Unlocking Dorian Mode

Modes can be a confusing topic to tackle.  I’ve seen many guitarists who think they understand the concept, actually have it a little mixed up in their mind.  Many people are confused by the formal definition of the Dorian mode. I will start with this definition, but after I will show you an easier way to think about the idea, which I think is helpful.

The Definition

The Dorian Mode is derived by taking the major scale and playing it from its second degree up to its second degree.  For example, if you take the C Major scale ( C D E F G A B C ) , start at its 2nd degree (D), and play it up to its 2nd degree, you come up with D E F G A B C D, which gives you D Dorian.  So likewise A Dorian (A B C D E F# G A ) is formed by playing G Major ( G A B C D E F# G ) starting on the 2nd degree and so on.  This is the method for finding what notes make up the dorian mode.

The Mistake

I’ve found that the mistake that most people make when it comes to modes is that they understand what notes the mode is made up of, but they fail to make the correct note the tonal center of whatever they are playing.  For example, if someone wanted to try to play something in D Dorian, they would play something using the quote-unquote “dorian position” of the major scale. This would in fact give them the correct notes, but unless they make the tonal center of the piece D, they would still, most likely, be playing in C major.  The concept most people don’t grasp right away is that while you can be using the notes of the Dorian mode, you still can be in the relative major key.

The Correction

One way to get around this problem is to think about the Dorian mode in a different way. Instead of thinking of it as the major scale starting on the 2nd scale degree, think of it as a minor scale with a raised 6th degree. I think that the minor’s 6th can clash with a lot of chord progressions.  In my opinion the Dorian mode is much more ambiguous and bluesy. Shown below is a typical fingering position for a minor scale along with that same position with a raised 6th that then becomes Dorian.  


Note the similarities between the two.  Now try experimenting with the Dorian mode.  Play something that you know using the minor scale and make it fit into the Dorian mold. 

Linear Dorian

Instead of playing in one position, you can play the dorian mode on one string in a linear pattern.  This can be very helpful when trying to find ways to use the “dorian sound”.  I’ve covered a good example of this in a previous lesson. Try playing the riff to In the Presence of Enemies, which is in D Dorian.

Dorian Mode in Blues

The Dorian Mode can be given a bluesy kick by adding a flat 5th to the scale.  This gives you what I like to call a hybrid dorian-blues scale.

DB Scale

Using this scale you can come up with some pretty fresh blues licks. Also since the scale has got an easy 1-3-4 pattern on the first 3 strings you can also come up with some rapid fire runs.  An example of this can be heard in the song Paradigm Shift by Liquid Tension Experiment.  Both the riff in the first few seconds and the one at about 1:16 use G Dorian with an added flat 5. A Guitar Pro tab for the song can be found here.

Backing Tracks

If anybody wants to practice all of this stuff with some backing tracks, drop me an email and I’ll be glad to send you some. I have the music in guitar pro and power tab I can’t post those files on here. My email is mdguitarteacher@gmail.com if you want the tracks or if you have any questions about the guitar.

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8 Responses

  1. Hi its really nice infomation, now i got clear to play and differentiating between these two….

  2. thanks for unlocking this cool sounding mode.. adding the flattened fifth with it is what they call the romanian minor or the fourth mode of the harmonic minor. ;)

  3. Thank you, that was helpful to talk about tonal center and not just memorized notes for dorian

  4. Nice content. I like the linear approach as well as thinking of the mode as b3 and nat 6. I think that serves the student better in the long run.

  5. Great explanation! I realize what my jam buddy means when he said sometimes I sound like Jerry Garcia. Jerry must’ve played this mode a lot because I now recognize it.

    Thanks for taking the time to post this and happy jamming!

  6. this is my favorite mode of all because it allows the guitar palyer to express his passion in music. can you give some sample riffs for this mode?

  7. Awesome!!! Thank you very much man.

  8. You write: “The Dorian Mode is derived by taking the major scale and playing it from its second degree up to its second degree.” However, I would think things became even clearer if you had written ‘from its second degree to its ninth degree’. Playing a scale from its 2nd degree to its 2nd degree actually results in sounding a perfect unison interval.

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