5 October 2010

Guitar Soloing - Is It Worth Learning Modes?

Do you use modes when you play guitar solos? I don't... yet... but I'm wondering if it's really worth investing time to learn more about them. Maybe your experience can help me understand the benefits of modes and how to approach them...

Soloing With Modes

In the past I've looked over a few tutorials on modes but these always left me with two impressions:

1. Playing the same notes as the root scale in a different order doesn't really make such a huge change.

2. Playing modes means learning lots of new scale fingerings.

So I decided to leave modes alone.

But recently though I came across two new tutorials that gave me new insights into modes.

Mode Tutorials

A lesson, How To Use Modes For Improvising, on the Classical Guitar Blog showed a simple system to play different modes using only the basic major scale fingerings that I'd already learned.

Around the same time Total Guitar magazine's August issue provided a special pull-out lesson poster on modes. Everything is laid out clearly but learning all those new scale positions looms in the background.

So, the question I'm left with is...

What Are Modes Really Good For?

Or to be more exact, what benefits of modes make them worth all the effort of learning and becoming proficient with the new positions they call for?

I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments. Did you learn modes? Do you use them? Would you do anything differently if you had to learn them again? Or maybe you didn't find them that useful...

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Lucas said...

I don't use the modes originated by the major scale, only the pentatonic based on the CAGED system. Luckly, they seem to be not so necessary in the blues.

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Lucas, thanks for your input. Maybe you could elaborate a little on what you mean by "pentatonics based on the CAGED system"?

Willem said...

I liked how Joe Satriani describes modes, musically, as conveying a range of different `emotional themes' in addition to the standard major and minor scales.

Each mode has its own unique character.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTQolymKmDA&feature=youtu.be

Lucas said...

Hi Gary!
The 5 shapes of the pentatonic scale based on the shapes of the chords C,A,G,E and D. This system helps a lot to locate the notes and to see the scale.

I think it works well as a system to learn the modes, because if you, for example, play the scale within the G chord while playing a song in the key of C, you'll be actually playing A Aeolian in the low strings and C Ionian in the high strings, and so goes on, each chord shape related to a different mode. Despite of that, I'm using it just for the pentatonic for a long time.

Sorry if I didn't make it clear, because english is my second language and I'm not that good yet... =/

David said...

I want to learn modes too but don’t know the proper way of doing it. I hope I can find the best advice here.

Aaron said...

I totally agree with Willem. Until I saw Satriani's lessons on modes I was confused. I think the problem is a lot of lessons on the net don't explain how to use modes properly. The writers get stuck talking about how starting on a different note of the major scale creates a new mode.

If you want to hear the different sounds modes can offer, watch Satriani's videos. The way I think of modes is that every mode offers a different sound or 'flavour'. Players who only learn the pentatonic scale are stuck with one basic flavour where a player who knows a few different modes has more flavours to choose from when writing music or soloing. I think not learning modes is limiting yourself.

Chris said...

The thing about Satriani's statement is that it assumes that learning the scale is what improvising is about. It's not. It's about how the scale and your use of it interacts with the harmony.

More over, if you learn the modes as separate scales, you're literally learning 7 different ways to play the same notes found in the major scale. I just don't understand it. If you can relate the same scale to other things, why would you not do it?

Seems to me like that would give you more time to practice improvising because you're spending less time learning the same thing differently.

Rob said...

I think part of the problem here is that people get stuck on the concept of modes being "just the major scale, but starting on a different note".

Whilst this is true, it doesn't really explain the true picture. Modes were originally used before we invented keys- where each root note (or starting note) produces a different scale (instead of having different keys for different scales). These were usually played over a drone of the root note (or at least consisted of only melody- chord progressions require keys!).

The confusion appears when you look at the jazz style of improvisation, where you think of each chord separately (and thus assign each chord a different mode depending on the root note/tonality of that chord).

If you have a chord progression in C, that chord progression is in C (and it doesn't matter what notes you play over it, you wont change the key of the progression!); if you have a static C chord, you can play any mode with C as a root note and a major third. So C Ionian (aka C major); C Lydian (same notes as G major); C Mixolydian (same notes as F major); or C Phrygian Dominant (same notes as F harmonic minor).

Hope that helps :)

Gary Fletcher said...

Thanks to all for making such an interesting discussion. It certainly cleared two things in my mind:

1) Playing modes means adding more notes to the basic major or minor scale options. For example, that C lydian example adds an F# note that isn't in the C major scale. So you get a new sound to play with.

2) There are some thought-saving methods to apply modes to guitar playing.

@Chris - I'm all for relating things to other things (point 2 above) ;-)

@Ross - Wow, totally deep comment. I'll be checking out your modes tutorial when I get time...

Gary Fletcher said...

@Lucas - I'd be happy to be so not that good at Portuguese ;-)

Unknown said...

I think it depends a lot on what style of music you're playing, and what kind of "flavor" you're going for.

I've been honing in on jazz for the last 10 years, and so modes are my bread and butter. Before that, I played a lot of blues and dabbled in other styles as well. I still play blues quite often. When I play blues, I stick mostly to the blues scale, although I'll sometime use tones (2, #3, 6) that come from the major pentatonic of whatever key I'm in.

When I was playing metal more, minor pentatonic and natural minor (which is a mode, itself) gave me most of the sounds I wanted. But there are plenty of metal players who use modes of not just the major scale, but the harmonic and melodic minors as well.

So I think it just depends on what you're going for. If you want to sound more like Jimmy Page or more like Satch.

Unknown said...

Oh, and another thing. When I practice scales, I start on whatever tonic I'm thinking about. If I practice C major, I start on a C. If I practice C dorian, i start on a C.

But when I'm soloing, I can start on any tone. So modes become about context. When I have a Cm7 chord, I like to think C dorian, or C natural minor, or C minor pentatonic...(three of my favorite flavors), because those are much more convenient than thinking about Eb major or Bb major.

But my fingerings come from Eb major and Bb major. You don't have to learn new fingering patterns for each mode. If you can play a major scale and move it up and down your neck, you can play the 7 modes.

The best way, I think, to get used to how modes work is record a loop of yourself playing some kind of C minor groove, and then play a Bb major scale over it....you're playing C dorian, if you want to think about it that way. You'll instantly sound like a bad Santana clone...and with practice, you can sound like a GOOD Santana clone.

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