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Inside the Lydian Mode

11.29.2012 Les Paul

I have a few favorite scales. Hirajoshi is a pretty great one because it allows you to tap into those Japanese-inspired Jason Becker licks, and it's full of really wide intervallic leaps as well as close clusters of notes. The Minor Blues scale is also a lot of fun because it allows you to blues-up your rock licks, rock up your blues licks and even evil up your metal riffs, since it contains the famous ‘Diabolas In Musica' interval. Oh and the Whole Tone scale is endlessly entertaining because it never resolves in a way that's pleasing to Western ears: it feels like its constantly climbing, and it's great for building tension and for making truly seasick-sounding chords. But probably my all-time favorite scale is the Lydian mode. It's dreamy, it's mystical ...y'know in movies how whenever something magical or whimsical happens, there's a particular feel to the music? That's the Lydian mode in action.

Lydian is very similar to the Major scale, the only difference being that you adjust the fourth note of the scale upwards by a half step. The intervals of the major scale are:

Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

If you're new to intervallic thinking, 'Whole' means a whole step, which is equivalent to two frets; 'Half' is a half-step, equivalent to a distance of one fret. For instance, if you were to play the A Major scale starting on the fifth fret of the low E string, the frets would be.

5 7 9 10 12 14 16 17

In the Lydian mode we raise the fourth degree of the Major scale by a half step. Now the intervals are:

Whole Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Half

If we were to play the Lydian mode all on the low E string starting on A, it would be:

5 7 9 11 12 14 16 17

Incidentally, that's one thing that I really like about thinking of scales as a collection of intervals instead of as a fretboard pattern: once you've found your bearings it becomes really easy to play a scale anywhere on the neck. After a while the whole fretboard seems to magically open up, like some kind of fog has been lifted, and you'll find yourself becoming ultra-aware of the notes in your immediate vicinity. And as a bonus, it helps you to find your way around if you ever bust a string on stage!

Once you've messed around with the intervals as outlined above, try playing the Lydian mode in a three-note-per-string format. This is a great way of unlocking the personality of the Lydian mode because it lets you explore how it reacts in a legato context. It sounds great when you perform hammer-ons and pull-offs, it's gorgeous with slides, and all of the intervals are either one or two frets away from each other which means it's relatively easy to execute nice in-tune bends.

I've made a little demo track featuring the Lydian mode in action. Here it is:

All guitar parts are my Gibson Les Paul Traditional through Guitar Rig 4 amp modeling software. The lead guitar part you'll hear is just some Lydian-based improvisation where I try to throw in some slides and bends. The majority of the lead stuff here was performed without a pick, which I find is almost like pressing the 'instant Jeff Beck' button.

If you'd like to try your own Lydian musical extrapolations, here's an extended version of the backing track, with the lead guitar removed. Feel free to download and loop it.

There are plenty of different ways to approach this. When I'm exploring a new scale I like to set up little rules for myself to work within for a few bars. For example:

* Play only on one string for four bars.

* Play one note per string: no two consecutive notes are allowed to be on the same string.

* Sustain one note while hammering a few other notes on another string.

* Hold each note for an entire bar just to see what happens.

* Find the defining note of the scale (in Lydian's case it's the fourth note) and return to it at the end of each bar.

* Play a simple phrase on a single string then zip up an octave and play the same melody an octave higher. Then switch to the next string, play a few notes in that higher octave, then zoom back down to the original octave and play those notes again. This is a great way of writing complex-sounding leads with a real sense of movement and excitement.


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