A question I get quite often from intermediate guitar players is whether or not they need to learn how to play modes. There are good arguments on each side of the coin, and whether you choose to focus your attention on modes now or at a later time is a decision that I’m going to try to help you with. I’ll lay out reasons for both sides so that you can decide for yourself whether now is the right time for you to be working on modes or not. But Before reading further, if you find yourself asking “what is a mode?”, you can click here to read more about them.
Let’s start with reasons why you might want to hold off spending your time on modes right now. I’m definitely an advocate for learning the major scale modes, and I think that every lead guitar player will benefit from knowing them at some point – but it doesn’t mean that right now is the best time for you to focus on this. Learning the major scale modes and how to apply them properly takes a considerable amount of work, so it’s definitely not something you want to try to accomplish in a weekend or two. This stuff takes time, so be prepared to keep this on your practice itinerary for a while to come if you choose to focus on learning the modes. If you feel like you have too many other items in your practice schedule right now, and will not be able to consistently dedicate practice time to the modes, then it might be a good idea to hold off for a bit. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the sounds of the modes and investigating them to find out more for yourself, but if you do this, keep it light and know that your goal is not to master the material right now. Here reasons why you may want to hold off on learning modes right now:
- You’re still getting a handle on the pentatonic scales (modes are considerably more challenging than learning the pentatonic scales)
- You haven’t fully learned how to improvise with a scale before (you may want to spend your time learning how to improvise and create phrases with a simpler scale, such as the minor pentatonic, before diving into the modes)
- You’re more of a rhythm (chord) guitar player (the modes might add more confusion to everything if you’re not much of a lead guitar player)
- You haven’t learned a scale yet (I always recommend starting with either the minor pentatonic or the full major scale)
- You don’t know how to play the major scale (this is the basis for the major scale modes, so you should visit this first)
- You don’t understand how a major scale is built (understanding the theory behind the modes will rely on you understanding how major scales are built)
- You’d like to focus on improving the sound and phrasing of your existing solos (modes won’t really help here, and it’s much easier to use existing knowledge to work on this)
- You mostly just play the blues (The modes aren’t often used in the blues, but Mixolydian and Dorian will still come in handy)
Now keep in mind that I said those are reasons why you may want to hold off on learning the modes right now, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. You may find that learning the modes is extremely interesting to you right now, it motivates you to practice more, or you just simply like the sounds that you hear. Aside from what I wrote above, there are also many reasons why you may find that learning the modes will be really beneficial to you right now, and outweigh any reasons for you to not learn them.
- You want to explore new sounds with your improvising (the major scale modes can provide some really interesting colours)
- You really enjoy playing the full major or minor scale (you’ll see as you learn them that the modes are all derived from the major scale anyways)
- You keep reading about your favourite guitarist and the modes that they use, and want to understand what all the fuss is about! (the modes will help you understand the note choices of your favourite songs)
- You’re well versed in different chord progressions and chord types, and want to learn more about what sounds will fit on top (modes can also help you understand the theory behind progressions a little more clearly)
- You’re in a band, or you jam with other people who talk about the modes (knowing a bit about modes will help you communicate more clearly)
- You’d like to learn how to play the major scale all over the fretboard (learning the modes can be done at the same time if you do this properly)
There is no single answer to whether or not you should learn the modes right now, and in the end I believe it all comes down to you and what motivates you to practice. Sometimes you need to know this stuff (auditioning for school, a band, or something else that requires you to have this knowledge), and sometimes it’s all about having fun and exploring the sounds you can create. Whatever camp you fall into, just know that there is no right or wrong answer. If you do choose to learn the modes, keep practicing them consistently and make sure to make it fun for yourself! If you just want to explore the sound of one mode (Dorian, for example), there’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, I would highly encourage this just so that you can hear for yourself the kind of sounds that can be made possible with modes. For my students, I usually find that knowing how to improvise comfortably with the first shape of the minor pentatonic scale in various keys is a good pre-requisite to learning the modes, but this won’t be the case for everyone (jazz players, for example, might find modes more useful before visiting the pentatonics). Keep in mind that there are many different scales out there, but in the end we’re all just playing a combination of 12 notes. Sounding good as a guitar player is much more about how you play the notes you choose to play, rather than which notes you choose. Most importantly, make sure you have fun with what whatever you end up doing!