We metal musicians, especially guitarists and bassists, have a habit of being very mode-centric. We learn the notes in terms of scales and modes—major, minor, and the other traditional modes such as Phrygian and Dorian; exotic-sounding scales with monikers such as “Hungarian” and “Gypsy”; evenly-divided scales such as whole-tone and chromatic; and the ubiquitous pentatonic scales.
Part of the attraction of learning the scales in this manner is that we learn them as repeating fingering patterns more strongly than we do as a series of notes or intervals in between notes. The fingering patterns are transferable verbatim up and down the fret board, and the constant practice on those patterns paves and reinforces the nerve pathways in our fingers. In this manner, playing scales becomes a manual as opposed to a mental exercise.
Learning the scales and modes also leads to an organized and digestible approach. It is simple enough to learn and practice a few scales at a time and to gradually add others to our repertoire. And applying scales is similarly easy to manage—we call upon the pentatonic minor scale to achieve one kind of effect, the Locrian mode to achieve another kind of sound, etc.
However, with this focus on discrete scales and modes, we are sometimes prone to missing other possibilities and approaches. For all the countless modes and scales available to us—a selection that can often seem overwhelming—it is often simpler to remember that we are only dealing with twelve musical pitches and we have the freedom to use those pitches however we wish. A mode is really just an organizational concept, a starting point, and we have the ability to amend the notes without formally declaring a new mode.
We also tend to over-define our riffs and licks in terms of mode. Not every minor-sounding riff that features a flatted fifth scale-degree needs to be described as Locrian; depending on the context, it may make more sense to simply call it a minor riff with an altered note.
Scales and modes are useful tools, yet we should feel free to take a simpler, less structured approach to using them. In future posts, we will examine in more detail how modes can be utilized and conceived of with such flexibility.