Playing the Fingerboard – Modes on the Guitar

Now that you know about what modes are (and totally didn’t skip through that entire post), it’s time to apply that knowledge to the guitar itself. Keep in mind, the goal of this post is to get you to begin thinking in terms of modes on the guitar. Don’t get too caught up in the theory behind it, as the post following this will bring everything together.

The beauty (or curse) of stringed instruments is that there are multiple ways to play any given scale. This is a very important concept to understand if you want to play across the whole fingerboard. Certain scales span across more frets than others, and all scales have their place. Either way, let’s take a look at one of the most common major scale patterns. Again, let’s assume the key of C.

C major

Diagram of a common major scale pattern on the guitar.

The letter names for C major are included for demonstration purposes, but this shape can be played anywhere on the neck to play in any key.

For those of you that are confused at what you’re looking at, this is a scale diagram meant for the guitar. Imagine that the grid is your fretboard, where the horizontal lines are strings and the vertical lines are the frets. The bottom horizontal line is the low E string, then the A string, D, G, B, and finally the top line represents the high E string. The C’s are highlighted in red because they represent the root note of the scale.

As I mentioned before, if you know how to play this basic major scale, you can play ANY of those modes I mentioned in the last post. It all depends on what your starting note is.

For you visual people, I’ll highlight all the D’s in the pattern instead of the C’s. Remember, the highlighted circles are your root notes.

D Dorian

Diagram of a C major scale on the guitar with D’s as root notes.

By playing this scale with the D’s as your root notes, you’re playing the D dorian mode.  I could go on to highlight the E’s, F’s, G’s, A’s, and B’s, in order to show you the other modes, but I think you get the point. Here, let me drill it into your head even more, this time using pretty colors:

If you start the pattern from the first scale degree (in this case, ), it’s C Ionian.

If you start the pattern from the 2nd scale degree (in this case, D ), it’s D Dorian.

If you start the pattern from the 3rd scale degree (in this case, E ), it’s E Phrygian.

If you start the pattern from the 4th scale degree (in this case, F ), it’s F Lydian.

If you start the pattern from the 5th scale degree (in this case, G ), it’s G Mixolydian.

If you start the pattern from the 6th scale degree (in this case, A ), it’s A Aeolian.

If you start the pattern from the 7th scale degree (in this case, B ), it’s B Locrian.

Got it?

Uh, alright…but I’m still playing over a span of 4 frets. Eddie Van Halen uses more than 4 frets. How can I be Eddie Van Halen with 4 frets?

Baby steps. I know all I’ve done so far is make your pleasant little major scale more complicated, but don’t worry, you’ll thank yourself for understanding this concept later. If you want to cover more frets in one scale, you’ll have to play more notes on each string. Let me introduce you to another major pattern that I personally use the most. Are you ready to stretch your fingers a little?

My personal favorite major scale pattern. Remember, by starting on the red notes, you're playing in the Ionian mode.

My personal favorite major scale pattern.

Side note:  Whenever I learn or show someone a new scale or scale pattern, I always imagine the music from Ocarina of Time after you learn a new song on the Ocarina.


You’ve learned Dan’s Favorite Major Scale Pattern!

Sorry if you don’t get that reference. ANYWAY, the idea of this pattern is to play three notes on each string, which successfully covers a whopping six frets when played over two octaves. Again, each red circle represents the root of the scale. If you’re playing a C major scale, each red circle is a C. If you’re playing an F major scale, each red circle is an F.  It all depends where you are on the fretboard. Again, all of that mode stuff applies to this pattern as well. If you start it on a D, it’s D dorian, blah blah blah.

Okay, that pattern covers more frets, but it’s annoying to play and sounds exactly the same as the first pattern!

Well, the purpose of this pattern isn’t just to be annoying and look more impressive to play. Think of this scale as the foundation, the starting point, or home base when playing across the whole fingerboard. I’ll explain in the next post, but for now I strongly encourage you to practice this scale. Here is my suggestion for which fingers to use where.

Major form with numbers

Major scale pattern with numbers to indicate which fingers to use. 1 = index finger, 2 = middle finger, 3 = ring finger, 4 = pinky.

If you aren’t used to playing scales like this, you will most likely have trouble with those first 6 notes on the bottom, where you have to stretch apart you index and middle fingers. Just keep at it and it will feel natural in time. Check the next post where I explain why this is my favorite major scale pattern, and how you can piece it together with the patterns of other modes to cover the entire fretboard!


Playing the Fingerboard – Scale Modes

When it comes to learning a musical concept on any instrument, I’m all about laying down the foundation with a little music theory. Love it or hate it, breaking something down to basics is almost always the more profitable method in the end. For this particular lesson, the theory concept I’d like to go over is modes.

What are modes? Explain!

First, let’s state the obvious. In music you have scales, which are patterns of notes played in ascending or descending order (COUGH, Basic Scale Theory). Normally when you practice a scale you play the notes in order, starting and ending on the note that the scale is named after. If it’s C major, you start and end with C. If you forgot what a C major scale sounds like, listen to this clip:

The notes you’re hearing are – C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

That’s all fine and dandy, but let’s say you’re feeling rebellious. You’re tired of starting and ending the C major scale with C, and you want to play the scale starting and ending with D. Ever wonder what that would sound like? Check it out:

The notes you’re hearing are – D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

You’re using all of the same notes from C major, but it doesn’t quite sound the same anymore. It sounds kind of….off. It’s almost like trying to read a sentence by starting with the second word and ending with the first word. Don’t worry, you didn’t break the C major scale. You are hearing one of the seven modes within the scale. If you compare the notes of this mode with the D minor scale (which are:  D   E   F   G   A   Bb   C   D), you will notice that the 6th scale degree is raised one half step. So, if you play a C major scale by starting and ending with D, you are hearing a D minor scale with a raised 6th. This type of minor scale is also known as the dorian scale. In the sound clip above, you are hearing the D dorian mode.

Interesting, but why do you call it a “mode”? Isn’t it still a scale?

In my experience, people use the terms “mode” and “scale” almost interchangeably whilst speaking in music geek jargon. To me, it’s all about reference. D dorian itself is a scale, but it happens to contain the same notes found in C major. Therefore, D dorian is a mode within the C major scale. Both terms are correct, but one is more specific than the other.

Wow, great explanation! So what are the other six modes?

Thanks. As I mentioned, there are seven modes within a scale, one mode for each note in the scale. The modes made from the major scale are called major modes. There are other sets of modes out there that are based on different scales, but let’s focus on the major modes for now as they are the most widely used and easiest to start with.

Here is a list of each mode found within the C major scale, along with quick descriptions and audio clips.

Ionian:  C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

– Also known as C major

Dorian:  D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

– A D minor scale with a raised 6th (it would normally be Bb)

Phrygian:  E   F   G   A   B   C   D   E

– An E minor scale with a lowered 2nd (it would normally be F#)

Lydian:  F   G   A   B   C   D   E   F

– An F major scale with a raised 4th (it would normally be Bb)

Mixolydian:  G   A   B   C   D   E   F   G

– A G major scale with a lowered 7th (it would normally be F#)

Aeolian:  A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

– Also known as the natural minor scale

Locrian:  B   C   D   E   F   G   A   B

– A B minor scale with a lowered 2nd and a lowered 5th

The best thing about this is that if you know how to play a C major scale, you technically know how to play ALL of the scales listed above. All you have to do is start and end the C major scale on different notes.

To make this a little more clear, let’s use a scale with a few accidentals. Here are the seven major modes in E major.

Ionian:  E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E

F# Dorian:  F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E   F#

G# Phrygian:  G#   A   B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#

Lydian:  A   B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A

Mixolydian:  B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A   B

C# Aeolian:  C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A   B   C#

D# Locrian:  D#   E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#

Alright, so by starting and ending a scale on different notes, you make seven different modes that have cool sounding Greek names. How does this help?

This all may seem fairly pointless, but I can assure you that it’s very helpful for learning how to play across the entire guitar fretboard. I further explain how in this next post!

Playing the Fingerboard – Introduction


Let’s say you’ve learned your basic scales and that you’ve been feeling more comfortable improvising with them. You start to feel pretty good about yourself as you fiddle around on one scale. That is, until you come across a video of a Joe Satriani and you notice that his hand is flying all over the place on the fingerboard.

But…the scales I know only span 4 or 5 frets. How am I supposed to play like that?!

This three-part mini-series will describe the methods I personally used to learn how to break out of that five-fret box and start utilizing the rest of the guitar fingerboard.

The first post will deal with a very useful music theory concept, modes. The second post will demonstrate how to utilize the “mode” idea on the guitar. Finally, the third post will connect the modes together in such a way that the entire fretboard lights up before your very eyes, displaying each note you can play in a particular key (well not physically, but it will in your MIND). I’ll link this little list of contents below to each post as they are completed, so check back soon!

Part 1:  Scale Modes (Useful for non-guitarists too!)

Part 2:  Modes on the Guitar

Part 3:  The Monster Scale

Official website launched

A little while ago I decided to make new music business cards for myself. While designing them, I discovered that I had racked up about 5 or 6 links to online profiles related to my music. As I stubbornly attempted to cram all of the complicated URLs into the business card template file, I began to think, “wow, having one website to link people to would be amazing”. Thus, the quest to make my own website commenced.

I completed that quest today, and you can see the results for yourself:

It’s not the prettiest or fanciest of websites, but it provides me with a “home base” to present everything I’ve worked on.

Now run and tell all of your friends about this exciting news!

In other news, I’m just about finished working on a backing track for a friend of mine, and have begin the process of record demos for my next CD. I promise more helpful music blog posts are in the horizon.