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The Major Scale & Its Modes

Monday, June 16, 2014

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. 



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Playing Since: 1994
Occupation: musician

Age: 45

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Created 1/25/2006
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Two-time Juno-winning banjoist Jayme Stone makes music inspired by traditions from around the world, bridging folk, jazz, chamber and world music. His latest album, Room of Wonders, explores music from Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy and North America. The repertoire includes a movement from Bachʼs French Suite, a Moorish sword-fighting dance and Stoneʼs lush, edgy originals.

Stone thrives on unexpected inspiration: Japanese poetry, Brazilian literature, instruments he found while traveling in remote Malian villages. He finds it with influences as diverse as Anouar Brahem, Bill Frisell, and Toumani Diabaté. His Juno Award-winning albums, most notably Africa to Appalachia, both defy and honor the banjoʼs long role in the worldʼs music, turning historical connections into compelling music.

"I take back what I said about Jayme Stone."

"The Yo-Yo Ma of the banjo."

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"Stone's banjo playing is a source of limitless creative expression."

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