Guitar Jam Daily
Home Columnists Columnists Pro Shop: The Context of Modes
September 30, 2020
Pro Shop: The Context of Modes PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 November 2008 01:32
By Carl Verheyen - GJD Contributor
As many of you already know from listening to my music, my improvising concept is totally based on the use of intervals and melodic material to create lines. The more lines you have in different major, minor or dominant keys, the more money in the bank you have to draw on when improvising in those keys. Stringing together the lines you’ve worked out is step one in an improvised solo.  To paraphrase John McLaughlin: “We play the things we know until we’re warmed up and in the groove enough to play the things we don’t know.”  This is when the incredible, soaring feeling of complete control as well as reckless abandon takes over.

But how do we apply these personally composed and fingered lines to music, especially music that asks us to improvise over a series of chord changes? That’s where the modes come into play.  And for me it all comes down to one important concept: CONTEXT.

Let’s start with the Dorian mode. This is a minor scale based on the second degree of a major key. That means in the key of C major, we begin on D, the second note of the scale and play only the notes in the key of C, but from D to D. The scale turns out to be D E F G A B C D and with a minor 3rd it is definitely minor. It’s all the white notes on a piano, beginning on D.   

For the sake of example, transpose this scale to A minor Dorian mode.  We get A to A in the key of G because the A is the second degree in the G major scale. The scale is A B C D E F# G A.  Here is where my concept of context begins to make sense. That scale works great for chords that are diatonic to the key of G major. An easy way to understand the word diatonic is to apply the meaning “built from.” Chords that are diatonic to a certain mother key are simply stacks of notes built from the mother key’s scale, usually in 3rds.  The A minor Dorian mode works perfectly well over progressions like the following because all the chords are diatonic to the mother key of G major.
I: Am7  I  D7  I Am7 I  D7 :I
I: Am7   I  Bm7   I   C     I D7   :I

I first learned this scale back in high school listening to the Allman Brothers Band playing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and the Doors long version of “Light My Fire.”  I had no idea that the G major scale (when harmonized in 3rds) would yield the chords Gmaj7 Am7  Bm7  Cmaj7  D7  Em7  F#m7b5 and Gmaj7. Eventually however, I figured it out and all of a sudden I realized I was playing over changes, even though they were all in the same key.

So now I have this cool Am scale that sounds great over those chords. But then I heard Jimmy Page play the solo on “Stairway to Heaven” and I realized that, even though the solo was in A minor, the context had changed so radically that my Am Dorian mode didn’t work. The chord changes he plays over are:
I: Am  G  I F / / /  I  Am  G  I F / / / :I
The big old glaring F# note, the 6th of my new found Am Dorian mode scale clashed terribly with the F chord in bar 2 of the progression. Clearly it was the wrong scale to play.
At that point I found there were other modes, and the next most important minor mode was the Aeolian mode or natural minor. This mode comes from the 6th degree of a major scale and is built off the relative minor of a major key. So in the key of C major, follow your fingers up to the 6th degree of the scale and you’ll land on an A. The Aeolian Mode (or natural minor as it is also called) is simply A to A in the key of C. You get:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A.  Notice that the 6th degree in this scale is an F natural, not an F#.  Also notice that each of the chords in the above “Stairway to Heaven” progression are spelled out with within this scale:  A C E is the A minor triad, G B D is the G triad and F A C is the F triad. This is the scale Jimmy Page uses for his classic solo. 
Jimmy was a very accomplished studio musician before starting Led Zeppelin and his knowledge of music theory was obviously quite advanced. Whether he related his lines to the mother key and consciously played off the VI,  V and IV chords in the key of C is anybody’s guess.  Your ears tell you immediately that the Am Aeolian mode is right, and I believe that’s what music theory is for: To explain why the things you do that sound good…….sound good!
I believe it is essential that every serious musician spends the short time it takes to harmonize the major scales in all 12 keys. You should instantly know that the VI chord in Db is a Bbm7 and the III chord in B is a D#m7.  It will raise the level of all aspects of your musicianship: Ear training, improvisation, transposition, transcribing, songwriting and even song memorization. Next month I’ll tell you how to take 1 hour and go through the entire process in all 12 keys. It is the best thing you can do for yourself to better understand music theory as it applies to the guitar.


Daily Video Lesson

Daily Video Lesson
  • 02:41 - 01.10.2008 Spotlight >> Spotlight
    A five week long, cross-country tour featuring some of the best known and most respected figures in rock and blues has been set to celebrate the legacy and music of Jimi Hendrix. Presented by Experience Hendrix, L.L.C., the Hendrix family-owned company founded by James A. “Al” Hendrix, Jimi’s father, entrusted with preserving and protecting the legacy of Jimi Hendrix together with musical instrument giant Gibson Guitar, this year’s Experience Hendrix Tour represents a dramatic expansion beyond last year’s seven sold out performances.

    Featured artists who will be performing music written by and associated with Jimi Hendrix include blues giant Buddy Guy, contemporary guitar greats Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Eric Johnson, Cesar Rojas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos as well as Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford.
  • 01:53 - 26.09.2008 Spotlight >> Spotlight
    Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) and Italian distributor M.Casale Bauer proudly announce the grand opening of the Fender Custom Shop Showcase Italy. It is the third such international exclusive Fender guitar destination, joining the elite Fender Custom Shop Lounge (Düsseldorf, Germany) and Fender Showcase Tokyo (Japan).

    The Fender Custom Shop Showcase Italy is in Bologna, Italy, and is housed in a building by California-born Italian designer Gretchen Alexander. The showroom is located near the offices of M. Casale Bauer, Fender’s Italian distributor since 1962, and was created to provide Fender dealers, their special guests and artists with a comfortable place to find, try and buy some of the most beautiful guitars in today’s market. The showcase features an impressive array of high-end guitars crafted by the master builders of the Fender Custom Shop and provides artists and dealers (and their VIP clients) with access to some of the most unique high-end Fender instruments ever made available in one place. The showroom houses an unparalleled selection of Fender Custom Shop instruments, as well as Bauer’s personal collection, one of the largest and most valuable in the world.
  • 03:41 - 23.09.2008 Spotlight >> Spotlight
    Los Angeles, CA – World-renowned Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel will  release Center Stage, a live concert DVD on October 14th via Favored Nations Acoustic.  
    The full-length concert DVD follows the recent release of the Center Stage  double CD, both having been recorded live for the PBS television series “Sierra Center Stage.” Filmed in eye-catching high definition, every element of modern technology was used in production, creating a stunning package, both aurally
    and visually. 
  • 00:09 - 19.09.2008 Spotlight >> Spotlight
    Montreal, Canada- September 16th, 2008: Renowned guitarist Daryl Stuermer will be giving Godin Performance Clinics in and around Quebec and Eastern Ontario from September 29th to October 3rd 2008.

    Having performed in studio and toured the world with both Phil Collins and supergroup Genesis for years, Daryl is a player who is on top of his game and has the chops to prove it. Performing as the Daryl Stuermer Duo, he will be accompanied by keyboardist Konstantin Efimov during the clinics and will also be giving attendees his perspective on playing live, recording, technique, and his gear, by fielding a Q&A session after each performance.
  • 09:29 - 03.06.2008 Spotlight >> Spotlight
    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (June 2, 2008) -- Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) announced today that it has acquired certain assets of Groove Tubes LLC. Among other assets, FMIC purchased the Groove Tubes brand. Groove Tubes company founder Aspen Pittman will continue in a consulting role.