Easy guitar theory: dorian mode

(Image credit: Olly Curtis/Future)

Learn some basics of modal scales with our lesson on Dorian mode.

You’ve probably heard of modes, even if you don’t know what they are. The basics are very simple: play the major scale but don’t start on the root note and you’ll be playing a mode. Simply start on the second note to play the Dorian mode. Each mode has its own name but, more importantly, they have their own character. Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel is a well-known example of a song in the Dorian mode.

The Dorian mode has a minor 3rd, so, like any minor chord, it has a dark, moody sound. However, there is another vital note that yields a sweeter sound than the more common natural minor scale. Read on and we’ll explain.

1. C major and D Dorian scales

The D Dorian mode is found within the C major scale. Confused? It’s actually very simple. The two scales share the same notes, but C major (C D E F G A B) starts on C, and D Dorian (D E F G A B C) starts on D. That might not seem special, but treating D as the root note gives a whole new flavour.

Here we’re playing C major and D Dorian scales. C major sounds bright because the root chord is C major (C E G); D Dorian suggests a moodier Dm root chord (D F A).

2. Important intervals: minor 3rd and major 6th

The moody minor root chord is crucial to the Dorian sound, as is the scale’s major 6th - a B note in D Dorian. We haven’t chosen this note at random.

Compare D Dorian to the more common D natural minor scale (D E F G A Bb C) where you’ll find a minor 6th Bb note instead. The major 6th gives the Dorian mode a sweeter sound.

Here we’re using chords to outline the Dorian mode in a Latin-style groove. Dm7 (D F A C) is the root chord; Em7 (E G B D) and G (G B D) both use the crucial major 6th B note.

3. Dorian lead lick

It's easiest to get to grips with a scale or mode in a melodic lead line. Our Santana-style lick includes all the notes of the scale, starting and ending on the all-important major 6th B note to really bring out the Dorian vibe. Select a neck pickup and dial in some valve drive for an authentic tone.

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