This is an interesting phenomenon as the best person to ask for an explanation of modes is probably a bass player; they just seem to get it much quicker than guitarists do. I think this is because they have little or no ‘scale clutter’ to try to apply modes to, which is the biggest mistake guitarists make. Let me explain… Bassists have no CAGED system, and if you’re trying to apply modes via the CAGED system you’re going to end up desecrating your guitar, as well as whoever taught you the CAGED system.
Let’s say you want to play the E Phrygian mode. This is your thought process using the CAGED system:
‘Ok, E Phrygian is the third mode of C major so I need the C major pattern, wait… let me find a C major chord shape, ok, the A shape pattern will do… so that’s the A shape pattern in C major, now I need to start the C major scale on E to get E Phrygian… wait, let me find an E, ah ok so it goes A shape chord, C major scale pattern starting on E… oh, f**k this…’
If you want to play E Phrygian on bass you just play the E Phrygian scale, starting on E. Genius.
More Scale Clutter
If you’re using the 3NPS scale system then you’ll have the same problem, albeit with a shorter route to what you actually want to play. Check out the first 3NPS pattern in F below.
The Missing Link
What most guitarists don’t do is take the time to actually hear the sound of each mode. This is critical as to be able to pick them out of the generic major scale pattern, your ear will need to be involved otherwise every mode will sound the same to you.
In the following diagrams use the bottom E string as a drone and play through the scale patterns for each mode paying close attention to the sound of the notes.
Ionian Mode (the major scale)
The Locrian scale just sounds out and you probably won’t use it that much to begin with but it’ll sound good over a m7b5 chord.
So your homework is to get used to the sound of each mode and forget about how the awful CAGED system screwed you over as far as modes are concerned. Don’t worry, all is not lost as we shall soon see, but make sure you’ve really got the sound of each mode in your head.
Once you’ve gotten a taste for the sound of each mode we can move on in our quest to understand modes on guitar, and actually be able to use them instead of fumbling around for root notes or engaging in mathematical-like calculations to find the correct mode and starting note.
If you think of the major scale as if it were circular in nature, as shown in the diagram below, it’s easier to see that any of the notes of the scale can be the root note.
What about Chords?
Chords work in exactly the same way as you can see below. Start and end a chord sequence on Gm7 and G Dorian will work perfectly over it; start and end your chord progression on Em7b5 and E Locrian will fit perfectly, and so on.
You should now start to see the major scale as more of a generic pattern that contains its respective modes, unless you’re playing the major scale itself. This is where a lot of guitarists get stuck as they’ve played the major scale pattern so many times in note order that it’s hard to see it from the point of view of a different root.
An alternative would be to have a pattern for each mode. You don’t have to cover the entire fretboard but to be able to use the modes you need to be able to access them on the fly. In the above diagram to play G Dorian you don’t really want to be thinking F major scale starting on the second note. You want to be thinking G Dorian. Over time you’ll be able to see the pattern within in the pattern as it were, but if you want instant gratification then it’s probably better to come up with some strict modal patterns that start on the note of the mode.
Allan Holdsworth sees a major scale, in this case F major, as starting on the lowest available note on the guitar (E), and finishing on the highest available note, which would also be (E), depending on how many frets you have. This is a good way to think about it as you’re not giving priority to any particular root, or being a slave to scale patterns.
If you enjoyed this post and want to gain a thorough understanding of the modes and how to apply them, check out our Understanding and Applying Modes on Guitar eBook.