Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Use of Modes


Does anyone ever use modes while playing banjo? If so, how? Can someone explain their purpose? I ask, because I’m totally fascinated with music theory though I’ve much to learn.

I believe we play in Ionian mode, and there are several other modes such as mixolidian and phrygian, but I know little else about them.


I’ve asked this question to several pros that I respect. The answer is almost unanimously “don’t bother.” I say “almost” because A - anything you can learn about theory is good and B - they’re good tools to help you build breaks.

Disclaimer - I know almost nothing about modes.


Not relating specifically to banjo… It all depends on how you think. For particular advanced players it can be really helpful. For the vast majority of folks I have met, modes don’t get any thought. The most basic and yet most helpful tidbit I have learned regarding modes is that the a major scale and relative minor scale contain the same notes. So, this time of year someone wants to play “Mary did you know” in the key of A minor… need a solo, what notes do you even use? The key of A minor is the relative minor of C, so notes from the C major scale would be “safe” to use until you find your footing. Doing “What child is this” in E minor? Just use your handy G major scale notes. Now for me, I don’t think in modes, so I don’t think about the fancy words (Ionian and Aeolian). To me, they are just G major and (the relative minor) E minor.

This is not to disparage the “fancy words.” For folks that stretch beyond my way of thinking, the fancy words describe scales that go beyond my normal use. And for folks that use those scales, the “fancy words” provide a common, convenient way to describe them.

So, pretty much what Mark said :slight_smile:


Thanks Mark and Mike,

Your wise counsel is always appreciated. :+1:


About modes, they are tools like any other musical tool. For example, if you were to play jazz banjo…

… then knowing your modes and how to use them is nearly a requirement. And if you are to play tunes that step easily in and out of various keys from measure to measure, then the knowledge of modes is essential.

As for the Mixolydian mode, it is widely used to solo over V7 chords (Dominant 7th chords). As an example, in the bridge of the tune “I Got Rhythm”, the chord progression is D7, G7, C7, F7 resolving back to the key of Bb major. Over each “7” chord, you would play the corresponding Mixolydian scale (ie. D Mixolydian over D7, G Mixolydian over G7 and so on). In addition, the Mixolydian scale is a wonderful tool for playing over a static Dominant 7th chord in a funk or blues style.

So in this way, each of the modes has their own function in music. If you would like more information, I can send you a copy of the mode section of my book on the subject of modern music theory. It is written mostly for guitar, but the theory translates to any instrument. Just PM me.


I’d love it!

Sorry for the slow reply Ben; just finished a 7 day work week so I haven’t been by lately. Click here for a PDF of the Contemporary Theory Book text.

In all fairness, I wrote this 20+ years ago over the course of a month. I use it as a visual aid for students and not as a “book” per se. There are countless grammatical errors and much I have learned since then (I hadn’t even started to think about playing bluegrass back then).


Thanks so much! I’ll have a look at it when I get done with these pain meds :wink:

I have two modes when playing:

Slow and slower! :joy::joy:

Wow, Not my taste in music but that sure is pretty amazing banjo pickin.

Nice. Thanks for posting!