on paper, I instantly think of skyscrapers in Manhattan. I think of their massive structures, and I’m always amazed that no matter how massive they are, they were built one brick at a time. Let’s apply the same thinking to our chords; let’s break them apart. Here’s the progression again, but this time, let’s just use the letters:


B E F#


There are three vertical chords there. G B D is the G major chord. C E G is the C major chord, and D F# A is the D major chord. You’re probably saying to yourself, “What the heck does this have to do with modes and soloing?” This has everything to do with soloing and modes; you just have to turn your thinking around.

Knock 'em Down

Let’s take our chord skyscrapers and knock them over in a line. Here’s what we get:

G B D C E G D F# A

Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? That’s because they are out of order. Let’s order them from G. Here’s what we get:

G A B C D E F# G

What’s that? That’s a G major scale. Ding, ding, ding! That’s why chords and melody are tied together. There’s an epic game of chicken or the egg going on between chords and melodies. Which came first? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are related. Every chord progression suggests some scale for its melodies. Every melody suggests some chords for its accompaniments. The quicker you can learn to understand and hear the relationship, the easier this is going to be. Stuck inside our I-IV-V progression was every note of the G major scale (just not all played at once).

What About Modes?

We’re going to take it slow, because I’m only going to teach this once, and I want it to work, so I’m not going to rush. Read the next section carefully....

There are lots of scales out there. Major and minor aren’t better or worse than anything else. The sooner you start thinking of modes as just another scale, the easier time you’ll have. They are not special. They are not advanced. They simply sound different. You may not always use them. When you use them properly, they’re the right tool for the job. When you need them is based on the chords you're going to play over.

So when do modes come into play? Modes come into play when the progression needs them. Then and only then will they make sense. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so this is where we will stop for this week. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at situations where you need to use modes and the reasons why. I’m looking forward to showing you just how simple modes really are! See you next time.

"Marc Schonbrun is a guitarist, author and D'Addario endorsing artist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find out more about Marc at"

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