modal phrasing

When you start using the modes, it can be a little tricky to get a handle on phrasing and avoid playing stuff that sounds too generic. In this article, we looked at breaking arpeggios and scales down into string pairs, so what I’d like to do here is take that idea and apply it to modes. This will be especially useful if you’re coming from the ‘Parent Scale’ school of thought, or are having trouble bringing out the sound of a particular mode.

I’m guessing you’ve either learned your major scale patterns or some modal shapes and are wondering how you can make them more musical or bring out the sound of each mode. The top two strings of the guitar are the perfect area to work on modes as you can start to apply bends, pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides and even tapping, if you’re into that kind of thing, whereas a major/modal scale patterns don’t really lend themselves well to making music, at first.

Here’s the Aeolian Mode in E on the top two strings. You won’t see this pattern in any scale books, but it’ll really help with your phrasing.

aeolian mode guitar

As this is more of a horizontal pattern, it’s a little easier on your ear. What’s also great about this pattern is that it prevents you from just running up and down the scale. Use the bottom E string as a drone and notice the intervals you’re playing and how they sound against that E note. This pattern also makes it more obvious where you can bend to, and there’s a handy b7 below the root on the B string which will help you resolve your phrases.

If we change just one note in this pattern we get the Dorian Mode. Simply swap the b6 for a natural 6 and you have the same concept but a different mode.

dorian mode guitar

When you practice this pattern, listen to how that one note changes, or lightens, the flavor of the scale.

The Phrygian Mode is also one note away from the Aeolian Mode, as you can see below. We simply change the 2 for a b2.

phrygian mode guitar

Now you know which notes the interesting ones are, you can really home in on them to make them a prominent part of your modal phrasing.

Next up is the Locrian Mode, which is only one note away from the Phrygian Mode above.

locrian mode guitar

Take full advantage of those semi-tone bends and the b7 to resolve your phrasing with this tricky-to-get-hold-of mode.

That just leaves us with the two major modes to explore (I won’t bother with the major scale itself): Lydian and Mixolydian. Here’s the Lydian pattern, which will get you an instant ‘Steve Vai’ kind of sound, especially when playing horizontally like this.

lydian mode guitar

If you make your phrasing revolve around that #4, you’ll have an unmistakable Lydian sound. Improving your phrasing is often a question of reducing your options, which is basically what we’re doing here. Instead of a two or three-octave scale pattern with the potential to get lost in, a handful of notes that you can control will do far more for your phrasing in the long run.

Here’s the Mixolydian pattern:

mixolydian mode guitar

The other great thing about these patterns is that they are movable, as long as you move them to either the D and G string or the E and A string pairs. On the lower strings, they’re great for coming up with modal riffs and the like. The more melodic workout you get from this type of practicing should reflect in your use of the standard patterns, and in your soloing.