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The Basics of the Dorian Mode for Guitar

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Outside of the basic major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) scale modes, the Dorian mode would be considered by many to be the most important diatonic mode in any improviser’s toolkit.

The Dorian mode is spelled: 1  2  ♭3  4  5  6  ♭7; or, in steps: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole. It’s frequently employed by jazz, soul, and rock soloists, and can be found in the “jam sections” of tons of classic rock and jazz tunes from players like Carlos Santana and David Gilmour (as well as jazz improvisers like Miles Davis).

But considering how fluid this scale mode is to use on the guitar, we’ll examine it in a number of ways from the perspective of the guitar.

How to Use the Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is commonly used to solo over minor 7th chords, applicable to the ubiquitous II–7  V7  I progression, and a creative substitute, or expansion, of the minor pentatonic scale used in blues and rock. (This article assumes a basic understanding of the theoretical fundamentals of scale modes. To brush up on your knowledge of scale types and modes, you can always join Soundfly’s free online course, Theory for Producers.)

A mode is a scale formed by changing the starting position of a “parent” scale.

Let’s say C major is our parent scale, containing the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. There are six other diatonic modes we can tap into by playing this same collection of notes, but starting on notes other than C.

So if we play the C major scale, but begin on the note D, we alter the sequence of whole and half steps. The displacement of the intervals creates a different tonality. In the key of C major, this will give us the D Dorian mode, which, as you can see, is constructed on the 2nd scale degree of the standard major scale. 

If we walked up the scale of C major, here’s how each resulting scale would play out in modes:

  • C IONIAN (major)
  • D DORIAN
  • E PHRYGIAN
  • F LYDIAN
  • G MIXOLYDIAN
  • A AEOLIAN (minor)
  • B LOCRIAN

The tone that differentiates the Dorian mode from the standard minor (Aeolian) scale is its major 6th. To create a venerable Dorian sound, we’ll need to exploit the presence of that major 6th, and its contrast with the minor 3rd.

Aeolian – 1  2 3  4  5 ♭6 7

Dorian – 1  2 3  4  5  6 7

Here is the standard fingering for the D Dorian mode in the guitar’s 10th position (remember, all shapes on the guitar are moveable). You can follow along from here on in audio, standard notation, and tablature.

To hear the Dorian mode in context, we can play a line over Dm7 in the style of Miles Davis.

When applying the Dorian mode to “modal” music, or soloing over a single chord, like many jazz improvisers tend to do, it can be helpful to include arpeggios in our lines. Here is a Dorian arpeggio (Dm6).

Obviously, we can apply the Dorian mode to II-  V  I as well. Here is a line cliché illustrating how you can navigate the basic changes using the Dorian shape we learned earlier.

Notice how over the Dm7 chord we play the 5, 6, ♭7, and ♭3. It’s not uncommon to omit the root note when soloing over chord changes, or at least delay the arrival back to the root until the end of the solo for maximum resolution!

Playing the Blues

When we apply the Dorian mode to blues music (and by extension, rock ‘n’ roll), we begin to explore some really exciting implications. The Dorian mode and minor pentatonic scales share these common scale degrees: 1  ♭3  4  5  ♭7.

That’s right — the entire minor pentatonic scale is contained within the Dorian mode. Therefore, we are free to play with the addition of the 2nd and 6th scale degrees. Not only can we layer the Dorian mode over the minor pentatonic scale, but the 2nd and 6th degrees present in the Dorian mode also belong to the major pentatonic scale, which players like the Three Kings (Albert, Freddie, and B.B.), Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page commonly weaved into their solos.

By stressing and manipulating the common and uncommon tones between these three scales, we can create a lot of tonal variation out of very little harmonic information — freedom in limitations, for sure. Examine these three scales to see the crossover:

Dorian – 1  2 3  4  5  6 7

Minor pentatonic –3  4  5 7

Major pentatonic – 1  2  3  5  6

The sound of blues is predominantly the relationship between the major and minor 3rd, and the tritone. Dorian is perfect for blues music because it blends so well with the pentatonic scale, offering combinations of both. Plus, the distance between the minor 3rd and major 6th present in Dorian is also a tritone!

In this lick, we use a combination of major and minor pentatonic, with the major 6th present as part of the major pentatonic scale, and the Dorian mode. Notice how the lick ends on the minor 3rd, accentuating the relationship between the minor 3rd and major 6th that makes Dorian so unique.

A common idea using this scale position is to bend the major 6th up to the flat seven. This gives further flexibility and is a favorite of many players in the fusion, soul, and blues genres. In this lick, we end on the 6th. Ending on the 6th can be especially useful in blues, because the 6th also functions as the major 3rd of the IV chord.

Here’s another idea over IV  I, which can also be used as a turnaround.

Other Styles

Moving into heavier styles like metal and fusion, we can employ a three-note-per-string pattern that allows us to play faster passages.

This is an alternate picking exercise that I used to build speed early on in my career. It’s incredibly effective, and you can employ the concept in your soloing. It’s called “modal alternate picking.”

We can use the same modal shape with our legato technique as well. In this lick, we use a smooth and connected scalar approach on the first three beats, then shift gears to outline the chord by playing a Dm6 arpeggio. The lick ends on a common pentatonic bend to circle back around to the blues.

All of these ideas are widely applicable to many genres and can carry over to other box shapes on the guitar. Try experimenting with different combinations and creating your own lines! If you want even more of a workout, try to move some of the licks into fifth position (root on the A string).

Good luck!

Add a little something extra to your music. Learn about all of the different scale types and modes that exist and the popular songs that make use of them, and all inside your DAW’s piano roll, in Soundfly’s game-changing free online music theory course series, Theory for Producers, taught by NYU professor Ethan Hein. Take your time, start and stop, and come back to it whenever you like! Check out the excerpt below and join the free course here.

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Dre DiMura
Dre DiMura

Dre DiMura is a creative artist from New Jersey. As a guitarist he has shared the stage with legendary artists such as Gloria Gaynor, Dee Snider, and Steve Howe of YES. He is the lead guitarist in LA based soul/rock band, Sugar Fly, and the primary creative force in psychedelic rock trio, Lunar Electric. He has toured internationally with Australian rock band, Evol Walks, who were recently cited as one of Australia’s top 5 emerging artists. As an actor he has appeared in commercials, independent films, and on television shows for ABC, Nickelodeon, and HBO where he worked with critically acclaimed director, David Fincher. You can hear more from Dre in Soundfly's free course A Conversation with the Blues.