How To Get Creative With The Modes As A Guitarist

No matter how long you’ve played the guitar, it’s easy to get stuck in the same, familiar box patterns.

They’re safe. They sound good. And, they’re relatively easy to play.

Venturing outside of these conventions to play new scales can seem scary at first.

And, if you don’t understand when and where to use modes, you might not even see the point.

But rest assured – they sound cool when used right. If you’ve listened to the likes of Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, you’ve undoubtedly heard them before, probably without even knowing it.

Here we will explore how to make creative use of the modes in your playing without having to learn a bunch of new scale patterns.

Create Explosive Post-Chorus Riffs That Tweak The Ear

My favorite melodic rock band is Harem Scarem, and guitarist Pete Lesperance is no slouch.

Have a listen to their song from the album Overload, titled “Leading Me On” (you can find it on YouTube).

In this song, there’s a cool riff that precedes the chorus. But this riff is never heard in full until the post-chorus section.

The contrast is cool, because the verse is dark and slow, but the chorus and post-chorus sections explode.

Anyway, I love to inject similar post-chorus riffs in my songs for dramatic effect. I find it can draw more of the emotional content out of the song.

The example from “Leading Me On” isn’t a modal riff per se (it’s closer to pentatonic or blues), but I’ve experimented with modal riffs in this context too, and they can work great.

If the song has been predictable to that point and you’ve been using safe chords and notes leading up to the chorus, you could use the pre-chorus section to tweak the ear.

For instance, you could have a pentatonic riff with some “outside the box” notes drawn from another scale. Basically, you’d just replace certain notes in the riff and presto, you’d have a riff with some added flavor.

Let’s say you’re playing a song in the key of E minor. The notes in the E minor scale, as we know, are: E, F#, G, A, B, C and D.

So, naturally anything you play from the E minor pentatonic scale (E, G, A, B, D) would be safe.

But what if we were to introduce a note or two from the E mixolydian mode, which is made up of the notes E, F#, G#, A, B, C# and D?

What’s interesting is that the minor scale and mixolydian mode already have a lot in common, don’t they?

The notes E, F#, A, B and D are shared among the two scales. So, the notes that “don’t belong” in E minor would be G# and C#. But they can be oh so cool in this context.

So, you could introduce a raised third and/or sixth and make your post-chorus riff the centerpiece of the song (without disrupting the melody).

It’s so easy, because all you’d need to do is take your G and C notes and play them a fret higher. No other changes needed!

Of course, there’s no C in the E minor pentatonic scale to begin with, but it still belongs to the E minor scale.

When substituting or adding notes, we want to do this strategically, in the sense that you don’t necessarily want to lean on these new notes. That can sound bad.

But if you came up with a typical pentatonic riff and then substituted your Gs and Cs for G#s and C#s, you’d begin to see how this works.

To keep it interesting, however, you may want to leave some notes “natural” and some notes raised. So, don’t turn all Gs into G#s or Cs into C#s.

You can try this with any mode you like, depending on the sound you’re going for. Each mode has a unique characteristic, which I’ve outlined below:

  • Ionian. Happy, cheerful, complete, consonant.
  • Dorian. Soulful, sure, evocative, exotic.
  • Phrygian. Dark, evil, aggressive, brooding, foreboding.
  • Lydian. Dreamy, beautiful, calming, contemplative.
  • Mixolydian. Funky, groovy, bluesy, mischievous.
  • Aeolian. Dark, incomplete, sad, emotional.
  • Locrian. Uneasy, dissonant, uncertain, disagreeable.

Of course, different people would describe these modes differently. This is just a starting point.

Blow Some Minds With Pitch Axis Segments

A pitch axis refers to any segment of music that is anchored by a single bass note.

Now, this isn’t much fun for a bass player, who must hammer out the same note (often with the same rhythm) for however many bars your pitch axis segment runs.

At first glance, it probably doesn’t seem as though this could possibly be interesting musically either.

But as a guitarist, it leaves you free to explore just about any combination of scales based on the axis. The lack of changes gives you more freedom, not less.

The axis could be any note repeated. It could be an E, an A, a G or otherwise.

For the sake of this article, let’s say the axis is G.

What most guitarists do is think about the chords that are used in the rest of the song. Maybe the song contains a Bb and F in addition to the Gm, so immediately they’re in the headspace of G minor. They start soloing with the G minor pentatonic scale.

It might be wisdom to stick to those notes during the rest of the song, but during the pitch axis section, you can play any G scale you want. You should try experimenting with this.

It could be G major/Ionian, G Dorian, G Blues, G Locrian or otherwise.

As I’ve noted, the repeated bass note does not constrain you in any way. It does not outline any chords or tie you down to any scale. That’s why I say you’re free to do just about anything you want.

For an example of a great tune with the pitch axis in full effect, check out Joe Satriani’s “Not of This Earth”.

Now, I’m not saying you should flow between all the scales you know without forethought. Pitch axis segments work much better if you plan out what you’re going to do in advance.

For instance, you could have:

  • Four bars in G Phrygian (G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F).
  • Four bars in G Blues (G, Bb, C, Db, D, F).
  • Eight bars in G Lydian (G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#).

It’s important to look at how these scales connect to each other and to create a segue that makes sense. Fortunately, these scales have quite a bit in common (if nothing else, they always have the tonic in common).

But musically, you could see how this would be more interesting than just soloing with one scale.

Note that you don’t necessarily need to learn entirely new scale patterns to play these scales (assuming you already know some of the basics).

G Phyrigian has three flats in it, so when you think about it, it’s basically just the Eb major scale, and if you know how to play that scale, you’re good to go.

Not much needs to be said about the G Blues scale because you should already know how to play it (it’s just the minor pentatonic scale with an extra note).

G Lydian has two sharps in it, so it’s basically just the D major scale out of order.

See what I mean?

Pitch axis segments can be great for intros and solo/instrumental sections. Or, if you’re an instrumental guitarist like Satriani, they can be great for entire songs too (but you’d have to get creative with it to keep the listener interested!).

Write Surprising Call & Response Solos

The guitar duel isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.

In bands where there are two guitarists or more, there is often a song or a segment of the concert where the two guitarists trade off licks and attempt to one up each other.

John Mayer and blues legend Buddy Guy have shared the stage several times and have done this very thing (check out the videos on YouTube).

I think Mayer sometimes gets carried away and plays over Guy, but it’s still cool to watch the two exchange licks.

The point is – call and response guitar solos are cool.

And, even if you don’t have another guitarist to play with, you can write call and response style solos that work for just one guitarist.

But instead of playing one lick followed by another using the same scale, why not try calling with one scale and responding with another?

You could pick a relatively “safe” scale, like the Blues scale, for one part, and then use a more interesting scale, like the Lydian mode, for the other part.

And, the chord changes could also support this movement.

We’ll say we’re in the key of Am. As we know, the chords in Am support the A Blues scale nicely.

When transitioning to the Lydian mode, however, you’d want to bring out its dreamy quality with the right chords.

A Lydian is essentially a derivative of the E major scale, so the fourth (A) and fifth (B) from E are always good choices.

To create some flow, you might just use one or two chords each for the call section and response sections. It could honestly be as simple as Am for one part and A for the other.

Now, just so you’re not in the dark, we’ll do a quick analysis for A Lydian, so you know how to play it on guitar and use it correctly.

The A Lydian mode is made up of the notes A, B, C#, D#, E, F# and G#. So, it has four sharps. And, I’ve already alluded to the fact that it’s basically the E major scale starting and ending on A instead of E.

So, if you know how to play the E major scale or its relative minor equivalent (in this case, C# minor), you’re good to go. You can play in A Lydian without having to learn a new pattern.

I know this idea might sound crazy, but you must give it a try. You might just blow some minds.

Creative Guitar Modes, Final Thoughts

As you’ve surely heard before, rules are made to be broken. But as musicians, first, we should always strive to understand the rules before we break them.

This allows you to break rules intentionally and know what you’re doing from a theoretical perspective instead of the opposite.

And, what is “thinking creatively” if not breaking the rules, or at least bending them? This can spur a lot of great ideas.

Sure, you will come up with bad ideas too. But you have nothing to lose by experimenting.

So, have fun with the modes. Come up with your own ideas. Look for ways to incorporate them into your playing, because it will bring a lot of flavor to your music.


About the Author: David is a Canadian guitar teacher and blogger. A music entrepreneur at heart, he loves finding new ways to not only improve his craft, but get more people to hear it too.

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