Modal Improvisation for Rock Guitarists
by Chris Botta
After learning pentatonic blues scales in all the positions and various keys, many guitarists will ultimately ask, "What's next?" Attempting to use standard root position major and minor scales in a rock context can sound a little stiff, and then there's the problem of how to relate it to the framework that you're already using with your blues-based licks.
The answer is to learn to think modally. To do this, you'll have to grasp theories that may seem complex compared to the basic blues but remember- you don't have to master the whole universe of modes at once, just enough of them to adapt and use. You may already be using some modal applications without even realizing it, as modal theory applies to most Western Music. Straight major and minor scales are included in the modes, after all, and the major pentatonic/minor pentatonic system contains an element of modalism as well.
But let's start at the beginning. The ancient Greeks invented the first musical scale systems known as the Greek modes. They had discovered the major scale, and found that if each of the seven tones of the scale were tonicized, i.e., if each of the notes were treated as a key center, seven unique modes would result. For example, if a song were constructed around the second note of the scale, the emotional atmosphere, and melodic and harmonic structure of the resulting piece would be different than a piece constructed around the first note.
Let's look at the seven modes as based on the key of C, and then we'll look at the most commonly used ones individually.
We can summarize the seven modes in simple terms:
Ionian - same as the major scale
Dorian - a variation of pure minor, with a raised sixth degree
Phrygian - the "Spanish" sounding one
Lydian - a variation of the major scale, with a raised fourth degree
- not used a lot
Mixolydian - like major but with a flat seventh - often used in rock and jazz
Aeolian - same as the natural minor scale
Locrian - the most dissonant, rarely used in mainstream rock music
How Modes Function
The most important concept to grasp when using modes in an improvisational or compositional situation is that you are taking a set group of notes, let's say the C major or white-key scale, and designating a note other than C as the key or tonic note. In this way, a new harmonic structure is created. In the key of C, the tonic triad C-E-G is a major triad, whereas if we create a new key area based around the same scale but with let's say, D as the tonic, we'll have a minor chord as our i or tonic chord, D-F-A.
Other harmonic relationships will change as well. For example, you'll no longer have a dominant seventh chord in the V chord position, but rather a minor triad, A-C-E. Conversely, if you are playing in a certain key in a song or section of a song, you may be able to find a mode that will fit, provided the chords you're using correspond to the notes in the mode.
The Dorian Mode
One of the modes most commonly used in rock is the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode is always formed by taking the second scale degree of a major scale and basing a new key area upon that note. In the key of C, this would be D-E-F-G-A-B-C. An easy way to remember this construction is that in the key of C, Dorian begins on the note D. Effectively, your new piece will be in D minor, using the notes of the major scale one whole step below. This scale is very similar to a natural minor scale, except that the sixth scale degree is raised one-half step. You have to be a little careful employing this formula, because a clash between say, the B-natural note in the D Dorian mode and the Bb chord that occurs in the key of D-natural minor will sound very sour.