The Modes of the Major Scale - Developing a Practice Routine pt. 2
Published August 4th, 2006. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

More of your questions answered - This is the second part in this series on practicing improvisation. Keep the questions coming, they may just get turned into pt.3.

Q: When I play over a ii - V - I in the key of C (Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7) I attempt using the D dorian mode but it just sounds like I'm doodling around with the major scale, is there any way to make it sound more like I'm actually playing modes?

A: Maybe you aren't thinking about the chord changes enough. If you can't hear the chord changes in your solo, you're missing the chord tones all together. Since you are playing in one key you should try to outline the changes by incorporating arpeggios. One progression I like to practice over is the ii-V-I played through the cycle of minor 3rds. Let's start in the key of C for examples sake. The key changes will go like this: C-Eb-Gb-A. The chord changes: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7, Fmin7-Bb7-Ebmaj7, Abmin7-Db7-Gbmaj7 and Bmin7-E7-Amaj7. Start off by playing the proper major scales first. Don't pay too much attention to chord tones at first. Just get used to playing in one position for now and get familiar with the patterns. I've included the chord progression and a sample of one position of the proper scale patterns:

D dorian (C major)/F dorian (Eb major)/Ab dorian (Gb major)/B dorian (A major)


Next, let's try to incorporate some arpeggios into the solo. This will help you to outline the changes better. I'll give you an example of a sequence that you can use as your practice motif. We are going to take this motif through all our key changes but first let's practice it in the first key, the key of C. It consists of an ascending arpeggio (1-3-5-7) followed by a descending scale from the root of the chord (8-7-6-5):

Now, if you have it memorized, let's try to play it through the key changes. I've notated it halfway through for you, see if you can figure out the rest yourself. You may have to rethinking things a bit by placing certain notes in a different octave. These kinds of problems make you think a little which is a good thing. By the way, this is a great way to practice but not necessarily a good way to actually play a solo, it is a little too planned out and mechanical and does not breathe at all. Regardless it will teach you how to use chord tones and that is our goal for the time being:

Here are a few more motifs that you can try to play throughout the chord changes. For the sake of practice, try to stay in the same position rather than moving the same thing up and down the neck to accommodate the key changes.
Ex.1) Descending scale from the root (8-7-6-5) followed by a descending arpeggio (7-5-3-1):
Ex.2) Descending arpeggio (7-5-3-1) followed by a descending scale from the 5th of the chord (5-4-3-2):
Ex.3) Ascending arpeggio (1-3-5-7) followed by a descending intervallic 3rds scale sequence from the root of the chord (8-6-7-5):
Ex.4) Ascending add9 arpeggio (1-2-3-5) followed by an ascending scale sequence from the 7th of the chord (7-1-2-3). You will have to slide up to the twelfth fret for the last note:

Now what if we expanded on our idea by changing the C major scale to the C lydian mode over the I chords? All you would have to do is raise the F naturals to F sharps. You would be taking more of a modal approach.

Here is an example of how you could combine all of the motifs we have worked on. Notice how I have used the lydian mode over the maj7 chords:

More Questions

Q: My guitar teacher says that there are specific "avoid" notes in certain scales and I best be careful to not play them. They sound okay to me, why should I "avoid" them?

A: No disrespect intended but that is silly. True, there are notes that are stronger than others but that entirely depends on the chord you are playing the scale over and the way the chord is voiced. Any note that is included in the chord is a strong note but generally the chord tones voiced on the top of the chord are the strongest. If there were tones that needed to be avoided, they would have been eliminated from the scales by musicians years ago. Just use your ears and you should be okay.

Q: I am trying to play over a Dmin7-Emin7 chord progression using the D dorian mode and the E dorian mode but it sounds weird. What's the deal? Is there anyway to come up with good modal vamps?

A: Your ear may protest you playing the E dorian mode over a Emin7 chord in the Dmin7-Emin7 progression. The reason is simply because both chords are diatonic of the key of C, the ii and iii chords, which means that the D dorian mode will work over both chords. That is why the D dorian mode probably sounds correct to you but the E dorian mode over the Emin7 chord sounds off. There is a way to fix this problem however. If you change both the chords (or at least the second chord) to a min9 chord, the chords will no longer be diatonic to the same key. You see the ii chord (or dorian chord) can be a min9 chord but the iii chord (or Phrygian chord) has a lowered 9th so cannot be a min9 chord. Diatonic chords are a little tricky so unrelated chords tend to work better. Try separating same family chords (such as minor) chords by minor 3rds, major 3rds or tritons (major 3rds reversed are minor 6ths and minor 3rds reversed are major 6ths). These cyclical progressions tend resolve themselves back to the first chord and will make sure that the chords are unrelated. Separated by:

Minor 3rds: Amin7-Cmin7-Ebmin7-F#min7
Major 3rds: Amin7-C#min7-Fmin7
Tritone: Amin7-Ebmin7
Major 6ths: Amin7-F#min7-Ebmin7-Cmin7
Minor 6ths: Amin7-Fmin7-C#min7

Q: For some strange reason the dorian mode doesn't work over the Amin7 chord in this Gmin7-C9-Amin7-D9 chord progression I am working on. I can't put my finger on it but it sounds wrong. Why?

A: Your ears do not deceive you my friend. This is a gray area. You see, you are looking at the Amin7-D9 chords as a ii-V in the key of G but your ear is disagreeing. Your ear believes that the Amin7 chord is the iii chord in the key of F because the two chords that come before it are the ii-V in that key. If you play the G dorian mode (F major scale) over the Gmin7-C9-Amin7 chords and the D mixolydian mode (G major scale) over the D9 chord a harmonic truce should take place. Not that your analysis was wrong by the way, your ear just didn't like it. The reason is simply because you ear doesn't know that the D9 chord is coming so continues to hear the progression in the key of F. I've notated my analysis for you:

Q: How come saxophone players have such good phrasing? How can I learn how to play like them?

A: If a saxophone player didn't phrase the way he does he would die. They phrase that way simply because they have to take a breath. Try to play only when you breathe out and take a break when you breathe in. This will help you get a handle on their phrasing. You'll be happy to know that there are some sax guys who practice circular breathing so that they can play non-stop like us. Players who use circular breathing, breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth at the same time.

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