Dansm's Guitar Scale Lessons
What are Modes?
Modes are a product of classical musicians playing around with the pattern of half and whole steps in a scale. But for all practical purposes, modes are simply playing a scale while starting on different notes. Each note of every scale has a mode that starts and ends on that note. For example, if you play the G major scale, you normally start and end on G. This is called the ionian mode. Let's say you then want to play the same notes as the G major scale, but start and end on A. This is a mode called the dorian mode. But why use modes? Since each mode of a scale starts on a different note, modes give guitarists a way to play a certain scale all the way up the fretboard. This gives us faster solos, because modes divide up your fretboard into small blocks (called solo boxes) where you can play fast solos.
The secret to playing solos is to keep your motion confined to a small number of frets but to use all the strings in that small area. This minimizes hand motion along the neck (which is very inaccurate and inefficient) and maximizes hand motion between strings (which is much more accurate and is extremely efficient). For example, play these examples fast and tell me which is easier. They are both playing the same notes (the G major scale).

Obviously the first is harder because your hand has to move a large distance. In the second, your hand does not move, only your fingers do. This is the idea of a solo box.
OK, but how do modes make a solo box? Well, as you go through these lessons and look at each of the modes, you will see that each is confined to a small number of frets. On each string, there will be no more than four frets used, which means that you can use your four fretting fingers to play all notes on any given string. This minimizes hand motion. Take the above example and fret it with the fingers shown here (assuming you didn't before):

I =index, M =middle, R =ring, P =pinkie

Notice how there are four frets used and you use all four fretting fingers to play them. This makes your solos much much faster because your hand is not moving up and down the neck, it is just moving between strings.
After you have learned all the modes, I will show you how they fit together. They go together end-to-end to make a network of boxes that contain every note on the fretboard where you play in a certain key. Once you have learned how to play the small boxes, and have practiced them over and over, you will be able to look at the fretboard and see how they fit together. The idea for solos, then, is to confine yourself to one box for a little while, then move to another, and play there for a while, and so on. As long as you play in a box you are not wasting hand motions, but you have to change boxes in order to make your solos interesting. For example, Mark Bryan from Hootie and the Blowfish plays the pentatonic scale ALL the time. He never changes. And ALL his solos sound exactly alike. Listen to Cracked Rear View and you will hear what I mean. YOU are not going to be like that. You guys are going to change boxes and move around and make your music much more interesting. For an example of a band who changes boxes, check out the Eagles song Get Over It. The Eagles are great at changing solo boxes every once in a while, and this makes their music much more varied and much more interesting.

How do modes work? Well, let's take the key of G (my favorite key). In the key of G there are seven different pitches: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. Let's say you want to play the G major scale, but start and finish on A. You put the half steps in the same place as you did before (between B and C and between F# and G), but your scale sounds different. Play this and listen to the difference between it and the scale we just played:

When you keep the same half steps but start on a different pitch in the scale, it is called a mode. This allows you to have solo boxes all the way up the fretboard. How do you name these modes? Well, you name your major scale by the note it starts on (the G major scale starts on G). Modes are named the same way. You will learn that the mode starting on the second note of the major scale is dorian mode, so what you just played was the A dorian mode. So in the key of G, the dorian mode is called A dorian. In the key of B, the dorian mode (second note of the scale) is called C# dorian.
That's about it for a background on modes. If you have any questions, please e-mail me and I'll be glad to clear anything up. I know this can be confusing, so keep at it and good luck!
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1997 Daniel E. Smith.