How to Harness the Powerfully Versatile Mixolydian Mode

Learn how to harness some of the harmonic and melodic sounds unique to this popular and exciting mode.
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The Mixolydian mode is a favorite among guitarists in a number of different genres. It’s constructed starting on the fifth degree of any major scale. For example, If you begin a C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) on the note G - without changing the order of the notes - you’ll produce G Mixolydian (G-A-B-C-D-E-F).

It may be easier, however, to think of this mode as a major scale whose 7th - F# of the G major scale - has been flatted a half step. This small adjustment adds a whole lot of attitude, which makes Mixolydian well suited to everything from the sassy riffs of southern rock to the extended improvisations of jam-band guitarists. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to harness some of the harmonic and melodic sounds unique to this popular and exciting mode.

Before jumping straight to the figures, you should first familiarize yourself with the basic harmony formed by the Mixolydian mode: I-ii-iii˚-IV-v-vi-bVII. Then, to hear the subtle, earthy effects of a Mixolydian-based progression in action, check out the G Mixolydian arpeggios of FIGURE 1. Bars 1 and 2 feature the common I-V (G-Cmaj7) change, but the true sound of Mixolydian comes through in bar 3, with the bVII (Fmaj7) chord. For the smoothest-sounding bass movement, keep your fret­ hand thumb wrapped around the 6th string’s 1st fret.


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Reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” but played in open-D and with a slide, FIGURE 2 provides a good example of Mixolydian’s rougher side. Check out the quick alternation between the I (D) and bVII (C) - it just doesn’t get much more rock and roll than this. To prevent unwanted string noise, pick the passage with your thumb and fingers while resting your palm over the unplayed strings. At the same time, lay your fret hand’s 1st finger down across all six strings behind the slide.


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Many great AC/DC licks and riffs come out of the Mixolydian mode, such as those in “Thunderstruck,” which inspired FIGURES 3A–B. After playing FIGURE 3’s E Mixolydian (E-F#­G#-A-B-C#-D) pull-off lick, move each D up a fret, to D#, to hear how syrupy sweet the line would sound if it were instead based on the E major scale. For the chords in FIGURE 3B, use your fret hand’s thumb to mute the low strings, especially during the jump from the low E5 to D5, on the fourth beat of bar 1.


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The Mixolydian mode, of course, yields the mighty dominant 7th chord (l-3-5-b7), a harmony fundamental to many Western styles. The distance between the chord’s 3rd and flatted 7th is a diminished 5th. This tense-­sounding interval is often called a “tritone.” FIGURE 4 is a funk riff that employs the tritone and makes use of dominant-chord extensions, like the 9th and 13th. As for your pick hand, maintain a continuous up/down 16th-note groove throughout, even during the rests and single-note fills.


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The next three figures delve into single­-note ideas that put the Mixolydian mode in a soloing context. FIGURE 5 starts out with a descending C major pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) that is sequenced into groups of four. In bar 2, a C7 (C-E-G-Bb) arpeggio spices things up with a bluesy Mixolydian vibe à la Dickey Betts. Using alternate picking here will help you soldier through the medium-­fast tempo.


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Aspiring jazzers who have yet to become acquainted with chromatic alterations often play boring Mixolydian licks over the V chord in a ii-V progression. But the Mixolydian mode can actually sound totally hip in this context, thanks to some fresh rhythmic phrasing, as seen in FIGURE 6. In bar 2, the A Mixolydian mode is broken up into progressively smaller rhythmic subdivisions: an eighth-note triplet on beat 1, 16th notes on beat 2 and, at last, 16th-note triplets on beats 3 and 4.


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Rock virtuosos like Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen often drop Mixolydian licks into their ripping solos. Inspired by these and other players, FIGURES 7A–C 1 will no doubt turn some heads when played at tempo. FIGURE 7A requires strict alternate picking, while FIGURE 7B makes use of the pick hand’s middle (m) finger for some hybrid picking. Finally, FIGURE 7C opts for a sweep-picking technique - be careful not to get tripped up on the 1-1/2-step bend at the 19th fret.


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