Ionian Mode for Guitarists



Whether you know it or not, you would have used the Ionian mode, but probably referred to it by the more commonly accepted ‘Major Scale’. For example, the C Major Scale is exactly the same as C Ionian mode, the G Major Scale is the same as G Ionian mode, etc. So why have a fancy name? Well, blame the ancient Greeks, since they named it. They probably think our words are weird as well. On the plus side, when you use the term ‘Ionian’ in conversation, other musicians will think you must know your stuff! It is important to point out that all the other modes fall out from the Ionian mode, as explained in the first Introduction to Modes article. Contributed by Mark Smith for the Roland Australia Blog

Are All Octaves Born Equal?

For centuries and centuries, different societies and cultures have made their own versions of music. They all used different instruments and had different scales, however, there is one constant – in the vast majority of cases, they were aware of an interval called the octave. This is because the concept of an octave is based on a simple mathematical equation, and easily detected by ear. If you have an ‘A’ note with a frequency of 220Hz, then the next ‘A’ note (one octave higher) would have a pitch at 440Hz. Go one octave higher again and the ‘A’ would be 880Hz, and so on. So, it doesn’t really matter what note (frequency) you start on, the concept of an octave stays the same. When played together, the two octave notes resonate in such a way that sounds pleasing to human ears. However, the way the octave is divided varies by culture. In Western music, we have 12 notes in an octave and the interval between each division is called a semitone. Other cultures separate the octave differently. For example, in Arabic music the octave is divided into 24 equally spaced notes. This makes for dozens of different modes (maqams) including Persian and Turkish hybrids. Given that there are complicated naming systems for both the modes and the notes, do you really still want to complain about learning a few new words for our modes? Here are all the notes available in Western music: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A That’s right, just 12 notes make up all the music that we know –country, jazz, pop, rock, blues, hip-hop, trance, metal or anything else. Sure, each note can have a variety of octaves, but there are only 12 basic note choices. Of the 12 notes in Western music, only 8 of them are used in each mode – and the same pattern is repeated for all the different keys. Remember your primary school singing lessons; “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do”? The point of singing those weird words was to try and get you to understand the intervals between the notes of the major scale (or, as you now call it, the Ionian mode). ionian-tone-tone A ‘tone’ is also commonly referred to as a ‘whole step’ and a ‘semitone’ is a ‘half-step’. A semitone is the shortest interval between two notes – play any note on the guitar and move it up (or down) one fret – and a tone is made up of two semitones (a distance of two frets). Why is this important? Because once you commit this (Ionian) pattern to memory, you can work out all the notes, for all the modes, for all the keys. It’s like magic. On a guitar fretboard this is relatively easy, learn the modal patterns and their shapes, then move them up/down the fretboard for different keys. Not so easy for pianists!

The Ionian Flavour

Simply put, the Ionian Mode = Major Scale. It is an eight-note musical scale that starts and ends on an octave using the Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone pattern. As such, it has a ‘happy’ feel. It is important to point out that all of the modes are far more than just a sequence of notes that you can use to solo – they get their unique flavour from the way they fit in with the underlying chord progressions. In fact, regarding solos, it is actually quite rare that a guitar player will stay on one mode for the entire duration of a solo, because the ‘flavour’ comes from the context of the underlying chords. Confused? Let’s go back two steps. Typically a guitarist would do little more than simply work out the key of the song before starting to solo. However, using modes requires that you think a little differently – break down the song into sections (verse, chorus, middle, etc), take a look at the chord structure for each section and then choose a mode. Why? Because the modes are far more than just a sequence of notes that you can use to solo – they get their unique flavour from the way they fit in with the underlying chord progressions. The Ionian mode has a relatively ‘happy’ feeling about it, like the classic opening line in ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

The Theory

As we’ve already established, the Ionian mode is exactly the same as the major scale for any key. It just has a strange name. ionian_scales Since the Ionian mode in the key of C contains C D E F G A B C, if we take the 1st, 3rd, 5th notes (C E G), we have a C major chord. Adding the 7th note gives us a C major 7th chord (C E G B).

When to see the Ionian Mode

Use the Ionian mode to solo when the major chord (or major 7th) is at the heart of the progression. For example, an Ionian solo will work over any songs with the classic I-IV-V chord progressions. This covers, oh… about a billion songs that are played on the radio every day – and probably the most cited example of an Ionian solo is Joe Satriani’s ‘Always with Me, Always with You’. Oh, and one last thing… the characteristic feel of the Ionian mode is where the half steps occur. By bending/sliding in and out of these notes, you will really hear the Ionian flavour.

Video Example

In the video below, guitarist Roberto Restuccia demonstrates the feel of the Ionian mode. This smooth R&B track leaves you a lot of space to get creative when soloing. The first 8 bars are all Amaj7 or Dmaj9, so they provide a perfect backdrop for an Ionian solo to shine. Here are approximate times that show how Roberto broke up his approach to the solo: 0.00 secs – 0.40 secs: Pure Ionian mode. 0.40  secs – 0.55 secs: A mix of major and minor pentatonic scales and B7 embellishment. 0.56 secs – 1.35 secs: Back on the Ionian mode. 1,36 – end: Mix of major and minor pentatonic scales and B7 embellishment – resolving back to Ionian. The Blues Cube amp was set to the crunch channel with the Ultimate Blues Tone capsule and the BOSS DM-2W delay pedal.

Try It Out for Yourself

Thanks to the good people at Coffee Break Grooves, you can download everything you need for free (backing track, chord chart and finger positions), then try it out for yourself. The full backing track goes for around 15 minutes, so there is plenty of time for you to get your chops down without having to start/stop/rewind. After a couple of practice runs, you will start to hear the flavour of the Ionian mode when used in context of the underlying chords, and you can get some interesting tonal blends – almost between ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ with this backing track. DOWNLOAD► Backing Track DOWNLOAD► Chord Chart DOWNLOAD► Ionian Mode Finger Positions

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Created by Roland V-Drums specialist Simon Ayton, these patches were designed using the internal factory sounds and many of the techniques covered in the TD-50 guide. Enjoy exploring the possibilities!