Scales And Patterns And Modes, Oh My!

I wrote this article a while back, for, but I thought I'd revisit it. I've been doing some improvisation practice recently, and I wanted to refresh my memory on this quick way to find the scales for different modes.

This little chart gives you an easy fretboard pattern that'll help you quickly remember the scale for any of the modes listed below:

  • Min – natural minor
  • Dor – Dorian
  • Ion – Ionian (major)
  • Loc – Locrian
  • Mix – Mixolydian
  • Lyd – Lydian
  • Phr – Phrygian

First, you need to know the major (Ionian) scale patterns – you need to know how to play a major scale anywhere on the neck, given the root note. Take your time and come back when you know how to do that. It shouldn't take long: there's only one scale to learn.

Ready? Good. What the chart gives you is a way to find out which major scale contains the same notes as the mode you want to play. Confused? Let's try and explain it this way.

The Ionian mode (the major scale) starts at the root note and progresses up in steps as follows: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. So the Ionian mode of C contains C (root), then a tone up to D, then a tone up to E, then a semitone to F, a tone to G, a tone to A, a tone to B and a final semitone to C again. So C Ionian contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Conveniently enough, those same notes also form the Aoelian (natural minor) scale for A, though you'd start with A as the root note, giving A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Those same notes also form the notes of the D Dorian scale: D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Get the idea? If you want to know the notes that make up a modal scale for a given note, they'll be the same as the major scale for another note.

For example, here are some more equivalents:

  • C Mixolydian has the same notes as F Ionian (major)
  • C Lydian has the same notes as G Ionian
  • C Phrygian has the same notes as G#/Ab Ionian
  • C Dorian has the same notes as A#/Bb Ionian
  • C Locrian has the same notes as C#/Db Ionian

The chart gives you an easy way to remember these. See the C note? To find the scale for, say, the Mixolydian mode, you look to see where Mix is (it's on F, one string above). That tells you that the Mixolydian scale for C has the same notes as F major. So to play your groovy mixolydian improv, just play the notes in the F major scale.

Learn the pattern on the chart (it's easy, only two strings to think about). Remember the names (I use the order in which they occur if you played the notes ascending): "Mix, Lyd, Phryg, Dor, Ion, Loc". Or Mixolydian, Lydian, Phrygian, Dorian, Ionian, Locrian. Of course, the Ionian in there isn't that useful: it tells you that to play C Ionian, you play, er, C Ionian. I left it there because it makes the pattern easier to remember.

Of course, you can move the pattern up and down the fretboard. For example, if you do it based on D (two frets up from where it's shown), it'll tell you that D Mixolydian is G Ionian, D Lydian is A Ionian, etc.

For an extra trick, if you know the natural minor scale patterns, you can use those to give you alternate ways to play the modes. For this, you need to know how to find the relative minor for any major scale. For example, the relative minor of C is A (the Am scale has all the same notes as C). If you look at the chart, you can see the Min, which gives you a way to work out the relative minor: the chart shows that for C, the relative minor is Am.

So, if you want to play in, say C Dorian, you can play (look at the chart) either Bb Ionian, or its relative minor, which would be Gm. They both contain the same notes as C Dorian.

This plays a lot better than it reads.  If you truly want to get it, find yourself a backing track that's all on one note (if you have a keyboard, pick a note, hold the key down and let it play).  Then try different scales over the top and get used to how they sound.  Then you can go out and start playing improv jazz…