The Problem With Modes (and the solution)

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Podcasts | 2 comments

One of the biggest questions my readers write in about is:

“Should I be using modes when improvising on jazz guitar?”

The answer is:

It depends.

But, most likely there is a more effective approach for jazz guitar improvisation, using arpeggios and chord tones as a basis.

Check out the podcast below which will show the reasons why:

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Greg O’Rourke: In today’s episode, I’d like to talk about a topic that I get bombarded with in my email inbox all the time on a weekly basis. It’s all about modes.

What is the value of modes in jazz and in soloing? Now the modal concept is something that is actually very ancient. You might’ve heard of the terms like Dorian mode and Phrygian mode. What this is basically is a scale that starts on a different note to what it usually does.

So let’s say we have C major. Okay, but let’s say instead of starting on the note we usually do, let’s start at simply on the next note up. So we’ll start it on the D and then finish on the D. So that actually has all the same notes in it as C major. It’s just that I’ve used a different starting tone which emphasises that new tone as kind of the centre of that scale. 

Now here’s the thing. Modes are useful to understand because they are often referenced in jazz theory books and when you’re playing over something like So What or Impressions or Maiden Voyage and things like that, these are tunes that are actually based around that harmonic idea; the idea of composing the tune with a mode in mind. So in those circumstances a mode is quite useful to solo because you can kind of gravitate around that mode in your soloing. Often those kinds of chord progressions are quite static so you can just play around with a mode.

If you take swing tunes like All the Things You Are or Along Came Betty or Satin Doll, anything like that which involves a lot of key changes moving quickly, a lot of chords moving quickly. The modal approach, in my opinion anyway, it starts to fall down. The reason for that is because just let’s say the classic kind of example you hear when you’re listening to a lesson on modal soloing is that let’s say we take the two quarter note in a two, five, one progression.

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So here’s my key. There’s chord one there and chord two and chord five and chord one. So here’s chord two, right. You’ll often hear that referenced to as use a Dorian scale over chord two. Okay. Then for chord five, use a Mixolydian scale over that. Then finally finish with just a major scale or Ionian mode, which is the same as major for the one chord. Now, the problem with that is in a chart which is a swing tune with a two five one, it kind of goes like this.

Okay, so the chords moves so fast in a two, five, one in jazz. Then how are you supposed to be able to target all those notes in each mode over every single chord? It’s actually impossible and I don’t really know of anyone that would think like that. The only way you could really think like that was if you kind of imagine in your mind that all those chords are the two chord and then you just play the D Dorian mode for that whole progression. I’ll try this on my loop and I’ll just get that fired up here. So here’s my chord progression. Two five one on my looper.

So it sort of sounds possible, but can you see how that doesn’t really sound like jazz when I’m doing that? Sure. It’s not like it’s incorrect, but it just doesn’t sound that good. Why does it not sound that good? Well what’s happening here is I’m sort of generalising everything, treating it kind of like it’s just all the notes out of C major and I’m kind of just using Dorian so I don’t start on the note of C all the time when I’m playing, but the problem with this is it causes two issues. The first one is that I tend to just play everything in a very ‘scalic’ way because I’m thinking in a mode, you know what I mean? We’ll talk about an alternative option to that in a minute. The other problem is that it’s not specifically targeting the relevant chord tones for each chord.

I’m just kind of noodling around on that scale with my ear and it doesn’t sound, on the two chord it sort of sounds pretty good. On the other chords it really just doesn’t sound that strong. I’m not clearly targeting strong chord tones. So with those two issues combined makes it in my opinion, an inferior method for soloing over typical older style jazz progressions, like two five ones, one six two five, three six two five, and so on.

So what’s an alternative to soloing that doesn’t involve modes? To be honest when I’m playing jazz, especially on the kind of music that I prefer, which is the music anywhere from the 40s to the 60s, I don’t tend to use modes that much. I more think in terms of chord tone soloing.

So chord tone soloing is where you can identify the relevant notes of each chord and hit them at the right point when the chord progression is played. So that means using arpeggios is pretty much what I’m doing here. So targeting my tones, using arpeggio shapes that I know. I’ve learned them, I can hear them in my ears, and then I can kind of target those tones as I apply through a progression like this. So I’ll give you a sound of what that sounds like. Let’s apply my chord progression again. I’ll stick in the same sort of register. Here’s my two five one progression. Here we go.

Okay, so you get the idea of where I’m going with this. So you could hear how I was much more closely adhering to the sounds of the chords when I was using chord tones and it makes sense. I’m deliberately targeting those notes through applying the relevant arpeggio shape each time. Although arpeggios in a way they take a little bit longer to learn because there’s more shapes to learn for the arpeggios, even just sticking to these kind of one octave arpeggio shapes like this, you can get a lot of ammunition with that and it gives you the ability to switch from each shape to another just like you’re changing chords with when you’re playing rhythm guitar.

So I find that this is a much, much more effective way to solo is targeting these chord tones when you play and arpeggios is the means to do this. Now there’s some cool things you can do with arpeggios. Let’s take this D minor arpeggio. You don’t really need to know a lot about jazz theory to create some really hip sounds here. What I could do is just kind of play up two notes into the chord tone. So listen to this.

So I was just ending up on each of the arpeggio tones, but starting it from two notes from below. I could also start from two notes above. See how jazzy that’s sounds. I could take a chord tone. Let’s say this A that I’m playing here. The fifth of the D minor seven and I could just play one fret above, one fret below, and finish on the chord tone. So if I do that in a line, see how that sounds really jazzy.

So I don’t need to be so theoretical about my soloing now because I can see that pattern on the fretboard. Then I can just lead my fingers to each of the chord tones in the arpeggio. It’s a lot of fun and it’s kind of relaxing to solo like this because I don’t need to really remember what mode is it I’m on at the moment or anything like that. I simply see that arpeggio shape and then can instantly kind of doodle around on that and firstly create strong strong chord tone basis for my soloing. Then use some nice chromatic tones to lead to each of those and sort of thread a really jazzy line. So chord tones very, very important. I think unfortunately often overlooked when it comes to how the jazz education has been codified., A lot of the books that you read, especially for jazz guitar actually seems to focus too much on this modal aspect in an inappropriate context because they’re using this this style of jazz playing that was more popular in the 70s and beyond.

It doesn’t really apply to music that’s older than that because the composers were using a different framework for their harmony. So this could be the missing link. If you’ve been wondering why you’re just not sounding that great using modes and scales and things like that when you’re playing, it’s probably because you simply haven’t been targeting chord tones. Now I suggest that you look on some resources on that topic. There’s some resources and courses on my website about this, about chord tone soloing. There’s some great books available, but I suggest that you just experiment with these little shapes.

See if you can figure, obviously this is an audio podcast so you can’t see my guitar, but see if you can find out how to play the notes of a Dm7 chord for which would be D, F, A, and C. Work out a shape of just a one octave shape on the fretboard and then mess around with that shape just over a static backing track. Here’s a little example. To make this really easy I’ll just clear my looper pedal here and I’ll just lay down like a little basic. Just D minor seven by itself.

Okay, here we go. So there’s my looper and I’m just going to play firstly the arpeggio. Maybe play it backwards. Now let’s do some interesting rhythms. Mix up the notes. See that’s quite strong. See how that’s got a nice kind of bounce to it now because I’m not playing like this. It doesn’t sound like jazz there but this does more. Now let’s put some chromatic tones in there and see how now I can start to put the scale notes around that, but I’m focusing mainly on the arpeggio tones. It sounds much more jazzy like that.

Try sliding into the tones. Try to punch some of them out more than the others. Lead with chromatics and you can have a lot of fun just over that one chord. Could you hear how you can keep things interesting over a static chord even just with a basic one octave arpeggio. So that’s really the power of arpeggios chord tone soloing. It’s kind of the basis of my methodology when I’m teaching students is going from the chord tones and arpeggios first. The other stuff can come later depending on what style that you want to eventually get into as a player. Definitely knowing where your arpeggios are very, very important to get straight into the harmony and hear the harmony in your lines. So I really hope you enjoyed today’s podcast.

It was a very important topic to cover as a jazz musician. Yeah, give this a try in your practise this week. I want you to get one arpeggio out, put it on a backing track or a looper pedal the corresponding harmony for that, and then mess around with it and see what kind of jazzy sounds you can make. You can have a lot of fun with this and it’s very, very good ear training, fretboard training. It’s a wonderful exercise.

Okay, well until further ado, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of fretdojo. Peace and I’ll talk to you soon.


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  1. Don Sinclair

    Awesome Greg! Glad to hear I’m not nuts for preferring arpeggios for soloing. I started my musical journey as a bassist so I just thought that’s why arpeggios came more naturally, it’s like all the best notes are just sitting there waiting to be played….and the chords can be going by pretty fast.
    Threes and sevens!

  2. Vance Erickson

    Greg, this is fantastic. I’ve been reading Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory book, and while it’s excellent and I have no trouble following the logic, it doesn’t help me play at all. I get it that the basis for chord-scale theory is the “avoid” notes in the different modes (logical), I was really wondering how anyone could possibly be thinking about different modes over every single rapidly changing chord. Your examples of approaching the note from below or above and using enclosures did more for my playing than months of studying chord-scale theory.


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