Learning Modes and Scales: A Study Guide for Bassists

Q: I hope that you’ll be able to explain this problem. I learned so far that major and minor scales have certain patterns (i.e. minor steps: W,H,W,W,H,W,W). Now, I’ve moved to modes and, for example, the Lydian mode. Does it have the same pattern for minor scale? I found some other patterns on the web, and now I’m confused. It’s important for me because I want to play chords in C# Lydian. If, that’s even possible.

A: While it is always good to push yourself, it sounds like you may be trying to run before you’ve learned to walk just a little bit. So lets take a step back and first focus on getting a grasp on the scales, what modes are, and how they relate to each other.

Lets start with modes. Modes are much simpler than many people think they are. Every scale is a mode and every mode is a scale. Let’s go back to using the C Major scale as our reference point.

If we start the C Major scale and play it from C to C (one octave), that is the first Major mode.

If we play the same exact notes but, instead, play them from D to D (one octave), that is the second Major mode.

There are 7 modes in the Major scale (one for each note in the scale).

Even though we are playing the same notes in each scale (C D E F G A B C), because we are starting from a different root note (E F G A B C D E, for example), each mode has a slightly different sound.

Major Scale Modes

Here are the names of the Major Scale Modes (In the key of C):

ModeScale DegreeIn the Key of C
Ionian (Major Scale)1234567CDEFGAB
Aeolian (minor scale)6712345ABCDEFG

Notice that the 6th mode of the Major scale is the minor scale. This is what musicians are referring to when they mention the “relative minor” or “relative Major”. It is literally the minor or major scale, relative to it’s parent scale.

If this is new to you, here are some of the things you’ll need to keep in mind:

  1. The mode shapes are in relation to whatever key they are in. C is not always Major and D is not always Dorian, for example.
  2. If you are in the key of G, then G is your Ionian scale and E is your relative minor.
  3. The shape of each scale is consistent on the bass. Unless you are using an altered tuning, every scale has the same shape, regardless of where you start it.
  4. Modes are not the holy grail of the improvising musician but rather a general guide to tonality. Most improvising musicians may use any number of modes over any given chord type. (In general, I personally don’t think with regard to modes as much as I do tonal relationships and shapes. We’ll get into this more as we dive deeper into chord scales but I wanted to make this clear.)
  5. While it is important to learn your scales and modes, there is no need to get hung up on adhering to one scale type on one chord.
  6. Ultimately, once you have explored how functional harmony operates and explored the myriad of scaler options available to your over chord changes, you will come to realize that every note is available to you. It is more a matter of context and resolution.

Remember: there is no such thing as a bad note, just a bad resolution.

If a scale doesn’t sound good to you over a chord, by all means explore alternate scales for that tonality. Just remember that phrasing and resolution are often more important than what scale you are playing.

Don’t fear tension. Instead, explore how to control tension and use it to your advantage. There is not one note that exists that a good musician can’t make work over any chord type. It simply takes experience and thoughtful exploration of sound.

We must first learn the rules before we can effectively break them though. That is why it is important to work diligently. It can only help to broaden your ears and sonic palette.

So, as I said, each mode is really just a scale starting from a different place.

I wouldn’t think so much about the “W-H…” types of patterns. Here’s another way to look at it, in steps:

  1. Really try and get that Major scale and minor scale under your fingers and moved around the fretboard.
  2. Start playing with the different modes as listed above
  3. Try and think about them in different ways – each as their own shape and sound – each as a variation on the last (for example, the notes of the C Major scale but played from low D to high D)

All of the modes are just slight variations of the scale that you already know. You mentioned Lydian. Lydian is just like the Major scale but with a #4 (raise the 4th note by one half-step). That’s it. If you know your Major scale, then you almost know your Lydian scale.

The ability to really makes use of a scale comes a few steps after the initial “getting the shape in one octave” phase because music doesn’t really work like that. Practice playing each mode in many different ways:

  • Over one octave
  • Over 2 octaves
  • Over 3 octaves
  • All on one string
  • All on two strings (moving horizontally instead of vertically on the fretboard)
  • Starting a one octave shape from your pinky (and not changing position)
  • Starting a one octave shape from your index finger – in broken intervals (1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7 6 8 7 9 8, for example. That’s broken 3rds)
  • All of the above but playing from high to low instead of just low to high

You could write out a year’s worth of exercises for yourself from just the Major scale if you get creative! This is the important step (albeit a tedious one at times) that makes the difference with regard to knowing a scale and being able to use it well. You have to own it all over the fretboard.

I’ve covered this topic in different ways in the past, if you’d like to read up on it some more. Here are a couple of columns:

I hope that helps!

Readers, feel free to leave more exercises or ways of perceiving a tonality or scale in the comments!

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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Share your thoughts

  1. Super helpful. Thank you!

  2. One of the best explanations to simplify what a lot of players overthink, that I’ve ever read. Great job!

  3. This rules! Thank you so much!

  4. Very clear and insightful, thanks!

  5. Thanks for the explanation. It confirms how I’ve been practicing the past year. Here’s a link that has help me… http://www.musicopedia.com/scales/4-bass.php

  6. I just work with the shapes more than anything. I know the modes but if I over think it, I start tripping over my own feet. And a lot of rock and blues don’t always follow the modes so ears are the most important tools.

  7. Mike

    this has been a great adjunct to the lessons Ive been taking in person.

  8. Christopher Cordero

    Do you know of any type of program that can give you scales for a 4/5/6/ basses for various types of tunings ?!?!?!?

  9. Thomas Haile

    This was well explained and displayed in a way that makes great sense. Thanks

  10. Hello,
    —As a Bassist, The Modes are “The Holy Grail” of Music Theory—–We play what you would call “The Vertical Approach” i.e. bass lines must Define the Chord that is in play—-So if the Song is in C Major and the Chord is F Major, we must know that this is called The Major IV Chord and would definitely use The F Lydian Mode in order to stay in The Key of C Major i.e. The F Lydian Mode is F, G, A, B, C, D, E. and back to F (for the octave)—The Lydian Mode is exactly like the Major Scale but with a #4th note (we # the 4th note (B) in order to stay in The Key of C Major—-“The Horizontal Approach” is where you don’t need to Define the Chord that that is being played, but rather to Define The Key i.e. this is where you can play any Mode on that F Major IV Chord as long as it’s one or more of the 7 Modes in C Major—–Thanks.
    John Falstrom