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Jazz Guitar Modes: Mastering the Dorian Scale

One thing any aspiring jazz guitarist should know is how to play in different modes. Playing modes isn’t too different from playing the pentatonic scale — there are only two extra notes. However, where those notes go varies from mode to mode.

It is highly recommended that you understand and have practiced the positions and patterns associated with the pentatonic scale and have also covered the basic major and minor scales, as the different modes have a close relationship with these scales. One of the most closely related modes to the major scale is the Dorian mode.

The Dorian mode uses the same pattern of intervals as the major scale (also known as the Ionian mode), but starts at the second note of its relative major. For example, D-Dorian uses the same notes with the same intervals as in C-major, but starts and ends on D rather than C.

So why is this distinction important? If you’re using the same notes, why treat D-Dorian any differently from C-major?

You can think of the distinction among modes similarly to the distinction between major and minor, themselves relative modes of one another. While C-major and A-minor, for example, use the same set of notes, there’s a distinct difference in the feel of each scale. This applies just as well with the Dorian mode.

By using D as the tonic (the root note of the scale), the same notes hit your ear with a completely different vibe, leading to a sound that feels like it’s somewhere in the middle of major and minor. This creates an opportunity to experiment with many distinct styles and sounds you wouldn’t be able to access by staying within the major and minor scales.

So how do you play the Dorian mode on guitar?

For a given mode (in this case, D-Dorian) you should start by practicing its relative major (in this case, C-major). This keeps things simple because everything you play will use the notes of C-major. After mastering this scale, move into the 2nd mode, Dorian. Play the same scale, but start from the second note (D) rather than the first (C). If you can’t quite hear the difference, it may be helpful to try playing over some backing tracks.

Luckily for anyone studying jazz online at ArtistWorks, there's many backing tracks available to students that establish D as the tonic while complementing its Dorian mode. Spend some time playing around with it, and of course as always - don't forget to have fun with it.

Once you get the hang of the Dorian scale, you’ll be well on your way to mastering all the great jazz guitar modes!


Dave Stryker can teach you all about the Dorian mode, plus everything else you need to know for playing jazz guitar. Click here for free sample lessons!