A Practical Explanation of Dorian Mode, Part 1
Every serious guitarist inevitably comes across modes as they hone their improvisational chops. Unfortunately, modes often confuse and in turn aren’t used very much because they aren’t understood. The goal of part 1 of this post is to simplify the Dorian mode, eliminating confusion while providing a few practice tips. Part 2 will explain why we use Dorian, and what chord progressions lead to Dorian being applicable.
First, notice the end of the previous paragraph. I referred to the Dorian mode as a scale. Why? Partly because I am already getting tired of typing D-o-r-i-a-n, but also because for us to use it when we improvise, we should think of it as just another scale—much like the major scale, and even more like the minor scale.
In fact, all Dorian really is at the most basic level is a minor scale with one “altered” note. In other words, we play a minor scale with one note raised—the 6th, by a half-step—and we have Dorian.
For example, if we play an A Minor scale, our notes would be A-B-C-D-E-F-G (exactly the same as C major, except starting on an A). To make this Dorian, just raise the 6th note by a half step: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G.
How do we use this in our playing? I will offer two suggestions, the latter being my mode of choice. Pun intended.
First, we can find a scale we already know containing all of the notes we now know make up the A Dorian scale. To save a bunch of guess-and-checking, I’ll go ahead and give it away: a G major scale has all of the same notes as A Dorian. The only difference is that to play a G major scale it is customary to start on G (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#). All the notes are the same, so one could simply play a G major scale over a chord progression we have deemed suited to Dorian, and all of the notes would probably sound OK. Just OK?
Yes, it would really only sound OK if we use the method above, because we aren’t really thinking of it in a way that benefits a guitarist, or anyone improvising for that matter. The reason is because if we use the above method, we aren’t really playing Dorian. If we just play a G major scale over a progression deemed “A Dorian,” we naturally accent strong notes in the G major scale because that is what we are used to doing. As a result, we do not accent important notes and we lose the overall Dorian feel.
I much prefer approaching Dorian (and all of the modes) a different way: by adding the “dorian notes” into a minor pentatonic scale.
For example, if we are told that using the A Dorian scale will sound good when soling over a certain progression, we should first remember that Dorian is a minor mode, and that the minor pentatonic scale sounds good over any minor mode (minor is actually a mode itself—aeolian). In other words, you can’t go wrong by using the A Minor Pentatonic over a progression where A Dorian would be appropriate. This is because the note that makes a minor scale different from a Dorian scale (the 6th) is not in a minor pentatonic scale—the minor pentatonic only takes the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes from a minor scale.
With this in mind, our first step when soling in A Dorian should be to locate your A Minor pentatonic scale shapes. From there, simply start on an A (perhaps the 5th fret on your low E string) and count up the pentatonic until you reach the 5th (A is 1, C is the 3rd, D is the 4th, and E is the 5th). To add the “Dorian note” simply add another note a whole-step up from the 5th. In the case of A Dorian, that note will be F#. We now have A-C-D-E-F#—all we need to do is add the 2nd, B (because it does not already occur in the minor pentatonic) and we have all of the same notes discussed in the first method. When using this method, your improvising will sound logical and organized, and Dorian becomes just another feel in the umbrella of minor.