The Dorian Mode Explored

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Dorian Mode and Basic Usage

carlos santana
Keith Baugh | Getty Images

Becoming a great rock guitar soloist doesn't require a whole lot of musical knowledge. Many very good guitarists stick almost exclusively to pentatonic scales, blues scales, and assorted licks to create their solos. For the slightly more adventurous guitarist, however, there are times when a pentatonic or blues scale just doesn't provide the right sound. This is where modes of the major scale, like the dorian mode, come into play.

If you haven't tackled the modes of the major scale on guitar before, you're in for a whole whack of information to deal with. So, let's put that off for a moment, and just learn the dorian mode shape and basic usage before diving into the music theory behind it.

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Learning the Basic Dorian Pattern

basic dorian scale position
basic dorian scale position.

The dorian mode, when played as the two octave pattern illustrated here, sounds like a minor scale. Try playing it yourself - starting with your first finger on the sixth string (if you start on the note "A" on the sixth string, you're playing an A dorian mode). Maintain hand position throughout, stretching your fourth (pinky) finger to play notes on the fifth and fourth string. If you're having trouble, try listening to an mp3 of the A dorian mode.

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Dorian Mode on a Single String

Single String Pattern for Dorian
Single String Pattern for Dorian.

After you've gotten the hang of playing the dorian mode across the neck, try playing it up and down a single string. Find the root of the scale on the string you're playing, then move up a tone to the second note, up a semi-tone to the third, up a tone to the fourth, up a tone to the fifth, up a tone to the sixth, up a semi-tone to the seventh, and up a tone back to the root note again. Try picking one specific dorian mode (eg. C dorian), and playing it on all six strings, one string at a time.

The sound of the dorian mode differs from that of a "regular" minor scale. In a natural minor scale (or what you might think of as the "normal" minor scale), the sixth note of the scale is flattened. In the dorian mode, this sixth note is NOT flattened. What results is a scale that can sound a little more "bright", or even slightly "jarring".

In popular music, the dorian mode works exceptionally well in minor chord "vamps" - situations where the music lingers on one minor chord for a long amount of time. If, for example, a song sticks on an Aminor chord for a long time, try playing an A dorian mode over that part of the song.

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Dorian Licks: Carlos Santana - Evil Ways

dorian santana solo
Listen to this mp3 clip of "Evil Ways".

The following pages will provide just a few examples of the many great musicians who use the dorian mode in their solos. Try listening to and playing each example, to get a better idea of how the dorian mode sounds in the context of a solo.

Carlos has long been one of the guitarists who experiments with the sounds of the dorian mode, amongst other scales. The dorian mode has more notes than simple pentatonic scales, which gives Santana more notes to explore. The provided mp3 clip of "Evil Ways" with guitar tablature above find Santana soloing over a Gmin to C progression using the G dorian mode. As is customary, however, Santana also uses bits of the blues scale, and others, all within the same solo.

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Dorian Licks: Tony Iommi - Planet Caravan

tony iommi planet caravan dorian guitar solo

Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath, is another guitarist noted for using the dorian mode in his guitar solos. Iommi plays notes from the E dorian mode over the static E minor chord in the song. The dorian sound really helps to create a distinct mood in this situation. Iommi doesn't just stick to dorian, however - the guitarist also uses notes from the E blues scale, amongst others, to change the sound of his solo.

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Dorian Licks: Soundgarden - Loud Love

soundgarden loud love dorian guitar mp3
Listen to this mp3 clip of "Loud Love".

This is a great example of the dorian mode used as the basis for a song riff. "Loud Love" is based on the E dorian mode, played up and down the sixth and fifth strings. The fourth fret on the fifth string is the note which really tips us off to the sound of the mode. Try playing the E dorian mode up the sixth string, then up and down the fifth string (starting on the 7th fret "E"). You can try creating your own riffs based on this scale.

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Dorian Licks: Cannonball Adderly - Milestones

Cannonball Adderly Dorian Solo
Listen to this mp3 clip of "Milestones".

The great alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly was a part of Miles Davis' band when Davis wrote many songs based on modes. The above lick (transcribed for guitar) features Adderly playing ideas based on the G dorian mode, over a Gminor chord.

Okay, now we've learned some of the performance basics of the dorian mode, it's time to tackle a tricky subject - where the mode comes from, and when to go about using it.

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Origins of Dorian Mode

dorian major scale guitar
Notice that G major has the same notes as A dorian.

The following explanation requires a working knowledge of the major scale, so you'll want to learn the major scale before continuing.

Throughout this lesson, the term "mode" (as opposed to "scale") has intentionally been used to reference the dorian. The dorian mode is actually one of seven modes derived from the major scale.

Any major scale has seven different notes (do re mi fa sol la ti, often numbered as one through seven), and for each of these notes, there is a different mode. The dorian mode is based on the second note in a major scale. Before you get confused by any further explanation, consider the illustration above.

If we were to write out the notes in the above scales, here is what we'd find: the G major scale has seven notes G A B C D E F♯. The A dorian scale has the notes A B C D E F♯ G . Notice that both scales share exactly the same notes. Which means playing a G major scale, or an A dorian scale will result in the same sound.

To illustrate this, listen to the major and dorian mp3. In this mp3 clip, a G major chord is strummed throughout, while the G major scale, and then the A dorian mode, are played. Notice that both scales sound the same - the only difference being the A dorian scale begins and ends on the note A.

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Origins of Dorian Mode (con't)

What Does This Mean?

We've established earlier that you can play a dorian mode on a minor chord, to give you a specific sound. Now, since we know that the dorian mode is simply a major scale starting on the second note, we know that we can use both scale patterns to give us a dorian sound.

For example, let's say we wanted to solo over an Aminor chord using an A dorian mode. Knowing that A dorian = G major, we can use the G major scale to solo over that A minor chord. Similarly, we can use an A dorian scale to solo over a G major chord.

REMEMBER: the notes "G" and "A" are used only for example. The above applies to all major scales - the dorian mode starts on the second degree of any major scale. So, the D dorian mode comes from the C major scale, the G dorian mode comes from the F major scale, etc.

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How to Practice the Dorian Mode

dorian major scale guitar pattern
listen to an mp3 of this pattern.

Of course it will first be necessary to completely memorize the dorian mode pattern. Practice the mode slowly and accurately, both across the neck, and up a single string. Be sure to play the mode forwards and backwards.

It's important to start blurring the lines between the major scale shape and the dorian shape on your fretboard. Since the major scale and dorian mode starting on the second degree of the major scale have all the same notes, you should try and start viewing them as one scale. To start getting comfortable moving back and forth between the major scale and dorian positions, practice the pattern outlined above.

The idea is - you play the ascending G major scale, then move up to the A dorian position (same notes as G major), and descend in that position. You complete the scale by returning to your original position to play the final note "G". After you've mastered this, you can take this concept to another level. Try starting in the major scale position, and switching up to the dorian position on one of the middle strings, all the while maintaining your tempo and flow. You can try something similar while descending.

Once you've got the scale under your fingers, you can start trying to improvise using the dorian/major scale patterns. Try making up licks similar to the ones presented here by Santana and others. Spend a lot of time with this - be creative. Try mixing A minor pentatonic, A blues scale, A dorian, and any other minor scales you know into your solos - don't feel like you have to only play one scale throughout!

By the way, don't worry if your solos don't sound great at first. Getting comfortable with a new scale takes time, and certainly won't yield wonderful results at first. That is why we practice - so by the time you're playing it in front of others, you sound top notch!

If this whole modes concept is fuzzy to you, don't worry too much about it. Just practice, practice, practice, and chances are, you'll stumble upon the logic of modes yourself. Try not to get frustrated if things aren't "clicking" - they will with time.