Loving The Lydian

The subject of modes is one that many guitarists know of but know little about. You read the articles and interviews in the guitar magazines and it seems baffling. All those incomprehensible words like “mixolydian” and “aeolian”… and it all makes very little sense. You may even get to the point where you understand that a mode is a major scale (doh; reh; me; fah; soh; lah; tee; doh) starting on a note other than it’s 1st note. But how does this help you use modes in a practical context?

If this sounds familiar, then don’t worry, I’ve been there too. I got really frustrated that there was this whole world of soloing resources that I had no access to in my little pentatonic, blues scale comfort zone. By this time I’d figured out how to play a major scale, but the shapes felt really unfamiliar under my fingers and as for actually instinctively jamming with anything even vaguely modal… well forget it, quite frankly!

I was then fortunate enough to buy a copy of GUITAR magazine, at WH Smith, at some point in the early 90s when I was waiting for a train. I read a column by the excellent Shaun Baxter who suddenly made it all “click” and the penny (as they say) dropped, big time. Here’s what I found out…

You see, a mode isn’t a scale which has to “begin” on a certain note, it simply requires that the emphasis is placed on that note. How do we do that? Well you arrange the chords that you’re going to solo over in such a way as to draw the listeners attention to a certain note in the scale. Allow me to explain…

Imagine you’re playing a simple little 3 chord song in E major… “Wild Thing” springs to mind. The chords would be E A and B, right? Well, if you have a bit of a play around with the order in which these chords come, you can make the chord sequence sound “settled” or “resolved” (to use the technical term) on a chord other than the obvious choice of E. Try this for example…

|B / / / |B / / / |A / E / |B / / / |

|B / / / |B / / / |A / E / |B / / / |

|A / / / |E / / / |B / / / |B / / / |

|A / / / |E / / / |B / / / |B / / / |

There you have the 3 main chords in E major, re-orientated to sound like B is the main focus of proceedings. If this sounds familiar when you play it, it’s because it’s not a million miles away from “Gimme All Your Lovin’” by ZZTop. More importantly it is a modal chord sequence (the mixolydian mode, to be exact). How does this relate to lead guitar? Well, we’ll come to that in a moment, but first let’s look at another way of placing the emphasis on a point in the scale other than the 1st note. It’s quite simple, really… all you have to do is play a bass line, which focuses on the desired note, under the chord sequence you’re using.

Here’s an example with our E A & B chords:

|A / / / |B / / / |E / / / |A / / / |

Played in isolation, this sounds like it wants to go back to the E chord, but place an A bass note under everything and now A becomes the natural resting point which makes everything sound “settled”. Click HERE to listen to this in action. See what I mean? That A chord now sounds like the focus of the whole backing track. So how does one play modal lead guitar over this? Well, first of all you can simply use your old familiar pentatonic “box” shapes. Try playing over that chord progression using this A major pentatonic shape (we’re using A major pentatonic because it matches the A major chord which is the chord the whole progression is now centred around thanks to our A bass note):


Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Next (once you’re comfortable with using the pentatonic), you can begin to add in some more notes. Don’t worry, there’s only two: All we’re going to do is add the G# note found in the E chord, and the D# note found in the B chord. This gives us a scale which looks like this, and is known as the “lydian” mode:


Try soloing with this shape and just sneaking the extra couple of notes in every now & then. Your ear will tell you when it’s OK to linger on them & when it’s best to go back to your pentatonic “safety net” box. If you can locate these extra two notes within the context of all your other familiar pentatonic “boxes” then you’ll have a whole fretboard’s worth of lydian mode fingerings to solo with. It must be stressed, though, you simply HAVE to know what’s going on in the chord sequence underneath you. It’s no good just taking the “play-by-ear” pentatonic approach of “it’s in A” and thinking you can automatically use the lydian mode – you can only do this if the chords you’re playing over are in the lydian mode too (as they are in the example we’ve used here). How to determine the mode of a chord sequence is beyond the scope of this little blog post, but if I’ve whetted your appetite to delve further into this subject, then you can download my free course (a PDF with mp3 audio examples) on everything to do with modes by clicking HERE (you’ll need WINRAR to open it, so if you don’t have it, then just Google it and download the free version).

Anyway, back to our example. If we add up all of the notes used in this A lydian mode shape, we find that we have the A major pentatonic, consisting of A B C# F# & E. Plus the two extra notes of G# and D#. This gives us a total note content of: A B C# D# E F# & G#. Which is simply the E major scale (E F# G# A B C# & D#) re-orientated so that the focus is now the A note. This is what a mode is, remember? Hopefully we’ve arrived at it in a more accessible way than just learning the E major scale then having to think about it beginning on it’s 4th note (A).

To give you an idea of the inherent sound of the lydian mode, click HERE to listen to an E major scale, beginning & ending on the A note, played over our backing track. Then, have a listen to a little piece I put together using the more accessible “pentatonic box + extra notes” approach by clicking HERE.

Personally, I love the sound of the lydian mode. It has an upbeat, happy, major tonality to it, but still retains something of a “tense”, “unsettled” feel. This makes it an ideal choice for writing (and don’t forget the DNA of a mode is embedded in the actual fabric of the chord sequence – it’s NOT just a soloing choice you can call upon willy-nilly) music which has a somewhat complex feel to it – happy, but a little anxious at the same time, if you see what I mean. If the solo I played earlier reminds you of a certain Mr. Satriani, then this is because many of his more well known tunes (Flying In A Blue Dream springs to mind) are text-book lydian mode.

I hope this has been as enlightening to you as that brilliant Shaun Baxter article was to me 20+ years ago.

Until next time, HAVE FUN!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project


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