A great way to learn the characteristic sounds of the major scale modes, and a good way to discourage ‘pattern’ playing, or relying on memorized licks, is to play each mode on a single string. I think I first ran across this idea in the old Mick Goodrick ‘Advancing Guitarist’ book. The important thing is to STAY on the same string…do no play adjacent strings. Easier said than done!
I covered the modes in a previous article if you need a primer. This will be more focused on training your ear.
As I mentioned in the other article, each mode is basically one of three types:
MAJOR: (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian)
MINOR: (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian)
My examples use the root note E. You should try this all different keys, on all strings.
I am doing each one in E so you can hear the sound and color of each mode distinctly. My choice of key has nothing to do with the name of the string I am using for my example, it’s just a coincidence. You could just as easily do the exercise on the B, G or any other string.
Okay, Here is a little recap of the modes as compared to their parent major, minor, or half-diminished scale. The bold notes are the ones that really define the characteristic sound of each mode.
Ionian: (Parent Major)
Dorian: Minor w/ SHARP 6
Phrygian: Minor w/ FLAT 2
Lydian: Major w/ SHARP 4
Mixolydian: Major w/ FLAT 7
Aeolian: (Natural Minor)
Locrian: Minor w/ FLAT 2 AND FLAT 5
Here are some sound examples to get you started. I don’t recommend just learning the licks I played here. The whole idea of this exercise is to help develop your ear and ability to use the modes musically, without relying on rote patterns and mechanical functions. To really improvise, you have to break away from the licks and patterns your hands are comfortable with and rely solely on your ears. (Scary huh!)
So, lay down a simple rhythm track with the appropriate chords for each mode, then play over it.
If you have a fancy recording setup, great. If not, a keyboard with loops is fine, a tape recorder or digital recorder, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve gotten this far and don’t have a way to lay down a backing for yourself, back up and get one!
The backing vamp for each of these sounds similar, but I modified the chords for each accordingly. The bassline does have a B natural note, which isn’t part of E locrian (should be a Bb), but we’ll let that slide for now!
Also, you will notice I skipped the parent Major and Relative Minor modes (Ionian, Aeolian.) You should do them as well, but I just wanted to touch on the other modes for these examples. Listen closely for the notes that really define the character of each mode.
Note: At the end of the Locrian example, I started using the half-whole diminished scale, which is a more common (and much better sounding scale) than the locrian mode. The pattern for that scale is simply H-W-H-W-H-W-H-W etc…