On Modes and Getting Away from the Root

Bassist practicing

Q: I have question about how to practice and apply modes that is killin’ me. We are constantly being being bombarded with the concept of getting away from root in our playing and practice. For instance, scale finger pattern 4 starting on the 3rd fret of the E string is like G A B C D E F G A B C. Although the pattern doesn’t start on C, it expresses all the notes available in C, in that scale finger pattern position. So now when we talk about modes, how do we practice and express them in our playing and practice? I mean, you can’t express D dorian without starting on D. Doesn’t that conflict with our “getting off of root” mentality? From my example, a pattern would start on the fifth fret of the A string and be D E F G A B C… That doesn’t cover all the notes in the scale?

A: That’s a great question! And it is one that that many a musician has pondered for years.

Modes, in my opinion, are something that everyone should know, as it broadens your understanding of how chords and scales all work together. They are also not something that I find useful in real-life situations, with the exception of helping you see how to play within the tonality, but from a different root.

So, you see, modes are helpful for exactly that thing that makes you wonder how else you could use them.

The only time I think of a mode is when I’m soloing over one chord, but want to get away from the root (it’s a “Jazz 101” method for thinking inside the given tonality, but away from the root of the chord).

Like you said, if you’re in C Major, you could play in D dorian (which means that you’ll be focusing on and moving around the 9 of the actual chord), or E Phrygian, and so on…

After a certain point in your development, you probably won’t think if it that way anymore and you’ll also have “hipper” ways to get away from the tonic, but the shifting of modes within a tonality is a fantastic way to begin exploring that stuff.

So, in answer to your question, understanding your modes is precisely the way in which you begin getting away from the root in the first place.

Modes are also useful for being able to convey a sound you want from someone like “Lydian” or “Harmonic minor”. Personally, I tend to think in chord scales and chord tones and never really liked playing scales outside of practice drills at home to work on my fretboard familiarity.

Others may have a different take on them and their usefulness or functionality. As always, I love hearing readers’ takes on these subjects. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by Pantera and Mateusz

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. It took me awhile to grasp the same concept. I find that working from the notes in a particular scale helps. For me it came by practice and trial and error. For instance, if you work off the 2,3,5, and 7 in c major you will start to hear the relationship between the melody, chord and bass notes. Listen to James Jamerson, one of his favorite fills starts on the major and ascends to the major 5th. Also practice with Autumn Leaves, learn the melody and expriment with different arpeggios based on the notes of the melody. You will hear it. Hope this helps. [email protected]

  2. the function of modes are their suggestion of the key… the starting point is only relevant when trying to ensure the outlining of the chord tones, or the opposite, creating tension by outlining non chord tones… or a blend of the two, dependent on accents and rhythm.

    the suggestion of a key is relevant when melodies are being used that strongly suggest that same key… interestingly, we only have 5 totally out of key notes per key, yet if you had to choose an alternative minor mode over the D Dorian, e.g. D Aeolian, D Phrygian or even a D Locrian, only one note would be out with Aeolian, two with Phrygian and three with Locrian (although the b5 might be a bit damaging because its not a chord tone, yet very bluesy).

    even so, it can make a song feel totally wrong if not applied right… but then again Victor Wooten shows us how beautiful soloing with only the totally out of key five notes can sound, that suggests its not about the notes, but more the feel and intention or musicality.

    reharmonization, in this case mode substitution, instead of chord substitution, is also a way to look at the importance of the suggestion a mode can make on a song… I see it as telling another/deeper story within a simpler frame work… lots of practice and good ears help a lot.

    example of reharmonization – over Dmi7, play E Dorian then Eb Mixolydian b7.
    this suggests a – II mi7 – bII7 – I mi7 progression, bII7 is a Tritone Substitution for V (A7 or A Mixolydian).

    ok, I went too far, but its fun.

  3. All of the ways in which you can manipulate the scales (modes, chords, various intervals etc) will help you with two basic skills: 1) Mastering your instrument and 2) Training your ears. Beyond that you have to play music: learn the melodies to a few hundred tunes, learn stuff in all 12 keys, compose your own collection of “licks” if that’s what it takes to get your creative juices flowing. It’s not about “staying away from the root” – it’s learning to think like a melodic player when you’re not serving the bass/accompaniment function.

  4. Excellent article, as always.

  5. All really good advice! I use modes and scales all the time, but I, too, usually see them more chordally than scalar; a collection of chord tones and tensions/passing tones. Instead of practicing the modes in order all the time-c ionian, d dorian etc. also practice scales in families, and with the same root, e g. C minor scales together, Eb major scales together, G dominant scales together-so you can compare the sounds and learn the different colors and properties of each, in your head and in your ears. Also, don’t avoid roots like the plague. The other notes get their meaning by reflecting off of them. Just keep practicing. You’ll figure out YOUR understanding of all this stuff. We all look at it in our own way!

  6. Modes are the beginning of learning this but the real method is as Damian says is to think in a chordal manner. Learning the resident chords in all scales, first the modes on a major scale, then on the melodic minor. The tension and release in the melodic and harmonic minor scale chords is more definitive in the sense that they help to lead you away from the root and often resolve to a non-root tone. Manually writing out the modes on the melodic and harmonic minor scales can help with this.

  7. This video tutorial is one of the best explanations of modes I’ve found.