How to Use Modes for Improvising

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.

  1. Ionian: use over major triads and seventh chords
  2. Dorian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
  3. Phrygian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
  4. Lydian: use over major triads and seventh chords
  5. Mixolydian: use over dominant seventh chords
  6. Aeolian: use over minor triads and seventh chords
  7. 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

Posted on in Music Theory


  • Gary Fletcher

    Hey, that’s the first lesson on modes I read that I actually understood. Thanks for sharing it. Time to head for the woodshed now…

  • Willem

    This is an excellent post. Thank you! I usually have trouble with modes and especially how they relate to chords. After reading this post I’m going to have another shot at this.

    I have added a link to it in a post on improvisation on my blog. Please have a look!

  • Gianni

    nice article. If you allow me to add my 2 cents, I’d advice to start with simple modal tunes/vamps or structures like II-V-I’s before going into full blown standards.

    thanks again for sharing, keep up the good work!

  • Ross

    It is most important to understand Relative and Parallel approaches to modes. Most questions and comments regarding modes can be resolved with this concept. Guitarmodes method provides a solid basis for all guitar lessons while conforming with convention.
    We are starting a list of students currently trialling the new GM copyright method as a way to obtain credibility and acceptance within the guitar teaching industry.

    Regards, Ross

  • Johnson

    I’d be careful to say that when you have a C minor 7 chord you would play over aeolian, especially because you are telling people to try it out over Autumn Leaves. Every minor chord in that tune (excluding minor 7 flat 5s) would be Dorian. One could say that the final chord in the tune, should use aeolian, but in every recording I can think of the last chord (e minor if you play it in the real book key or g minor if you play with horn players) people are playing over Dorian. Miles even puts the natural 6th in the melody on Cannonball Adderly’s recording. Not trying to say that aeolian isn’t use able…just a thought. Great site!

  • vic

    can some one explein me for the minor keys i dont understand

  • mark

    well explained! thank you for making my doubt clear.