Guitar Scale Modes - How To Memorize The Frickin' Things

If you've been learning about guitar scales for a while, you've probably come across guitar scale modes. (You know…the scales with the really weird names). And have you noticed, that they're not the easiest things to memorize?

[SIDEPOINT: I should point out now, that when guitarists refer to "guitar scale modes" they are usually talking about the major scale modes. So that's what we'll memorize in this lesson. Sure, all other types of scales have modes, but the modes of the major scale are a great place to start!]

In this guitar lesson we'll look at a cool diagram to help you memorize the scale degrees for all the major scale modes. The scale degrees give you useful information about the structure of each mode. They also tell you what chords each mode works over. So they are definitely worthwhile learning! But one of the major challenges is this…

Often the major scale modes will be given to you in a list format such as…

Ionian Mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Dorian Mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Phrygian Mode: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Lydian Mode: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian Mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Aeolian Mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Locrian Mode: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

Notice how we have the name of each mode followed by the scale degrees of that mode. I don't know about you, but this sort of list isn't easy for a lot of people to memorize. There seems to be no real logic to the list. So let's use a different approach. Please check out the diagram that I created below…

Major Scale Modes Diagram
Please take a few minutes to study the diagram. Here are a few questions that you may want to ask yourself…

  • Why are the modes grouped into three separate categories?
  • What do the large numbers next to the arrows mean?
  • In what ways does the diagram help me to memorize the major scale modes?

All done? Great! Here are a couple of MAJOR advantages to memorizing this diagram rather than the list that many books will give you…

Easier Memorization:

Notice how all the modes can be created by changing ONE note of another mode. For example, the Lydian mode has the same scale degrees as the Ionian mode, except it has a #4 instead of a 4. Being aware of relationships like this make memorization easier. The idea is to first memorize the scale degrees of the Ionian mode. Once that's done you then one-by-one memorize the scale degrees of the other modes.

Another big reason why the diagram is easier to memorize than the list is because a diagram tends to be much more visually memorable. People think in pictures, and diagrams like the one above help tap into this innate ability.


Notice how I've separated the modes into three distinct categories…

  • Major Modes: These are the modes that work over major chords (1 3 5)
    • Ionian Mode [1 2 3 4 5 6 7]
    • Lydian Mode [1 2 3 #4 5 6 7]
    • Mixolydian Mode [1 2 3 4 5 6 b7]
  • Minor Modes: These are the modes that work over minor chords (1 b3 5)
    • Dorian Mode [1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7]
    • Aeolian Mode [1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7]
    • Phrygian Mode [1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7]
  • Diminished Mode: This is the mode that works over diminished chords (1 b3 b5)
    • Locrian Mode: [1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7]

Knowing the above information is comes in handy when it comes to improvising over chords and chord progressions. For example, if you had to solo over a D major chord, then the diagram tells you that you could use one (or more) of the following modes…

  • D Ionian
  • D Lydian
  • D Mixolydian

I should point out that this is a slight over-simplification. For now, we are assuming that you are soloing over just a D major chord, rather than a D major chord that is part of a chord progression. Often the mode you choose will depend on the context of the chord. But don't worry about that for now. It's best to learn how to walk before running! :-)

Work hard at memorizing these modes, and I'll catch you next time.

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