A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Monday, March 4, 2013


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My first Dobro teacher, Mark Van Allen, showed me modes. I didn't understand them too well so I later looked them up on Wikiepedia. They still didn't make any sense and I bet myself that I would go the rest of my life without having to know such things. I lost that bet. Laying awake one night at 3 AM I started contemplating them and suddenly they made all the sense in the world. The secret--as I alluded to in an earlier post--was the Circle of Fifths. Turns out that it is the decoder ring, so to speak.

Some good news right up front, you already know two of the modes-the Ionian mode and the Aeolian mode. (Try to get over the Greek names.) And you probably know some classic bluegrass songs in the Dorian mode and the Mixolydian mode.

The truth is that you can be a very good and knowledgeable Dobro player and be totally clueless about modes. But like with me, you might have this lingering doubt that there is this essential piece of music theory that is eluding you--only to discover that it was not so esoteric after all. I practice modes once a week to improve my knowledge of scale structures and my familiarity with the fretboard, and I find that it helps me see patterns in some familiar bluegrass songs--making it easier for me to improvise around them.

Modes, what the heck are they?

The modes are seven scales, sequences of seven consecutive notes, that have specific patterns. Visualize a piano keyboard for a moment. The patterns of the seven modes can be found by playing the seven scales starting the first scale on C and then playing the additional scales by going up one note--but playing only the white keys in each of those new scales.

Modes can be played in any key, but their patterns are often associated with the key in which they can be played using only the piano's white keys:

Ionian (C pattern) CDEFGAB
Dorian (D pattern) DEFGABC
Phrygian (E pattern) EFGABCD
Lydian (F pattern) FGABCDE
Mixolydian (G pattern) GABCDEF
Aeolian (A pattern) ABCDEFG
Locrian (B pattern) BCDEFGA

You can also hear these patterns by playing the scale of C on your Dobro, then go up a note and play the same notes, and do this until you have played seven consecutive notes of the C scale starting on each of the notes in the scale.

Next, I'll discuss each mode and show you how to use the Circle of Fifths as a decoder ring of sorts to figure out a mode in any key.



The Ionian mode is the normal major scale as you already know it. Hooray! you already know a mode.



The Dorian mode is one of the more popular of the modes. To hear what it sounds like, start on D and play the natural notes in sequence: D E F G A B C. It's kind of a bluesy, minor sounding scale. One of the common examples of Dorian mode is the Beatle's song Elenor Rigby.

But what if you want to play the Dorian mode in another key, like G? Is there an easy way to discern and remember the pattern? Let's pull out our friend the Circle of Fifths:

Since we can associate the Dorian mode pattern with D (because playing all the white keys starting on D renders the Dorian mode), let's look at D's key signature. Two sharps: F# and C#. These correspond to the 3rd and 7th notes in the scale of D.

Normally the scale of D is D E F# G A B C#, but in the Dorian mode, you play all white keys, so you can say that the Dorian mode flats the 3rd and 7th note of the scale (playing F natural and C natural). The good news is the pattern of flatting the 3rd and 7th holds regardless of the key you want to play the Dorian mode in. So the Dorian mode in the Key of G would be:
G A Bb C D E F

Notice that we changed the 3rd note (B) to Bb, and we changed the 7th note (F#) to F.

Let's abstract that a little bit and give you the steps for using the Circle of Fifths as the Mode Decoder Ring:

  1. Find the key signature for the key whose pattern is associated with the mode you want to play, e.g., D for Dorian, E for Phrygian, etc.
  2. Determine the Nashville notation equivalents for the notes in the key signature, e.g., 3 and 7 for F# and C# in D.
  3. Do the opposite of what the key signature does to those notes, i.e., if the key signature sharps them, you flat them; if the key signature flats them, you sharp them.

I'll walk you through some more examples as we go through the other modes.

But back to the Dorian, this is a very useful mode in bluegrass. The flatted 3rd and flatted 7th give a very bluesy effect and you can hear it clearly in songs like Clynch Mountain Backstep and Old Joe Clark.



Not as common in Bluegrass, but if you want to throw some Flamenco effects into a song, this is your mode. Let's say you're doing a song about a Mexican cantina in G and you need some Spanish guitar effects. How do you play the Phygian in G? Let's use the Circle of Fifths to decode it.

  • Phrygian pattern is associated with E, so let's look at that key signature: F#, C#, G#, D#.
  • Nashville notation equivalents are 2, 6, 3, and 7.
  • Flat the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes and you have the Phrygian mode. In G this would be:
    G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Play around with this and throw in a G# chord every now and then and you will sound like the Segovia of Dobro.



Lydian is a kind of "dream sequence" sounding scale. I've not used it in Bluegrass. It is the only mode whose pattern is associated with a key that has a flat in its signature, F.  Our decoder formula is still good:

  • Key of F has one flat, Bb.
  • Bb is the fourth note of the scale of F.
  • To play Lydian mode in any key, sharp the fourth note of the scale.



Another cool Bluegrass mode. Since the Mixolydian pattern is associated with G, the decoder ring tells us that we can play the Mixolydian mode in any key by flatting the 7th note of the scale in that key (F# is the 7th note of the scale in G). Essentially this means that you are playing a dominant seventh as a mainstay of the melody. John Hardy is a good example of a bluegrass song that uses the Mixolydian mode.



You already know the Aeolian mode, it is the minor scale. To play the minor scale in any key, just flat the 3rd, 6th, and 7th note of the scale. Can you use the Circle of Fifths to verify that? (Remember that the Aeolian pattern is associated with A.)



Sounds awful. Don't play it unless you're trying to get out of your beer tab and you want to threaten the club owner with it.