Learn A Killer Way To Understand Modes On Bass Guitar

When modes have names like ‘Super Locrian’ and ‘Phrygian’ you’re not to be blamed if you're totally confused by them. However, when you strip them down to their bare bones, a ‘mode’ is just another word for ‘scale’ and a scale is simply a collection of musical notes. Different scales generate different sounds.

It’s crazy to think that by changing just one note a composer or player can completely change the way you feel. Literally your mood can be altered due to a change in chemical reactions in your body due to these modes. I’ve always thought that’s totally bonkers (in a good way!).

I think the best way to learn modes is to find out a little about what they sound like and how they make you feel as well as identifying popular examples that you can relate to.

Think how much music you could make by knowing some of these modes. I think it’s a really powerful skill to be able to manipulate these sounds to change the way people feel. Think about that for a second.


Music Is Emotion

The lydian mode is my absolute favourite. Think of it as just a major scale except you nudge the 4th note up (higher) one fret (see below for a diagram). That’s a lydian mode. The position of that one note turns the scale into a dreamy, exotic, mystical sound. Now, this is my interpretation of it - you can make your own decision about what it sounds like to you. But you often hear the lydian mode in films set in space (Wall:E is a great example).

So let’s start simple. This blog post will just show you a few tunes that contain bass lines that use certain modes. There are 7 modes in the major scale and I’m just sticking to those for now (there are 7 from the harmonic minor and 7 from the melodic minor but let’s not go too crazy…).

Once you can link a mode to a certain piece of music that you’re familiar with, they will start to mean a lot more to you and you’ll be able to listen with a much more educated ear. This knowledge can be then used when you are writing music, constructing bass lines, jamming with other musicians or working out a bass line.


Ionian Mode

Midnight In Harlem - Tedeschi Trucks Band

Ionian is just a fancy name for ‘major scale’. That’s right; if you know the major scale you already know the a mode. It has a bright and happy, uplifting sound. Midnight In Harlem is a great example.

As an extra special bonus this starts off with a lydian moment. The bass plays an E drone whilst Derek Trucks works his slide magic over it with an E lydian mode. This drone idea is very common with modes and is used a lot in Indian music. The song then switches to E ionian (just “E major” - no one would really say “E ionian”) and Oteil Burbridge plays just the most beautiful lines over some very simple chords using E ionian and E major pentatonic. The tempo and lyrics contribute to a calm, relaxed and beautiful piece of music but the mode dictates the melody and harmony and is most responsible for what we feel. Try playing the following shapes over the track (after the lydian intro) just to get used to the sound.

 E Ionian (E Major scale) E Major Pentatonic



Dorian Mode

Good Times - Chic

This mode is super important because it’s used so much, especially in jazz, folk, rock and blues. Two examples are So What (Miles Davis), Carry On Wayward Son (Kansas), and Sting uses it a lot on the fantastic ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’ album.


E Dorian - You can use your 4th finger for the 4th fret A string note (C#)

Bernard Edwards’ line on Good Times is the dorian mode - ascending through the whole mode before landing on the A7 chord. Try playing that line but replacing the C# with a C natural (so move the note on the 4th fret, A string to the 3rd fret). It’s just…..WRONG! Well that C natural would make the scale an E aeolian (see below) and you suddenly don’t have Good Times, you have very bad times.


E Aeolian


Phrygian Mode

Gnaahh - Joe Satriani

This is a really dirty, rocky, angsty riff in E Phrygian. Pretty much any Joe Satriani album is a great gateway into learning modes. Listen to Just Look Up from the same album (Is There Love In Space) and you’ll hear the major scale in full show. Satriani often uses multiple modes in one piece to create variety. Remember I said how the lydian mode is often used for movie scenes set in space? Lots of Joe Satriani tunes have space related names in the titles and lots of lydian going on. Look at the album name. No coincidence.

Back to phrygian, notice how E phrygian is one note different to E aeolian. There’s that one note totally changing the sound again. It’s the E to the F (a minor second) that gives it that tension. You hear that movement a lot in metal.

E Phrygian

TIP: If you know the major and natural minor scales well, then you can look at the major scale modes and relate them to one or the other. They are all just one note different from a major or natural minor scale with the exception of the Locrian mode (2 notes different to the natural minor scale). This is a great shortcut to memorising the patterns and identifying the notes which make the crucial contribution to the overall mood and vibe of the mode.


Lydian Mode

Sara - Fleetwood Mac

The theme tune from The Simpsons uses the lydian mode and so does Sara by Fleetwood Mac. The intro melody is F lydian. Try playing this over it:

F Lydian

In a move of pure songwriting genius, the song then moves to F major (F ionian) when the bass comes in. Try playing F lydian over this section: it’ll sound terrible when you hit that 4th note (the B). Play a Bb however and all is well. That’s because the Bb makes it F ionian which is what that section is built from - not F lydian. This is what works when the bass comes in:

F Ionian (F Major)

 Just simply playing the mode up and down over a piece of music is a good way to train your ear and fingers. It’s also good to prove to yourself that modes are indeed used in all kinds of music. When the lydian moment comes back at 1:23 you can really hear the shift. I’m honestly not a good enough writer to explain how much it hits me when I hear lydian. There’s something about it that really connects with me. So many of my favourite music from when I was a child contains this mode. I only worked this out years later when I was able to recognise it.


Mixolydian Mode

Teen Town - Weather Report (from 8:30 live album)

A bit like the dorian mode, the mixolydian is used a lot, often in conjunction with the dorian mode. It has a really open, blues sound. Loads of old school R n B, funk, motown and blues music uses this mode. If you had to learn just one mode really well as a bass player, this may be it. Day Tripper by the Beatles uses it as does I Feel Good by James Brown. For a stonking example, I’ve chosen Teen Town from 8:30, a live Weather Report album. That’s the version you need to listen to to get the mixolydian hit as the original is a different arrangement. From 1:28 to the end it’s basically Mixolydian Central. Jaco also plays a lifetime’s worth of cool bass lines... it really is remarkable. But try playing this over 1:28 onwards to get the flavour of it.


E Mixolydian


Aeolian Mode

Hysteria - Muse

Like the ionian mode, the aeolian is hiding a dirty little secret. Its real name is a little more boring. It’s like pretending your name is Fernando when it’s actually Derek (nothing against that name, it’s just less flamboyant). Anyway, it’s the good old natural minor scale you probably already know.

If not, here it is going up one string in a similar way to how Chris Wolstenholme plays it on Hysteria. You can play it however you like but I’ve included a fingering pattern that can get you across the neck quickly and smoothly with 2 hand shifts.

A Aeolian


Locrian Mode

Juicebox - The Strokes

The mode that starts on the 7th note of a major scale is the locrian.

E Locrian

The chord that comes from this is a minor 7 flat 5 (or “half-diminished”) and that is where bass players commonly employ the locrian mode. That chord is used a lot in jazz so that’s where you hear the locrian used in walking bass lines that outline the harmony.

The Strokes, however, came up with a great riff using these notes. Incidentally, I have no idea if they knew they were using locrian and it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day if you know the mode names or not as long as you can create something that sounds good.

TIP: I do recommend learning the names though! My friend told me an unprintable mnemonic to memorise it so why don’t you come up with one?


I… D...    P...  L...   M…    A… L...

Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian


What Next?


So go back over this post and, using the diagrams, try playing over the song examples given. The more you can do this the more you will get used to the sound of that mode and also how to play it on the bass. Then listen out for your own examples. There are plenty of other scales and modes outside of the seven I’ve covered but they will account for plenty of music you will listen to.

So much confusion surrounds the modes but I want you to forget all that for now and just revel in the beauty of the sound they create via these amazing artists. Once you start practising like this try creating something yourself whether it is a simple bass line or a whole tune.

Do you have any favourite bass lines or songs that feature a major scale mode? Comment below.

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