How to Play Modal Interchanges on the Guitar - dummies

By Desi Serna

Here is a look at some common modal interchanges on the guitar. These include mixing up major modes, mixing minor modes, and even going back and fourth between major and minor.

How to mix major with Mixolydian

One of the most common and simplest modal interchanges mixes the plain major scale (Ionian mode) with the Mixolydian mode. Here, you take I-IV-V from A major and add the fVII chord from Mixolydian. This gives you a total of four major chords: A, D, E, and G.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

There is an example of mixing major and Mixolydian at Modal Interchange.

Here, the G chord is borrowed from the A Mixolydian mode, with the parent scale of D major. Remember that when you borrow a chord, you also borrow its parent major scale. With a progression like A-G-D-E, lead guitarists need to change their scale patterns on the G chord from A major to D major in order for the notes to pair up properly with the chord.

Here are some more popular songs that use this type of modal interchange, this time in various keys. Each key centers on a major chord and mixes the major scale and the parallel Mixolydian mode (for example, B major scale and B Mixolydian mode, G major scale and G Mixolydian scale, and so on). The focus here is on the use of I-IV-V along with fVII.

Key Chords Numbers Song Examples
B B-E-Fs-A I-IV-V-fVII “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the
“California Girls” by The Beach Boys
G G-C-D-F I-IV-V-fVII “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Don’t Do Me Like That” by Tom Petty
“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix
E E-A-B-D I-IV-V-fVII “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” by John Mellencamp
“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones
“With a Little Help from my Friends” by The Beatles
D D-G-A-C I-IV-V-fVII “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd
“Bouncing Around the Room” by Phish

If you’re a lead guitarist, you need to remember to change scales with each mode. Specifically, play Mixolydian mode over the fVII chord. For instance, in the key of G examples, play G major scale patterns over chords G, C, and D, but play C major scale patterns over chord F. G Mixolydian is the 5th mode of C and where the F chord comes from.

How to mix major with Lydian

Another type of modal interchange mixes the major scale with Lydian. The key of A Lydian includes a B major chord which can be added to A major’s A, D, and E. In this case, the B chord is II, a major two chord, so the chord numbers look like this: I-II-IV-V.

You can use this type of chord progression in any key. Here is an example in D. Here, I-II-IV-V is D-E-G-A.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Both of the songs “American Girl” by Tom Petty and “Eight Days a Week” by The Beatles mix D major and D Lydian in a similar manner. Lead guitars need to be sure to switch scale patterns over the II chord, E. In the key of D, switching to Lydian means playing A major scale patterns because D Lydian is the second mode of A.

How to mix major with minor

To try out another type of modal interchange, mix the major scale with the minor scale, or Aeolian mode. In the key of A, the A minor scale has three major chords to use — C, F, and G. By number, they are fIII, fVI, and fVII.

One common combination uses the fVI and fVII chords and puts three major chords — F, G, and A — right in a row and a whole step apart. Here, the A-D part is I-IV from A major, and the F-G part is fVI-fVII from A minor.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

The Beatles use a similar chord progression in their song “Lady Madonna.” “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers has a bridge section that interchanges A major and A minor with the chords A-C-G-F (you can also think of them as A-Am-G-F) around the 2:52 mark and Fmaj7-E7-G near 3:08.

In all these major/minor interchanges, your leads need to switch to minor scale patterns over the chords from the relative minor. Switching from A major to A minor scale patterns means using C major patterns, because A minor is the sixth mode of C.