Modes on Three Strings

My One Octave, Three Strings article explained my “three strings” approach to navigating the fretboard in the context of the pentatonic scale.  Here, we’ll apply it to the modes of the major scale and I’ll provide some exercises for building fluency with them.

While they are the modes of the major scale, I like to start with Aeolian mode (i.e., the minor scale).  I don’t have any super-compelling reason for this but it does map neatly to the minor pentatonic example from the previous article. I suppose it’s no less arbitrary than the many exercises that start in G major.

Where my pentatonic example had two notes per string, these scales are all three notes per string–at least the first two strings.  You’ll also not that the bulk of the scales share the same lowest fret across all three strings (more about that later).  Here we have the A Aeolian scale played across the E, A, & D strings.

As with the pentatonic scale, you can slide your first finger up to the last note and repeat the pattern (accounting for the G/B transition, which I will often refer to as the “warp refraction threshold” 🚀). Starting with Aeolian, I practice ascending through the modes, staying in the same key.

B Locrian

C Ionian

D Dorian

E Phrygian

F Lydian

G Mixolydian








While this example moves the scales across the fretboard rather than just moving straight up the fretboard, both are good to practice. Just keep in mind that the warp refraction threshold 🚀 affects the pattern for the Mixolydian example above.  Just move the last two notes down a fret if not crossing between the G & B strings.

As I mentioned before, other than Ionian and Lydian, the lowest fret is the same for all three strings on the other five patterns. On Ionian and Lydian, the lowest note on each string moves up, facilitating the slide to the last note of the pattern in those cases where you continue diagonally across the fretboard.

In the examples above, we’re running through all the modes of the C major scale.  When learning the patterns and the sounds of the modes, I think it’s easier to stay in one key.  After you’re comfortable with the patterns, it’s beneficial to run the modes with a common root (E Aeolian, E Locrian, E Ionian, etc.), preferably against a droning note.  I use E as my example in this case so you can use the open sixth string as the drone note.  Using a common root with a drone helps train your ear in the “flavor” of the mode.

Up next: What modes to use with a given chord?