How to Improvise on the Guitar with Mixolydian Mode
What Is the Mixolydian Mode?
First of all, don't worry about the long name. A lot of scales in music have long and technical sounding names which derive from music theory and the history of music in particular. Mode names originate from the Greek names of the scales used in plainsong and even earlier. Technically the mixolydian scale is the major scale with a flatted seventh which gives it a more mellow quality. It is frequently used in guitar improvisation particularly in blues and jazz and it is easy if you know the pentatonic scale. This page will show you a couple of tricks for using the mixolydian. I hope you enjoy it.
A Mixolydian Scale—Whole Fretboard
Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scale
The minor pentatonic is the most fundamental scale to master. It is very easy to improvise with as tricky notes (fourth and seventh) are not there to cause clashes with chords. The minor pentatonic easily converts into the blues scale we all know and love. The next illustration shows the minor pentatonic in the "box" position. You should know this before moving on.
You don't actually need to memorise all these notes if you don't want to - knowing the shape is more important. After all, when you start it in a different position the notes will be different too.
A Minor Pentatonic—5th Position
The Pentatonic and Blues Scales Over the Whole Fretboard
For the moment I am going to keep this in the key of A because this is probably the most guitar friendly key. With movable shapes you can cover virtually any key and go much deeper but A is a very good place to start. I am going to show you the whole fretboard version of the A minor pentatonic and the whole fretboard version of the A blues scale next. Ideally you would be familiar with 5 positions of the pentatonic too and that follows in a little while. When you use whole fretboard scales you can either move across or along the strings sliding in and out of different regions of the fretboard. Your anchor notes are A and E and if you know none of the others at least try to memorise those. In music theory terms they are called the Tonic and the Dominant and they give the key its character. I call them "anchor notes" because they are the notes that keep you safely in tune with the chords.
Whole Fretboard Versions of A Minor Pentatonic, A Blues, and A Mixolydian
Upbeat Backing Track for A Mixolydian and A Blues
Mixolydian Mode Has More Notes
The mixolydian mode has more notes because it is nearly the regular major scale. This could make it more difficult to use but if you relate it to the five pentatonic shapes we know and love it becomes much easier to play with.
My next two graphics show the five movable pentatonic shapes but to use the mixolydian mode correctly we have to go back to that "relative minor" thing I talked about last time. So, if using A mixolydian, we need to base it on F# minor pentatonic in order to get all the correct notes. No problem, that is just three frets back from the regular blues scale and of course you will need to change the "anchor notes".
To combine pentatonic and mixolydian scale correctly, move your shapes back three frets from the regular blues scale position.
Minor Pentatonic and Mixolydian Combined
To see how relative minors work with all this and play in any key centre, you can check my hub page on Moveable scales and chords if you haven't already. This explains about relative minors in detail and has a lot of helpful information.
Mixolydian Songs for Listening and Enjoying
I am not going to go into the arguments about modal songs, modal harmony and modal theory that guitar players love to indulge in or go into complicated scale theory. You can get that from a book and there are so many different "takes" on it. For me, modal harmony is whatever chord the scale produces and how you use them is open to a myriad of interpretations. Let's not make rock too rule bound folks. Instead let's enjoy the sound of the mixolydian scale wherever and however it raises its head. Here is a list of mixolydian-ish songs I compiled for your listening pleasure. Take a trip over to Youtube or raid your Dad's (or Grandad's or big brother's) collection of vinyls or CDs and just enjoy yourself.
- "Alright Now"–Free
- "Axis Bold as Love"—Jimi Hendrix
- "Back In Black"—AC/DC
- "Cherub Rock"—Smashing Pumpkins
- "China Cat Sunflower"—Grateful Dead
- "Cinnamon Girl"–Neil Young
- "Dark Star"—Grateful Dead
- "Dear Prudence"—Beatles
- "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"—Michael Jackson
- "Highway to Hell"—AC/DC
- "Hungry Like the Wolf"—Duran Duran
- "On Broadway"–George Benson
- "I Can't Explain"—The Who
- "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"—Rolling Stones
- "Juice"—Steve Vai
- "L.A. Woman"–The Doors
- "Louie Louie"—Kingsmen
- "Marquee Moon"–Television (Solo)
- "No Rain"—Blind Melon
- "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"—Beatles
- "Number of the Beast"—Iron Maiden
- "Old Joe Clark"
- "Seven Bridges Road"–The Eagles
- "She Moved Through the Fair"—Traditional
- "She Said She Said"—Beatles
- "She Sells Sanctuary"—The Cult (Verse)
- "Southern Cross"–CSNY
- "Stop"—Jane's Addiction
- "Summer Song"–Joe Satriani
- "Sweet Child of Mine"–Guns n Roses (Verse)
- "Sweet Home Alabama"–Lynyrd Skynyrd
- "Sympathy for the Devil"—Rolling Stones (goes in and out of blues scale too)
- "Thank You"—Led Zeppelin
- "Tones of Home"—Blind Melon
- "The Visitors"—ABBA
- "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"—Gordon Lightfoot