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The Major Scale & Its Modes

Posted by Jayme Stone on Monday, June 16, 2014

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Becoming intimate with the major scale in all of its modes, permutations and patterns is helpful to the process of learning to improvise over tunes. The major scale is the raw material from which we make melody, organize harmony and create tension and release in music.

First, download the tablature PDF here.

To begin, play the first bar up and then back down. This is the major scale on one string. Before you delve further, play the notes of this scale on every string, from the nut to the last fret. This means that on the D string, you’ll begin with the open D and end on the high C at the 22nd fret. Again, we are playing the notes of a G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F# and G, even if we begin on a note other than G. I highly recommend singing the notes as you play them and naming them as you go.

The first four bars show a few different ways to play a G major scale. If we look at bars 2 and 3, we see that each are laid out in a system. Bar 3 has two notes on the 3rd string, two notes on the 2nd and four notes on the 1st. Bar 4 has three, two and two. When learning the modes (and later doing exercises that run through the modes) it is useful to become proficient at one system at a time. That way the fingering (for both right and left hands) stays the same even as the intervals and pitches change. Though eventually you should learn many systems, for now let’s focus on the one that appears in bar 5 and continues through most of the exercises.

Bar 5 uses a system of two notes on the 4th string, three notes on the 3rd, two on the 2nd and one on the 1st. You’ll begin each bar on your middle finger and end each bar on your index. Whenever you shift to the 2nd string, you will pivot to your index (indicated by the V sign). Bars 5 – 12 are the modes of G major using this particular system. Play through these both ascending (as written) and descending and continue to the end of the fretboard. Bars 13 – 20 are the modes in 3rds while bars 21 – 36 is in 4ths. The starting and ending fingers are the same, as are the shifts. The 4ths might seem a little different because you’ll often be making partial bars with your left hand. 

This may be review: if you begin a G scale on a note other than G and play it through the octave, you are playing a mode. That is to say, a G scale beginning on A and ending on A is called the Dorian mode, the second mode. The names are mostly useful for communication purposes and sound archaic simply because they are in Greek:

1. Ionian (Major scale)
2. Dorian
3. Phrygian
4. Lydian
5. Mixolydian
6. Aeolian (Relative Minor scale)
7. Locrian

Each mode has different configuration of whole and half steps. This means that although they are all composed of the same notes, the ordering of them creates a different mood or effect. Please note that this material might take months to work through and years to master in all keys. Taking one step at a time is what will really count in the long run. As you make up your own phrases and learn tunes, this systematic approach will make it easier to play ideas in all twelve keys, generate harmonies quickly and move simple motifs through the entire scale. Master the key of G before moving on. Play these exercises at every tempo possible.

Side note: I play most single string lines with three fingers of the right hand, using either TITM or TMTI. While these exercises work perfectly well using TITI, I do recommend trying them with three fingers.

The tablature is embedded below. For an easier read, you can download the tablature by clicking here and please visit the tablature sidebar here on my website for more music. 


5 comments on “The Major Scale & Its Modes”

prestg1 Says:
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 @7:31:38 PM

So once you are playing a la mode (so to speak), what informs you of your note choices during the chord progression?

Dan Drabek Says:
Friday, June 20, 2014 @4:30:49 PM

A great piece of information. Thanks!

Bad Bernie Says:
Wednesday, August 5, 2015 @2:50:46 AM

Please can you (or someone else?) explain WHY this is useful in constructing solos? I've come across this stuff a lot, but never any explanation of how and when it is used. I've never been to a jam session where someone has announced a tune that is in the key of D-mixolydian or Phrygian G! I don't understand how it helps to play a scale beginning and ending on a note other than the root. I'm really open-minded about the usefulness of this stuff, but for now, I'm genuinely confused. Thanks!

Jayme Stone Says:
Tuesday, September 8, 2015 @2:09:58 PM

hi bernie. pardon the tardy reply but good question. most people are not well-versed in music theory and will say a song is in the key of D when technically it is in D mixolydian. two good examples: tim o'brien's song "land's end" and the irish tune "banish misfortune" are both in D mixolydian. if you asked someone what key they were in they'd likely say "D" but if you played the D major scale, there would be a one very wrong note! another example: the A section of "wheel hoss" is in G mixolydian.

practically speaking, most musicians develop a good enough ear and intuition to quickly figure out the correct notes to play, but many of those same musicians have undoubtedly practiced scales and modes to achieve such intuition. to address your second query: some melodies don't start on the root so knowing how to play a scale starting on different scale degrees is quite useful. good luck!

Bad Bernie Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2015 @1:21:55 AM

Thanks Jayme! Very useful answer. I'll go back and study Wheel Hoss (I used to play it, but I'm just returning to the banjo after a 10 year layoff for kids). I suspect I'll continue to rely on my intuition and ear, rather than learning seven more patterns for each scale, as I don't have a mathematical brain. But I'll give it some thought and see how it goes.

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