Thursday, 30 July 2009

Modal Exploration

Many fans of jam music are intrigued by the improvisational techniques used by the bands they listen to. Those without a musical background may or may not have heard of the musical modes, however, simply put a mode is a scale. Most people have heard someone voice the syllables "Doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti", which is essentially the seven notes of the major scale. The major scale is simply a mode. Without going into too much detail, scales and modes are a particular selection of notes within a particular key or octave. Modes act as a guide, letting the musician know which notes to play, and which notes to avoid in order to attain their desired sound.

The ancient Greeks believed that music had the ability to evoke moods and behaviors. The Greeks defined these moods into seven musical scales, known as echos. The Romans later adopted the system renaming it modus. It was felt that each mode evoked a different emotion. Major modes were said to evoke happy, lively moods, whereas minor modes communicated feelings of sadness or seriousness. Plato recommended that soldiers going to battle avoid listening to music in certain modes as it would interfere with their bloodlust. Similarly, Plato and Artistotle both felt that a persons affinity toward a particular musical mode was an insight into that person's character.

Modal jamming is largely felt to have originated with the release of Miles
Davis' "Kind of Blue." This album features Miles Davis and John Coltrane using the modes as a framework for their jams. Modal jams typically involve less changes in key, allowing the musician to solo more fluidly. John Coltrane (who plays sax on the album) would go on to explore modal jamming to an all new level and is considered one of the great modal interpreters. For an example of this early modal jamming, check out this clip of Miles Davis' So What, which is also covered by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on their album "So What":

Let's now take a look at each of the seven modes, how they are used in jam music, and what types of moods they evoke. Without any further ado, I present to you:

The Musical Modes

1. Ionian - The Ionian mode is the major scale. It evokes bright, happy feelings. It should also sound more familiar than some of the other modes. Here are two examples of how the Ionian mode can be used in a jam. Fittingly the "you can feel good about Hood" jam is in Ionian. In these examples you can see how Trey and Duane both use the same scale in different ways.

Phish - Harry Hood

The Allman Brothers Band - Blue Sky

Dorian - The Dorian mode is a minor mode that evokes melancholy, yet soulful moods. The final note of the scale does not resolve itself, leaving one feel as though there are questions left answered. Santana is an avid user of the Dorian mode. Here are two examples of the Dorian mode with Trey and Dicky (many people believe this part of the solo from the '71 Filmore show is Duane. It is not. I have watched the video, Duane comes in later. Dicky is very modal in his playing):

Phish - David Bowie

The Allman Brothers Band - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

3. Phrygian - The Phrygian mode has a very dark Spanish/middle eastern sound. It is not commonly used in jam music, and it offers a strong contrast to the rest of the modes. It is also used frequently in metal. I won't post it, but if you're interested check out Yngwie Malmsteen's Heavy E Phrygian. Here is a more suitable example:

Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit

Lydian - The Lydian mode is another bright and happy mode, but in a very different way than the Ionian mode. Zappa was known for using it in his solos and Dicky Betts uses it very frequently. It has somewhat of a jazzy, unexpected feel to it, and so it works well in jam music. Here is an example of one of my favorite solos using the Lydian mode. It almost sounds as though Trey's notes are soaring through the speakers:

Phish - Reba

5. Mixolydian - Jerry Garcia's favorite mode. It is commonly used in blues and rock, and has a bright feel with a dark side. It is an interesting sounding mode, and is often used in guitar solos. Here are two examples, one of Jerry, the other of Clapton.

Grateful Dead - Fire on the Mountain

Eric Clapton - Let it Rain

6. Aeolian - similar to the Ionian scale, the Aeolian mode is a natural minor scale. Thus, it conveys feelings of sorrow, regret and despair. It has a very dark sound to it, and is often used in Rock. Listen to this example by Jimmy Page:

Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven

Locrian - The Locrian mode sounds very odd, and is not frequently used in jam music. If it is, I can't think of an example. The Locrian mode sounds dissonant, and spacey, almost wrong. The previous six modes are used most often in jam music.

Hopefully this has shed some light on how modes are used in jamming, and why they are so important. As you can see from the examples above, the modes are a strong tool and can be used to control the mood of the jam. The following is a video of Suzy Greenberg from 10-21-95 at Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln, NE. Notice how Trey plays the solo from
Stairway to Heaven using the Aeolian mode at 2:45. Enjoy, as a bonus I've also included the Harry Hood from the same show. Notice Trey teases Beat It in both songs (as was mentioned a few days ago in this article).


  1. I'm reading through your blog for the first time, and I have to say, I'm impressed!

    One thing that kills me about a lot of jam bands, even the best ones, is that they always seem to go the modal route instead of working with the progressions in their songs during the jams. I'm a jazz guy and a huge deadhead, too. I wrote an arrangement of Eyes of the World out, and we solo over those changes, and the solos are always so beautiful because of the change in mood in the pre-chorus and the key change for the chorus. It's always seemed odd to me that a guitarist of Jerry's caliber (and a bass player of Phil's caliber!) couldn't have done likewise.

    Oh well. Nice entry. Hope to read more stuff from you.

  2. I appreciate you comments.

    I do agree, Jerry was a master of following the key changes and I try to do that in my own playing. However, some songs just sound great with a simple modal jam. I guess the truth is that a bit of both is best. Listen to Trey's solo on Foam (especially roxy '93) or The Mango Song, there are some very interesting changes.

  3. When improvising, modal music provides more room for the musician. This was one of the reasons it was developed. In a genre like jam music where improvising is considered to be the most important, playing modal jams allows for more creativity. Simply "playing the changes" sounds good but is still anchored to a very specific progression. Playing modally you are forced to come up with creative lines with only seven notes. Listen to Miles Davis or one of Jerry Garcia's biggest influences John Coltrane.

  4. Agree with you, I like nice music, on these times, It's very hard to find a good singer... many of them now use computer effects with those programs which ones you can modify their voices, but well there's nothing we can't do about it, so I'll keep listening the old school singers.

    Thanks for post.

    1. BlogHuts
      Truly, one of the best posts I've ever witnessed to see in my whole life. Wow, just keep it up.

  5. Led Zeppelin is my favorite.. and have to admite If I had to listen one song for the rest of my life, "Stairway to Heaven" would be that one!!!

  6. This were and would be the coolest band ever existed and there would be none other like them im glad i bourn on a age i could admire them.

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  16. Just to clarify, the key color for Reba is not Lydian. It is played in F Mixolydian. Guitar players, here is a link to a great set of scale sheets that will help to get the modes under your fingers. Peace

  17. Phil Lewis Guitar

  18. On further observation, the first part of Reba is in F Lydian. The songs switches to F Mixolydian in the second half after the transition and then Trey goes into the extended solo.