Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the difference between the Dorian and Aeolian modes.
• Create modal vamps to better internalize the sound of these scales.
• Target specific notes within a scale to generate musical effects.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

In our previous lesson, we toyed with some variations on the minor blues progression, and hopefully you can now hear the difference between them. Now let's use the minor 7 chord as a tool to help us understand the much-hyped subject of modes.

As I'm sure many guitarists will agree, understanding modes can be a nightmare. The reason for this is that you can tackle modes from two totally different angles. In my experience, the angle most often taken by people learning and teaching on YouTube is the easy way, and when it comes to learning, we all know that shortcuts are only going to leave holes. Let me start by describing a mode the way a classical theory teacher might explain it. If you play the white keys on the piano, you have the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B, commonly referred to as the C major scale. When we play through these notes starting on the second tone, we get D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The notes are the same, but we're treating D as the root. We're taught to call this the Dorian mode.

When we do this starting on each note of the C major scale, we get the following:

  • C to C – Ionian
  • D to D – Dorian
  • E to E – Phrygian
  • F to F – Lydian
  • G to G – Mixolydian
  • A to A – Aeolian
  • B to B – Locrian

Musicians all over the world learn to think of modes this way. Then at a jam night when someone says, “Hey, let's jam in E Lydian,” these players go through a strange, convoluted decoding process:

“Okay, don't panic. Lydian is based on the fourth degree of the major scale. So E Lydian has the same notes as ... (counts down frets on the guitar) B major. So if I want to play E Lydian, I need to play a B major scale. But I have to remember to use E as the root.”

Sounds silly when you read that on a page, right?

This method is sometimes called “derivative” because you're taking your mode from the parent key and you never really understand the difference between the modes—just how to find the right notes.

By contrast, the method I encourage you to learn is often called “parallel.” With this approach, we compare all the modes to each other using the same root note.

If we take a step back to our dominant 7 chord lessons, you'll remember how much we used the Mixolydian mode, so let's quickly look at this scale from both approaches, starting with the derivative method

G Mixolydian contains the same notes as C major:

Just take a look at those two sets of notes and ask yourself: Do you understand the Mixolydian mode now? Of course you don't, that's just confusing. So let's try parallel:


Right—now you can clearly see that the Mixolydian scale is a major scale with a lowered 7 (b7).

In this lesson we'll explore the relationship between the Dorian and Aeolian modes. Both work over minor 7 chords, but yield dramatically different sounds.  We can use both of these sounds when playing over a minor blues and both will convey different feelings.

First, let's compare C Aeolian to C Dorian and go from there:

C Aeolian C–D–Eb–F–G–Ab–Bb (R–2–b3–4–5–b6–b7)
C Dorian  C–D–Eb–F–G–A–Bb (R–2–b3–4–5–6–b7)

In Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 you can see (and hear) a simple fingering for each scale. As you play up the scale, see if you can predict what each note will sound like. Pay close attention to the 6th degree, which is the only difference between the two modes.


I believe the best way to learn modes is to play chord vamps that capture the true sound of the mode. Each mode has a sound and when you think of the mode you need to think of the sound that it creates when used, so here are two modal vamps that outline these two modes. Fig. 3 is an Aeolian vamp and Fig. 4 is based in Dorian.