Theory and the roadblock



I moved this over from another forum where it wasn't gettng much attention. I'll include all responses. Please put your two cents wirth in.

My initial post, Ben---------
I am trying to move music theory into practice. I have the modes of the major scale under my belt, I know which are major, minor, etc. I have memorized each note as a major interval, minor interval, flat diminished etc., for instance.
Ionian M1 M2 M3 P4 P5 M6 M7 tensions 9 11 13 avoid 11
Lydian M1 M2 M3 #4 P5 M6 M7 tensions 9 #11 13 avoid none

I know for instance that the Dorian mode starts on the second note of the major scale and that each subsequent mode starts on successive notes of the major scale. I know where the root and fifth relative to the patterns, as long as I am playing modes/patterns of the Major scale. Here is my problem. Lets say I am trying to solo over a major cord progression with a tonal center of A and I want to use A-Lydian to tweak the mood. I just hit a brick wall in trying to apply root, fifths and tensions etc. because when I changed from A-Ionian to A-Lydian all special notes moved relative to the patterns of the major scale I have memorized. How do I get past this roadblock? What mental approach do I take to make this less complicated.
I got nothing of value then I later added the following

Perhaps I was unclear or just don't understand. I play A-Lydian the same as others by placing the root of the pattern on the tonic A in this case. I also know the position of all notes in the scale by applying the normal patterns. The problem I am having is locating specific notes of the scale within the pattern. For instance where is the #4 of the Lydian pattern when playing A-Lydian? Where are the tension notes 9, #11 and 13? Suppose I move to the Phrygian pattern of the A-Lydian scale. Then where is the #4 of the Lydian scale? Where are the tension notes 9, #11 and 13?

If I stop and take a minute or so I can always figure out where the special notes are, but that doesn't work while jamming. It becomes even more difficult if you switch scales every few bars. For instance, playing Blues in A it is common to play A ionian or A minor pentatonic over the I chord, A-Dorian over the IV chord and A-Mixolydian+Blue notes over the V chord. At least in Blues this is repetitive because the chord sequence is very repetitive.

I understand that in country music it is common to change scales with each chord change. So how do you quickly identify where the important notes are?
After several posts I was left with the following two options.
1) Just use my ear and experience. I am sure this works, but lost of experience is needed, and you get the occasional "Ooops".
2) Memorize the notes of all the scales in all keys including the tension notes. A lot of work to memorize and easy to forget.

Please let me know how you address this issue?


Silver Supporting Member
Great that you're taking the time to learn all the modes. Not a waste of time, but there are probably more useful things for you do study. I find that scales and modes sound like exactly what they are when you use them, and this can lead to solos sounding like practice instead of an expression of emotion. Granted you may want to express the sound of you running scales, and thet can be impressive, but are usually it's best used sparingly.

Try to break out of thinking - OK now I'm on the I chord so I have to do this mode- now here comes the IV now think Dorian. Don't do that. I think a better approach to playing solos actually stems from playing lots of chords and rhythm guitar.

Get really familiar with all the chords you're soloing over and their inversions. Now you should start thinking about using arpeggios of these chords. At first this will seem mechanical... little groups of three or four notes- but stick with it. Soon you'll piece together how the progression you're playing over is built. You'll see common chord tones and the notes that shift. Think about what the melody of the tune is doing...learn it, harmonize it. With this approach you'll end up thinking more musically and meldically than modally.

Think about the chord tones and hitting the ones that are defining the chord character (min3, maj7, 7th or b5) when it counts. For example...take a tune like "Georgia on my mind". Let's say we're in A. The first two chords start out going A to C#7. OK so the notes that define the A chord are A, C#and E right? Now the C#7 chord is coming up. It's notes are C#,G#,B and F. So the C# is staying the same, the A note goes flat a half step, the E comes up a half step and there's the B introduced as well.

Looking at the relationships we see there's chromatic movement both up and down and a common tone. Generally the ear perceives ascending pitches as tension and decending pitch as release. So let's say you start on the note E, the 5th of the A (I)chord , when the chord changes the E comes up to the F on the downbeat and we feel tension build. We can release it by going to the C# and then to the B. This prepares the ear for the next chord in the tune.

Anyway playing off the C# on both chords works (common tones), using the rising sesation from the E to F works, using the chromatic fall from A to G# sharp works to release tension. Learn the melody and you'll see that it uses the more dramatic notes, the ones that define what type of chord it is. That's what you want to do, not spend time in your head thinking about the modal implications of a chord change. That's just going to bog you down. Learn the chords and the melody and the harmony and then start to blur the lines that define them in interesting ways.

Another great tool is to transcribe a solo using the "amazing slow downer". You'll have the power to hear each note of a solo and how it relates to the chords behind it.

Theory is just that. Ideas about why something works. It's a theory to explain why this sounds good or whatever. Start with something you're familiar with. Say Hotel California or Stairway to heaven. Soon you'll see how the notes of the solo are just extensions of the chords, rhythm and melody.

Sorry if this doesn't help. I don't think that modal thinking is as good an approach as melodic and chordal improvisation.

BTW... in A lydian the big note is the raised 4th or 11th (D#) the 9th is B, the 6th and 13th are F#. But don't spend too much time memorizing this stuff. ;-)




Jack thanks,
I know you put a lot of work into that response. I understand that the expression of emotion is the key. I can play the arpeggios ok, I''ll work on the inversions. Sounds like your where I am headed. I am going to keep going down both roads, one and two I described above. I feel I need the theory and memorization so I'll keep working on it but at it also has to flow from within.

BTW = I have been using Transcribe to slo down the music. I don't know how it compares to the amazing slow downer but I like it quuite well.


I initially learned the modes using the parent scale approach - D dorian is really C, etc. over time I've learned a lot of Jacks approach. Soemwhere in the middle I found it really helpful as I learned what was different in each mode-what note or notes brought out the character of the mode- Dorian is very similar to the Pentatonic minor, but adds 2 color notes - 2(9) and 6 which add some sweetness- Mixolydian was a flatted seventh.

I originall y learned them oin the context of the Grateful Deads music where they wer eusually played over static progressions, but it helped that I could relate to them as specific moods. e.g. E major over a B7 -A progression(mixolydian) D major against F#m GMaj7 (Phrygian). Its a gradual process, and getting the sound in your ear will take time.


Silver Supporting Member
Jordan has a point.

Really the only time I find myself getting modal is when the structure is pretty open. Sometimes before the tune, or as I hear changes that say..."the I is minor , but the four is a dom 7 chord" I'll be thinking...ah this is a time for Dorian. So jam oriented stuff ala the Dead (a huge inluence on me) or the Allmans uses the modes a little more heavily... but soon you'll get the gist of what makes dorian sound dorian etc..and just start feeling it more than thinking it. I think of them as colors. But you've got to start somewhere.

Here is an excercise that was helpful to me. Lets say we're jamming over G for 2 bars, D for 2 bars and A for 4 bars. All major. The tonal center is A, but the scale is a straight D major over all the chords. So that's A Mixolydian (A Major with a flat 7th). Granted you can use major pentatonics as well but for the sake of the discussion let's just talk Mixo...

So that's the progression... here's the excercise. Think of A mixo (DMAJOR) starting on the high E 12th fret. Play the mode in thirds. Like such: E,C#,D,B,C#,A,B, G,A,F#,G,E,F#,D,E.

Fun stuff, who cares what you call it? A Mixolydian, D Ionian, B Aolian, E Dorian etc...

I wasn't suggesting that modes are useless, only that they are not a substitute for melodies. Think of them as you would the alphabet. You don't go around speaking in letters, you use complete words and phrases to make your point. Likewise you don't want to just run scales at someone in a jam context.

Obviously you want to get to the point of playing melodies, and those melodies will be in a mode, just don't confuse playing up and down the mode with playing licks or lines that imply the mode.



ps- For great melodic dorian lines, check out the vocal in the police tune "Tea in the Sahara", great!!!

Guinness Lad


A good idea is to remember what is similar rather then what is different. If you want to go form straight major to lydian look at the difference in the scale. In this case it's easy, one note. If you don't know this already it's very important to know the neck of the instrument. Once you know where the notes are it will be easy to visualize the raised 4th or #11 (same notes an octave apart). The harder thing will be to hear it before you play it, this will take a lot of time. One of the best things you can do is record different chords on tape or Cd. Take one chord Dmaj7 for example and play everything you know over until your sick of it. Do this with major, minor and dominant chords. Tape yourself with a drum machine varying the time and rhythms (samba, 16 beat, disco etc...) of each chord you record. This will help you to decide what sounds good over a chord and what doesn't. Focus on playing in time and finding new things. Try playing stuff not associated with the chord and see if that works ie... F dominent 7, does it work?, if not why? if it does, then why does it? The possibilities are endless.


Platinum Supporting Member
Hey Ben,
You are going about playing in COMPLETELY the wrong way IMO. You need to learn to play music first and formost. You need to be thinking of how to play a MUSICAL PHRASE and make it sound musical. You need to learn melodys from standard songs, and the chords that go along with the melodys. Simple tunes like "misty", "Willow weep for me" and those types of songs. Simple Blues tunes as well, like Stormy Monday and the like. then you need to learn little parts from the solos in those songs, (the parts that catch your ear first) and pay strict attention to what chords they are being played over. Also be aware of WHY those parts of the solos sounded good to you. Then you take that phrase that you learned, and put it in another song. Try changing the phrase a little to fit your ear, and make it your own. If you try and learn music the way you are now, I am warning you, you are going to sound stiff and mechanical for a LONG time. Learn to play music with phrases. like learning to speak. THEN worry about what note it is, and what part of what scale it belongs to. You see, music is made up of LOTS of scales, all combined. When you learn scales, you pigeon hole yourself, and train your ear to hear one scale at a time. This is NOT how music is made! Get yourself a good teacher who can play jazz standards. This is VERY important regardless of what kind of music you love and want to play. learn the melodys and chords to those songs, and your ear will develope and show you how harmonys and melodys go together, and how chords progress in a logical sounding progression, Your rock, blues and all other types of playing will improve by years in only months of time. I promise! :) I know this, because I made the exact same mistake you are, and it took me 10 years to dig me out of the hole i was in, and unlearn everthing I had learned. :(


Silver Supporting Member
This might be the first time I actually agree with what Tag has posted :eek:


Thanks for the advice it really helps.
Please don't misunderstand, I am 47 and I have been playing for years. For an amature I have a pretty good list of songs under my belt. When I was a teen I played mostly Rock an Pop. I did it very much just by memorizing the song's chords and lead riffs. It is amazing what you can play and know nothing about music. In high school I was in a neighborhood band. We played some parties, talent shows, and a did a couple of nights in a bar. After high school I all but stopped playing for many years. Just over a year ago I decided to pick it up again. I have been trying to learn more about music theory and it has paid off. I am a much smarter player than I was years ago. I can easily determine the key and pick out the melody and chords of most pop and rock songs in just a few minutes. The theory has really helped in this regard. I should have learned it when I was in high school. Perhaps if one of the three guitar instructors I had was worth something I would have, but that's another story. I was trying to bring more of the theory in to my improvisational playing when I hit this roadblock.

When I was younger I didn't have an appreciation for the blues or Jazz, however my recent study of music brought me back to blues. Lately I have been working on some ZZTop a favorite from my past rock days. My new favorite is Stevie Ray Vaughn. I kept hearing about this guy so I bought a DVD "Live at the elMocambo". I watched it once and was hooked. I tried some BB King several times in the past, but haven't been able to enjoy it as a steady diet. I am becoming more interested in Jazz, mostly because it is technically interesting. I also see some Jazz influence in some of the music I like.

I have been learning a lot over the past year from a few books I bought and from the wealth of information available on the internet. I think I will try and find an instructor in the near future to tie together some of the things I have learned and fill in the gaps.

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