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All 7 Bass Modes Made Easy: A Comprehensive Tutorial

What are bass modes?

Bass modes are diatonic sequences of notes created by playing seven notes in order from any degree of the major scale.

Whenever you emphasize a new scale degree it changes the interval structure, which changes the sound of the notes as they relate to the new root.

There are seven modes in the major scale. This is because of the seven total scale degrees. These modes are:

  1. Ionian (First degree of the major scale, and generally referred to as the major scale)
  2. Dorian (Second degree of the major scale)
  3. Phrygian (Third degree of the major scale)
  4. Lydian (Fourth degree of the major scale)
  5. Mixolydian (Fifth degree of the major scale)
  6. Aeolian (Sixth degree of the major scale, and is referred to as the natural minor scale)
  7. Locrian (Seventh degree of the major scale)

You can refer to bass modes by their Greek names or their scale degree. For example, you could say “Mixolydian”, or you could say “the 5th mode”. They’re the same thing.

C major modes on bass

You can easily start to understand these modes by using the C major scale. You’ll use this scale because all of its notes are natural notes.

The seven modes of the C major scale are:

 C Ionian: C-D-E-F-G-A-B

D Dorian: D-E-F-G-A-B-C

E Phrygian: E-F-G-A-B-C-D

F Lydian: F-G-A-B-C-D-E

G Mixolydian: G-A-B-C-D-E-F

A Aeolian: A-B-C-D-E-F-G

B Locrian: B-C-D-E-F-G-A

Now, you’re probably thinking, why do modes matter if they’re all just the same group of notes starting from a different root note?

The simple answer is this: context.

Emphasizing particular tones/intervals over chords gives you the implied mode. And naturally, chords act as the context of our music.

How to know which mode(s) to use

Knowing which mode to use boils down to the harmonic relationships with modes.

Simply put, you’ll choose the mode to use by looking at the chords being played. Remember, context is everything with modes.

Let’s look at the diatonic chords in a major scale, for example. We’ll use the C major scale again.

  • C Major
  • D Minor
  • E Minor
  • F Major
  • G Major
  • A Minor
  • B Diminished

Each of these modes correlates directly with the mode at that particular major scale degree. This can be seen in this chart.

(The roman numeral is used to represent the scale degree)

TriadC MajD MinE MinF MajG MajA MinB Dim
7th ChordC Maj7D Min7E Min7F Maj7G7A Min7B Min7b5

You can apply these diatonic chords to any key, and the mode will always correspond with that particular chord type and degree of the scale.

Intervals that set each mode apart

The best way to learn modes on bass guitar is by learning about the single interval in each mode that sets it apart.

This chart shows the target tone for each mode.

7 & 46b2#4b7b6 & 2b5
Ionian (major scale) and Aeolian (Natural minor scale) have two target tones, because if both tones aren’t implied, you won’t know which major or minor mode is being used.

From here, you’ll memorize the chord types that go with each mode, as seen in the previous section. The easiest way to start is by memorizing the bass triad for each mode.

Major modes: (Have a 1,3, and 5)

  • Ionian (I)
  • Lydian (IV)
  • Mixolydian (V)

Minor modes: (Have a 1, b3, and 5)

  • Dorian (ii)
  • Phrygian (iii)
  • Aeolian (vi)

Diminished mode: (Has a 1, b3, and b5)

  • Locrian

This is a great starting point, and from here you can dive into seventh chord harmony and extended chords as they relate to modes.

Practicing modes with a single root note

The best way to practice modes is by looking at parallel modes. This is where you take a single root note and apply all seven modal formulas to that single root note.

With the root note C, this gives us:

C Ionian: C-D-E-F-G-A-B

C Dorian: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb

C Phrygian: C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb

C Lydian: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B

C Mixolydian: C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb

C Aeolian: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb

C Locrian: C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb

By hearing and playing parallel modes it’s easy to see the intervals that make each mode unique.

The fretboard diagrams after this section have a 1-octave shape for all bass modes.

Practice them by:

  • Using a backing track with no key, just a drone playing the note “C”
  • Or, practice your modes over an open bass string
  • When playing each mode, target the tone that sets the mode apart from the other modes. For example, the b7 in Mixolydian sets it apart from the Ionian mode, which has a major 7th
  • Memorize the chord type that corresponds with each bass mode.

Here’s a simple C drone track.

Bass modes fretboard diagrams

C Ionian (Major)

C major scale one octave bass

C Dorian

C Dorian Bass Scale One Octave

C Phrygian

C Phrygian Bass Scale One Octave

C Lydian

C Lydian Bass Scale

C Mixolydian

C Mixolydian bass scale one octave

C Aeolian (Natural Minor)

C natural minor bass scale one octave

C Locrian 

C Locrian Bass Scale Fretboard Diagram (bass modes)

Bass modes conclusion

Bass modes are one of the most useful tools for your improvisation and compositional arsenal, so learn them!

And there’s no need to complicate them. Start by learning all 7 mode names, and their corresponding scale degree.

From there you can steadily learn the target tones for each mode, and you’ll be well on your way to being a bass mode pro.

Rock on, my friend.

Complete modes and scales lessons

Now that you have an understanding of modes, you can check out all of these complete guides to modes and scales as they apply to bass guitar.

Ionian Scale Bass Lesson

Dorian Scale Bass Lesson

Phrygian Scale Bass Lesson

Lydian Scale Bass Lesson

Mixolydian Scale Bass Lesson

Aeolian Scale Bass Lesson

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