A lot of players and students alike are always asking me about the “modes” when it comes to learning, and while it is of course, a legit way to acquire musical knowledge, I have certain bones to pick with the whole concept as well as approach.
First of all, the idea of a “mode” already over-intellectualizes music in general, and is one of those things that are better off learned after one has already gotten a good foundation in playing, and in how things should really sound! What this means to me is that if you are literally “overloaded” with this kind of knowledge too early on in your development you will often have to “think too much” before even setting your fingers to a string, and that just is not right. One must first really be able to “hear” what the concept of a “mode” is all about as well as what it creates from a musical standpoint before actually taking the mode concept apart. Only with that foundation of knowledge would you ever be able to make the modes truly apply to your style.
In my many years of producing instructional tapes for my company Hot Licks, I recorded many Jazz titans of the guitar, such as Joe Pass, Emily Remler and Jimmy Bruno, and none of them ever mentioned the modes as a means of improvisation. For those of us who are largely self-taught and who play by ear and by heart, the mode approach represents the ultimate in a cold, dry and emotionless approach to music that we truly find un-appealing.
I prefer the natural approach to hearing and improvising, which involves a great deal of seeing the neck in various shapes, and being able to truly hear the effect that any mode-like addition of a note actually means to the solo or song you are playing. If you can then wrap your head around the concept and that special sound you are creating, you can then “translate” that to a “mode” way of hearing and understanding. I often like the idea of working within the pentatonic approach, both minor and major, and then adding some of the key “passing” as well as “outside” notes that can be real “ear twisters” that give birth to thousands of new improvising ideas. It’s so important to practice this way, and to try to find the new notes and ideas on your own. If you learn this stuff the hard way, as I did, it certainly “sticks” to you much more, since the learning was done in a way where you had to find the licks, the notes and the ideas on your own. In the end, no matter how much you may learn from others, you are still the final judge, and the one who really teaches themselves! Keep that important fact in mind, and then one day the “modes” will mean that much more to you, and you’ll be a far more complete player!