We’re going to step outside the normal CG realm today to talk a bit about modes and improvisation. When I first started guitar (electric), people threw around mode names and I had no clue about them. Then I looked them up and got more confused.
“There are hundreds of scales out there and I have to memorize them all?” is what I thought to myself
Turns out you don’t have memorize them all. My first real jazz guitar teacher taught me that. So here’s what I learned.
The Modes and their Tonalities
Certain modes work with certain types of chords. Here’s a general list of the standard seven modes of the major scale. The method outlined in this article can also be use with modes of the melodic and harmonic minor or any other collection of modes. If you’re unfamiliar with modes, check out this article.
- Ionian: use over major triads and seventh chords
- Dorian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
- Phrygian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
- Lydian: use over major triads and seventh chords
- Mixolydian: use over dominant seventh chords
- Aeolian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
- Locrian: use over diminished triads and half diminished seventh chords
Covering the Changes
So say we have a major chord. C major 7, for instance.
A few modes work over major7 chords: Ionian (the standard major scale) and lydian.
If we want to play ionian mode over this Cmaj7 chord, we just play a C major scale. End of story.
If we want to play the lydian mode, we don’t need to learn a new scale pattern. We relate it to another major scale. In other words, we treat C as the fourth scale degree of another key. In this case, we can play a G major scale over the Cmaj7 chord to get that lydian sound (from the F# in G major) while still keeping all the chord tones from the C major (C E G B).
Instead of learning a new scale, we related the root of the chord to a new major scale. We treated C as the fourth scale degree of another key rather than the root of its own.
Take a Look at a Minor Chord
Say we have a C minor 7 chord. We could play an aeolian mode (natural minor) over it by treating C as the sixth scale degree of another key. Meaning we play a Eb major scale to get an aeolian sound over the C minor chord:
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
We could also treat C as the second scale degree of Bb major. If we play a Bb major, we’ll get a dorian mode sounding over the C minor chord.
Bb C D Eb F G A
Or you could even do Ab major scale to capture a phrygian sound.
Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
In all these case all we’re doing is relating the root of the chord to another major scale. We’re using the major scale, which we know really well, to solo in various modes. The thing to notice in each of these scales is that the chord tones for Cmin7 (C Eb G Bb) are still there.
How to Practice
Obviously if you’re just starting this stuff it’s not goign to be easy. Grab a Real Book and pick a standard like Autumn Leaves. Write in the major scale you plan to use over each chord. And don’t feel like you have to change scales on each chord! Find or record a backing track and play the scales in eighth notes over the changes.
After you feel more secure with just the scales in eighth notes, you can try improvising over the backing track. If you’ve practicing the scales in thirds, triads, and seventh chords as I mentioned above, you should find that some of those finger patterns come out in your improvising. This makes less of a “up and down the scale” improviser.
Why Use this Method for Modal Soloing?
- Because it requires less memorizing, giving you more time to really work on improvising
- Because it makes you less root oriented when soloing
- Because it’s easy to understand and easy to put into place