Guitar Modes... the smart (easy) way.

Part 2 of 3: Relative and Parallel Modes

Part one of this Guitar Modes series is about why the usual approach to modes on the fretboard makes no sense. You know, the "put your fingers here and don't think music" approach based on fingering boxes. It's also about getting the basics out of the way so we can get on with our strategy to make modes simple.

This is part two, where we focus on simplifying our thinking of modes. It's so simple when seen this way, especially when it comes time to put it on the fretboard in minutes (part 3).

This article is an excerpt from Fretboard Essentials.

You have probably heard about relative major and minor keys. A minor is the relative minor key to C major. The reason is simple. The A minor natural scale contains all the same notes as the C major scale. Actually, C major is the same as C Ionian, and A minor natural is the same as A Aeolian:

Major:     C D E F G A B C
Minor:               A B C D E F G A

In the same way, the remaining modes are all relative modes of C major. They all share the same DNA: the exact same notes, in the exact same order, but starting / ending on each successive pitch:

Ionian:     C D E F G A B C
Dorian:       D E F G A B C D
Phrygian:       E F G A B C D E
Lydian:           F G A B C D E F
Mixolydian:         G A B C D E F G
Aeolian:              A B C D E F G A
Locrian:                B C D E F G A B

This is the standard way of looking at modes. And it works really well on piano, since each note has one location and it's all laid out in one straight line:

piano modes

But the fretboard is different. You know from part 1 that piano thinking doesn't work for us. To really see modes on the fretboard, we'll need a slightly different view to begin with. It takes some a few steps, so follow closely. We need all the parts to make sense of guitar modes in an easy way. Remember our definition of scale?

Scale: a cycle of notes that follow a specific interval pattern.

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Just like any other scale, each mode has its own interval pattern. Diatonic scales and modes are all built using only two intervals: whole tones and half-steps. These are the symbols for them:

Π = whole tone    Λ = half tone

Using these symbols, the Dorian mode looks like this:


We can now choose any note to start on and follow that same interval pattern. The result is D Dorian, F dorian, Bb Dorian, whatever you want: Bb C Db Eb F G Ab Bb. It's the same interval pattern, but with a different start-and-end point.

Each of the 7 modes has it's own structure that defines its character. Look at the half-tones moving left:

ΛΠΠΠΛΠΠ Phrygian
ΠΠΛΠΠΛΠ Mixolydian

Now it's really easy to put all these interval patterns on a single note to compare them. Now, instead of being relative modes, they're parallel modes, because they all start and end on the exact same note:

Ionian:     C D E F G A B C
Dorian:     C D EF G A BC
Phrygian:   C DEF G ABC
Lydian:     C D E FG A B C
Mixolydian: C D E F G A BC
Aeolian:    C D EF G ABC
Locrian:    C DEF GABC

Take a look at the Locrian mode, and scale degree 5 in particular. It's a g flat. This means no perfect fifth, and no dominant function, which marks most music we listen to. That's the reason Locrian is the ugly duckling. If this is beyond you, don't worry. The point is, we're setting Locrian aside for now.

If we apply this principle to the remaining 6 diatonic modes, using C as our root, and arrange them by sharps and flats, we get the following:

The 6 Parallel Modes (C)

church modes

Take a look at the third note of each mode. Here it is again in note-names:

Lydian:     C D E FG A B C
Ionian:     C D E F G A B C
Mixolydian: C D E F G A BC

Dorian:     C D EF G A BC
Aeolian:    C D EF G ABC
Phrygian:   C DEF G ABC

It's an e for the 3 modes at the top and an e flat for the ones at the bottom. If you look closely, you will notice that this means that top 3 modes have major thirds in them, and that the ones at the bottom have minor 3ds in them. Three major modes and three minor modes.

Now we're getting close. Guitar modes are one step from making real sense!

Guitar Modes... the smart (easy) way 1, 2, 3

For a deeper look at modes and their correlations:

fretboard essentials

Fretboard Essentials

→ Start Fretboard Addicts | guitar theory in depth

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