How to Hear the Modes
- Develop a deeper understanding of the sound of each mode.
- Learn several different ways to create modes.
- Improvise over simple vamps that outline the defining characteristics of each mode.
This lesson assumes you already know your way around the diatonic scale and its various fingerings. Hopefully this will provide myriad tonal colors you have yet to utilize from within those same patterns. Most of us go through three steps before modal knowledge is of practical use.
Three Phases to Understanding the Modes
This is the introduction to the modes many of us receive:
The Ionian mode is the major scale.
The Dorian mode is a major scale starting on the 2nd degree.
The Phrygian mode is a major scale starting on the 3rd degree.
The Lydian mode is a major scale starting on the 4th degree.
The Mixolydian mode is a major scale starting on the 5th degree.
The Aeolian mode is a major scale starting on the 6th degree.
The Locrian mode is a major scale starting on the 7th degree.
While this is all true, once you memorize that the obvious question becomes, “Yeah, so what?” And that’s an excellent question. Since we’re always referencing a “parent” major scale, you can recycle your diatonic fingerings. You’ll also arrive at the correct answer on your test in guitar school—but it’s not anything that you’ll likely use to make actual music.
This phase provides a little more clarity. This explanation compares the difference in each mode from the basic major scale. In fact, most all scales are described relative to a major scale. For example, a major pentatonic scale is a major scale minus the 4th and 7th degrees.
The anatomy, or intervallic structure, of each mode is more clearly described via this explanation. It goes like this:
The Ionian mode is the major scale. (Old news from Phase 1.)
The Dorian mode is a major scale with a b3 and b7.
The Phrygian mode is a major scale with a b2, b3, b6 and b7.
The Lydian mode is a major scale with a #4.
The Mixolydian mode is a major scale with a b7.
The Aeolian mode is a major scale with a b3, b6 and b7.
The Locrian mode is a major scale with a b2, b3, b5, b6 and b7.
All of this is also correct but knowing this is still little more than a badge of honor in a round of Trivial Pursuit.
Phases 1 and 2 are useful for attaching these fancy names to collections of notes and knowing where to place your fingers. Phase 3 turns these abstract concepts into sounds that don’t require a slide rule or decoder ring to figure out what notes you’re supposed to play.
In Phase 3, we don’t trace each mode back to a major scale. Each mode is now its own thing. It’s its own key. It’s its own sound.
To get to this place of modal nirvana we need to be able to hear these scales as chords versus bothering with all of this math contained in the first two phases. Let’s make a chord progression, or vamp that aurally represents each modal sonority.
For our examples we will use an A pedal tone in the bass. A will be the tonic of each of our seven modes. We’ll begin with the A Ionian mode (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G#). We’ll now take the IV and V chords and play them on top of the A pedal as in Ex. 1. (The written examples show a simplified version of what’s on the audio track. The point isn’t for you to copy my rhythm parts, but to easily understand the harmonic movements.)
This is a tidy package that you now play your major scale over. Record yourself playing this and then play the A major scale over it. This won’t require much ear stretching as you’ve likely heard this sound your entire life. This is a nice progression that is an effective chordal representation of the mode.
Ex. 2 utilizes the same method to achieve an A Dorian sound (A–B–C–D–E–F#–G). A Dorian’s parent scale is G Major. The IV and V chords of G major are C and D. Play the C and D triads over our A pedal tone and relish the Dorian vibe. Some might catalog this in their mind as having a Santana sound. While the notes are the same as those found in the key of G Major, we’re playing A Dorian. A is the root—not G. That is part of what we’re doing here: Relate to the scale on its own terms. Improvising on this vamp will reinforce that in your ear and you’ll have a recognizable sound vs. a formula.
The parent scale of A Phrygian (A–Bb–C–D–E–F–G) is F major. Seeing the method unfold? Take the IV and V chords from F (Bb and C) and superimpose them over an A bass note to arrive at Ex. 3. Assign your own adjective to the sound you’re creating.
Each of the modes has a distinct mood doesn’t it? It could be argued that the modes should be called the moods.
Next up is the A Lydian mode (A–B–C–D#–E–F#–G#). A Lydian is the fourth mode of E major so let’s take the IV and V chords, A and B, and play them over our A bass pedal (Ex. 4). You may associate this sound with the theme song from The Simpsons or Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl.”
Have you noticed that even though our “bass player” has been playing a single note this entire time we are arriving at drastically different A sounds? This is how players like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai keep solos interesting over longer periods of time while the harmony is static. The harmony is changing via the soloists’ note choice and requires no one else playing chords.
Moving on to A Mixolydian (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G) in Ex. 5. A is the 5th degree of a D Major scale and the IV and V chords of D are G and A. Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam,” the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” or just about anything from the Grateful Dead or other jam bands exemplify this sound nicely.
Next is the A Aeolian mode (A–B–C–D–E–F–G) or natural minor scale. This is another one with which your ear will be immediately comfortable. This is the relative minor key to C Major. The IV and V chords from C are F and G. Let your cat walk across the white keys of your piano while playing Ex. 6 and even that will sound great.
Last up is A Locrian (A–Bb–C–D–Eb–F–G). This key is derived from Bb Major, the IV and V chords are Eb and F respectively and we get the introspective Ex. 7. Play the A Locrian scale and finally enjoy this mode that may have seemed so ugly before. It’s a beautiful sound—use it!
Hopefully this lesson provides a different, more useful way of hearing the modes instead of memorizing a cryptic note formula. Each mode is now its own key, not just a major scale starting on a different degree. Spend time with each of these examples and really listen to each note. Sure, blasting scales at hyper-speed can be fun, but this is more of a listening thing. Go slow and enjoy your new-found mastery of the modes. Oh yeah, you can also recycle or give away all of those books that keep describing Phase 1.
Harmony Reveals the Silhouette with Bigsby
The guitar is loaded with all of the features that define the Silhouette, now with an added Bigsby B5 vibrato.
Harmony, the world's most cherished maker of musical instruments, today announced the launch of the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby, shipping globally in August. Proudly made in the USA, the guitar is loaded with all of the features that define the Silhouette, now with an added Bigsby B5 Vibrato for endless tonal possibilities.
Building on the success of the Silhouette, Harmony listened to their community who called for even more versatility. Enter the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby, the perfect addition to the guitar's sought-after style and sound. Featuring the same unique body shape, premium tonewoods, proprietary gold foil mini-humbuckers and custom hardware, the added Bigsby B5 Vibrato melds distinctive tones from the Silhouette with expressive vibrato from the Bigsby. The model is available in Burgundy, Slate and Space Black color options.
The Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby is shipping in August, available at $1,549 (US MAP) via select dealers.
Patrick Breen Introduces the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby Electric Guitar
What Actually Makes a Gear Brand "Authentic"?
Our columnist ponders the evolution of private-label guitar manufacturing.
Tribal alliances are a big part of American life. Football fans at tailgate parties paint their faces and dance around the barbecue grill like Vikings revving up for a raid. Dad-buddy elders recount the legends of past glories to their daughters and sons, passing on the oral history of rising from defeat to ultimately lifting the trophy. It's all about the brand. The truth of the matter is that the team the kids will worship is not the team of their ancestors. The players are different, the coaches are new, the team has been sold and moved—maybe twice. We all want to belong, and everyone loves a good story, but what actually makes an authentic brand?
In the world of durable goods, not every brand is a manufacturer. In fact, most are just middlemen. Their wares are referred to as private label or branded merchandise. Chances are you have a lot of products that are made in a shop or factory that isn't owned or even operated by the company whose logo is on the package—or headstock. These items are purchased in bulk from an actual manufacturer who applies the brand's decal or label as needed. Today, most of those suppliers are in Asia, where the cost of manufacturing is still a fraction of what it is here in the States. Eastern Europe also has a handful of factories that produce a wide variety of string instruments of very good quality. There are jobbers that operate in the U.S., but the cost is higher for the middleman.
Of course, this is nothing new. Violin and guitar makers have provided private-label instruments for large music stores in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago since the 19th century. But none of this approached the scale of private label building that began in the mid 20th century.
By the 1960s, Chicago had become the country's epicenter for musical instrument manufacturing, and much of it was private-label business. The Kay company made a very successful line of guitars under their own name, but also provided production for over 50 other brands. Valco produced amplifiers under their own name, but most of their business was for customers such as Supro, Airline, and National. The same is true for the Harmony company, who had become the world's largest maker of guitars.
Chances are you have a lot of products that are made in a shop or factory that isn't owned or even operated by the company whose logo is on the package—or headstock.
Chicago was also home to Sears and Roebuck, the Amazon of the day. Harmony sought to increase their sales by providing Silvertone-branded instruments to Sears for their stores and immense catalog business. In the 1960s, Harmony was said to have cranked out 10 million instruments for over 50 different brands. Obviously, there was a lot of overlap going on between suppliers, and for the most part consumers weren't aware of any of this.
In 1975, I attended the liquidation auction at the Harmony factory at 4600 South Kolin Avenue in Chicago. The space was jaw-droppingly huge and stacked to the rafters with guitar bodies and necks. Piles of bridges, tailpieces, pickups, and tuning machines were laid out on old woodworking equipment covered in dust. What had happened? The musicians in my circle weren't surprised that the good ship Harmony had run aground. Their reputation for being a mid-standard, department store/catalog brand didn't appeal to what the current crop of pickers wanted.
The other factor was that budget brands from Japan were undercutting prices and raising quality. It was the beginning of a new cycle. When Harmony and Kay exited the private-label business, it allowed the Japanese builders to leap into the breach. It wasn't too long before new names like Morris, Kramer, H.S. Anderson, Hohner, Blade, and a host of others were being issued from the Moridaira factory in Matsumoto. Japanese brands like Ibanez, Aria, ESP, and others followed with their own copycat instruments, filling the need for bargain-priced guitars. As we all know, some of these brands have managed to avoid a fate like Harmony's—so far—by creating their own story and style, while others have been sold, then sold again, until now they are just a revised and repeated story from long ago.
Today, there is a renaissance of small brands in the U.S.—some of it fueled by DIY enthusiasts, homebound by the global pandemic. Unlike prior times, there are plenty of places to buy pre-made parts or even whole guitars. Now, anyone with a little mechanical knowledge and a credit card can order, assemble, and market their own private-label guitars, pedals, amps, or strings. It's a good time to be a guitarist and a good time for small brands. Are they authentic? I'm not sure what that even means, but time will tell if they have a good story.