Don’t Sleep on the Mixolydian Mode
Learning how to add Mixolydian flavors into your playing can be a quick way to expand your vocabulary or get out of a rut!
• Learn how to hear what the Mixolydian mode sounds like.
• Discover a simple ‘trick’ for playing the Mixolydian mode in any key.
• Add a little modern flair to your pentatonic soloing. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Many guitarists are rock solid on major, minor, pentatonic, and blues scales up and down the neck. Using only those tools will get you through solos, lead lines, and fills on most kinds of music and sound fantastic. It’s an easy plateau to get stranded on because it’s comfortable and allows you to get the job done well, even though you might consciously or subconsciously be in a playing rut. Luckily, there’s a simple way to bring a breath of fresh air to your music: the Mixolydian mode!
If you haven’t jumped off the deep end of studying modes and theory, don’t be intimidated. The Mixolydian mode can be simplified by thinking of it from these two perspectives:
- It’s a major scale with a b7.
- It contains the exact same notes as the major scale based either a fifth below or a fourth above the root.
Using the first “trick” from above, if you play an A major scale but replace every G# with a G, that’s the A Mixolydian mode (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G).
Now for the second “trick” we need to go either a fifth below or a fourth above. Usually going a fourth above is easier and, in the key of A, that lands us on D. If you examine the notes of the D major scale (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C#) you find that they are exactly the same as A Mixolydian.
This trick is useful when applying the Mixolydian mode to different keys, because no matter what key you are in it remains true. If you use the notes of a C major scale over a G chord, it becomes G Mixolydian. If you play in F major over a C chord, it becomes C Mixolydian.
In order to familiarize what the Mixolydian mode sounds like and learn some licks, check out these examples.
In Ex. 1, I play an A major scale over a drone in A. Then, I play A Mixolydian over the same drone to demonstrate the sonic difference that the b7 (also called the dominant seventh) makes.
Now, I demonstrate what it sounds like to play a D major scale over a drone in A (Ex. 2). Spoiler alert: It’s the A Mixolydian mode!
The key to making the idea behind Ex. 2 fit into your playing is being able to start the D major scale from an A note, as shown in Ex. 3.
Now that we’ve got the breakdown out of the way and you’re beginning to hear what the Mixolydian mode sounds like, Ex. 4is a simple lick in A that emphasizes the dominant 7 voicing that makes the Mixolydian mode different from a major scale.
So far, the examples have been based around the differences found between the major scale and Mixolydian mode. Let’s see what happens when we mix the Mixolydian mode with the pentatonic scale!
I’m working with an extended fingering of the C minor pentatonic scale (C–Eb–F–G–Bb) in Ex. 5. You’ll notice there’s one note in the lick that doesn’t fall directly in the scale—the major 6. When looking at the major scale earlier, the b7 in place of the 7 created the sound of the Mixolydian mode. In the context of the pentatonic scale, the addition of the 6 is what creates the Mixolydian flavor.
In Ex. 6 I again add the 6 to the C pentatonic scale at the end of the lick, but this time it is in the lower register. By using the Mixolydian sound, I’m creating a transition to the IV chord that isn’t naturally found in the pentatonic scale.
Since you’re getting the hang of it, let’s try a more difficult lick. In Ex. 7, I arpeggiate the D Mixolydian mode (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C) to create an outside-sounding phrase.
In Ex. 8, we find a more complex lick that works well at any tempo. Using the G Mixolydian mode (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) makes for a modern-sounding lick that teeters on being outside without sounding like you’re getting in the weeds with no way out.
Now that you’re equipped with a new tool to expand your playing vocabulary, experiment with adding Mixolydian flair to your go-to licks, construct new ideas, and let the sky be the limit for what you can do by adding a new mode. There’s a plethora of possibilities and ideas right under your fingers to get you out of that rut and take on a new sound!