Mad About Modes - Part II: Want vs. Need

by Marc Schonbrun

Last lesson, we talked a bit about how to demystify modes by looking at them as tied to chords and chord progressions. This week, we'll take it a step further and show you how to quickly identify a Mixolydian chord progression. Before we do that, we need to talk about a central concept of The Efficient Guitarist: Want vs. Need.

Want vs. Need

Modes are most confusing when you don't need them. All too often, you're sitting in a lesson, just trying to wrap your head around pentatonic and your instructor drops the modal bomb on you. You're not ready for it. You learn it, but it fails to sink in and you only understand it theoretically. There will be a point in your playing when you'll have enough knowledge and control over your guitar that you'll be able to chose when you do and don't want to play a mode. The day it becomes your own prerogative is a great day in your development. For many guitarists, that day isn't quite a reality yet. It's my goal to teach you enough about modes that you can use them when you want to, but let's start talking more practically—let's talk about when you *need* to use modes.


Modes are most useful when you need to use them. More specifically when you are faced with a chord progression that requires the use of a mode for solo/riff building. The first mode that we're going to look at is Mixolydian.

Theory Time

Mixolydian is almost exactly like a major scale. The only difference is that it has a b7 instead of a regular major seventh. It gives you a more bluesy shade to an otherwise bright major scale. Lots of southern rock bands write tunes around Mixolydian (whether they know it or not). The other famous band that loved Mixolydian was The Grateful Dead. It's also a very important jazz scale. Example one shows you the fingering for a D Mixolydian scale.

Mixolydian chord progressions are pretty easy to spot on the fingerboard if you know what to look for. Let's start with the example chord progression D–C-G, which is used by countless bands and really takes you that "sweet southern home" sound if you get my drift... Example two lays the chords out in open position.

Open chords make it hard to see that this is a Mixolydian progression. Let's move these chords to barre chords in Example three.

The giveaway here is that D and C are a whole step (two frets) apart. When you play this progression, notice how your ear calls the D chord the tonic or "home" chord of the progression. In almost every case, when you have a major chord followed by another major chord two frets lower, you're using the Mixolydian mode. While rules are meant to be broken, but this rule will serve you well. FYI: If this tune was in D major, you wouldn't have a C chord in the progression.

See the b7

When we count intervals, we tend to always count up. While this is often very useful, counting down is sometimes quicker. Go back to our D-C-G chord progression. We call D home, or one (I) in this case. Two frets down from D is the note C. What's the interval between D and C? You can find C 7 notes higher, but it's also one note down. One note down is must faster :) D happens to be the b7th interval from D. What makes this progression so clearly Mixolydian is that it has a major chord built on b7. Trust me that this isn't the first time you'll see this and it won't be the last time, either. Once you learn to see that shape of two major chords two frets apart, it's unmistakable.

Hint: The chords can be in any order. It won't always be D-C-G. I can think of a few tunes that reverse the progression and go D-G-C. In any case, once you find that you have D and C in the same progression and D is home, you're probably in Mixolydian.

Use Mixolydian

D-C-G is a great Mixolydian example because if you use the Mixolydian scale in Example one to create riffs and solos, you'll match up with each chord in the example. Since this progression is used all over pop and rock music, knowing Mixolydian is a must if you want to create great rock riffs and solos. The best way to get to know Mixolydian is to use it when you need it. As your ears get more familiar with the sound, you'll want to use it more and you'll find other reasons to use it.


Another way you could have done this (the longer way) is to take the notes of the chords and turn them into vertical stacks (like scyscrapers) and knock them into scales. Let's do that now:

A    G     D
F#   E     B
D    C     G

Those are the notes of the D-C-G progression, spelled vertically. When we knock them over and place them in a line we get the following:

D E F# G A B C D

When you look at the intervals you see that it's almost a perfect D major scale. The only difference is that the 7th is lowered from C# to C. Major scales with b7s are Mixolydian scales.


The next time you play over D-C-G, or any progression that matches our formula of a major home chord with another major chord two frets down (at some point in the progression), go ahead and use the Mixolydian scale instead of pentatonic. It's probably going to work great! This isn't the only Mixolydian chord progression, but it's one of the most common ones and it's a great place to start your modal adventure.

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

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