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Deep Blues: Modal Blues

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Deep Blues: Modal Blues
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In this month’s column we’re going to look at how we can utilize the modes of the major scale to enhance our soloing. Over a typical blues progression, we use three dominant-seventh chords. Dominant-seventh chords occur naturally when you build a chord based on the 5th degree of the major scale. Also, when you play through a major scale starting on the 5th degree it creates the Mixolydian mode.

This means we will need three different Mixolydian scales to cover our blues progression. Most of us learn a set of seven different modal fingerings, one for each note of the major scale: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Don’t worry If you haven’t done this yet, you’re about to learn three of them now. If you take a close look at most modal fingerings you’ll find that there are really only five different fingerings since the Ionian and Locrian fingerings are the same fingerings but just start on different fingers. You’ll also notice that Phrygian and Lydian are typically the same pattern as well, again just starting on different fingers. In Fig. 1 you can see how all the modes in the key of G major lay on the fretboard.


Within a key, each mode contains the same notes, just starting on a different degree of the scale. This means that each fingering has multiple purposes. I think of the modes as a way to play where I want on the neck of the guitar no matter what chord is being played.

We’ll be working out these modes over a blues in the key of A. This means for most of us that the primary scales to solo with are the A minor pentatonic scale and A blues scale. But in this lesson we will take advantage of the fact that each time the chords change so does the key. In the key of A, we will use A7 as the I chord, D7 as the IV, and E7 as the V chord. As I said earlier, each of these chords are dominant chords, and dominant chords fall at the 5th degree of the major scale. So, A7 is the V chord of D major. D7 is the V chord of G major, and E7 is the V of A major.

The I chord is easy, since A is the 5th scale degree of D major and that means we will use the A Mixolydian fingering shown in Fig. 2 over the I chord. This is the same fingering as the D Mixolydian scale in the first example, just moved down to the fifth fret.



The next chord, D7 is the V chord of G major, and since A is the 2nd scale degree in the key of G, we’ll play the A Dorian fingering in Fig. 3 for the IV chord.



E7 is the V chord of A major, so we’ll play the A Ionian fingering illustrated in Fig. 4.



Each of the scale fingerings will function or sound as if we’re playing the Mixolydian scale over each of the chords, which is what we want, but without chasing the chords around the neck of the guitar playing only one fingering or scale pattern.

The exercise in Fig. 5 is a great way to get acquainted with any new chord progression using your modes as a tool to play in any one position. We want to play each scale pattern in time through the progression and change the scale when the chords change. This should be practiced slowly at first and then gradually sped up as your level of comfort increases. Download example 5 audio...



Fig. 6 is an A Mixolydian lick over an A7 chord. This licks emphasizes the 6th scale degree in the second measure then resolves to the b7th (G) of the A7th chord. Download example 6 audio...



Fig. 7 again makes use of the 6th scale degree with a half-step bend. Then once again resolves to the b7th of the A7. The use of the 6th is a popular choice of blues players like Robben Ford. Download example 7 audio...



Fig. 8 uses the A Dorian scale fingering to get the D Mixolydian sound over the D7 chord. This is basically an A minor pentatonic lick that lands on the 3rd of D7 (F#). Download example 8 audio...



Fig. 9 utilizes the 6th of the D7 chord and then resolves to the b7th. The hammer-on and pull-offs on the 1st string between the third and fourth fingers can be hard at first, so take your time and you’ll get it. Download example 9 audio...



Fig. 10 uses the A Ionian scale fingering to get the E Mixolydian sound over the E7 chord. The lick starts out on the 4th scale degree and then resolves on the 3rd (G#) of the E7th chord. Download example 10 audio...



Fig. 11 is also an A Ionian scale fingering that gives us the E Mixolydian sound over E7. This lick starts on the b7th (D) of the E7. It then resolves to the D an octave lower. Download example 11 audio...



Have fun learning these licks. Take time to listen to how both these licks and scales sound against the chords. I find that the most fulfilling use of the modes in blues is in both the transition from chord to chord and in the turnaround section of the blues. In next month’s column I’ll be exploring these transitions and some cool turnaround licks.
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