The Dorian Mode: Jazz Tones for Rock Guitar

In this lesson, delve into the colors, techniques and applications of this moody minor mode.
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In the world of minor-key soloing, the Dorian mode runs neck and neck with its closest seven-note competitor, the natural minor scale, a.k.a. the Aeolian mode). With its bluesy major 6th scale degree, Dorian is a smooth alternative to the often melodramatic, “heavier” Aeolian tonality. Ubiquitous in jazz, the Dorian mode is equally at home in blues, rock and Latin styles.

The Dorian mode can be heard in use on the solos of songs like Santana’s “Evil Ways and” “Oye Como Va,” the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Van Morrison’s”Moondance,” and America’s “Horse with No Name,” to mention a few. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson also have used Dorian from time to time, and Jimmy Page would often venture into the mode via his use of slurs that gave his licks and solos are Dorian tonality.

In this lesson, we’ll delve into the colors, techniques and applications of this moody minor mode.


Dorian is the second mode of the major scale (Ionian mode). Take the C major scale (C D E F G A B), position the second note (D) as the root, and you have a new scale: D Dorian (D E F G A B C). This new scale results “magically” from changing the inter­vallic formula. The major-scale formula is W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W = whole step; H = half step), and the Dorian mode is W-H-W-W-W-H-W. In scale steps, this translates to l-2-b3-4-5-6-b7, with the b3rd classifying it as a minor scale and the natural 6th distinguishing it from Aeolian (natural minor: l-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7).

You can use the Dorian mode in many situations, but certain rules apply. Since it is the second mode of the major scale, it aligns with the second chord in the major scale. So, in major-key progressions, you can use Dorian when you encounter a ii chord (G Dorian over a Gm7 chord in the key of F). In minor keys, Dorian is the diatonic scale choice for the iv chord (A Dorian over the Am chord in the key of E minor).

Dorian is logically the scale choice for Dorian progressions (chords harmonized from the Dorian mode). Some common changes are i-IV, i-ii, i-bVII-IY, and i-ii-bIII. It's also common practice to superimpose Dorian over dominant 7th chords (E Dorian over E7) and to juggle it with other minor scales (Aeolian, harmonic minor, melodic minor and so on) over i-chord vamps.


FIGURE 1 depicts five fingering patterns of Dorian that can be transposed to any key. Simply slide the chosen pattern along the neck until the roots (white dots) align with the root of the Dorian mode you wish to play. For instance, when you place the second pattern at the 3rd fret, you get G Dorian. Incidentally, if you play all five patterns along the neck in one key, you'll find that they fall in order along the neck, making the entire fretboard a mega-Dorian pattern.


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Play through these patterns one by one, making sure to start and stop often on the roots. This will ensure that you get the “Dorian flavor” from each one. (Remember, each pattern is relative to—that is, it shares the same notes as—the six other modes of the major scale.) Pay special attention to the location and the sound of the 6th degree. This is the differentiating scale degree of Dorian-or the note that sets it apart from the other minor modes of the major scale (Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian). An excellent way to hear the "color" of the mode is to play a Dorian-type chord immediately before and after you play the scale. Am6, Am7, Am9, and Amll are all solid choices for the A Dorian mode.

Once you get an entire pattern under your fingers, try breaking it up into smaller sections of one octave or less. FIGURE 2 is an example of isolating a one-octave section (above and below the root) of the fourth pattern in FIGURE 1. Try this method with other sections of each pattern, but make sure you use the root as the pitch axis-the central note of your melodies.


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Don't forget to employ scale sequences in your Dorian practice. FIGURE 3 is an example of a diatonic-3rds sequence in E Dorian. Groups of four and three are also popular candidates.


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Another useful practice routine is to juggle parallel scale patterns. For example, ascend the C Dorian scale and descend the C minor pentatonic scale (or vice versa); or ascend one octave of C Dorian and complete the second octave in C Aeolian. The options are limitless, and the payoff is bountiful.

One way to fashion new licks is to modify your old ones. For example, strip away the 2nd and 6th degrees of the Dorian mode and you uncover its skeletal framework—the minor pentatonic scale (1-b3-4-5-b7). With this in mind, you can give your minor pentatonic phrases a Dorian overhaul simply by tacking on a 6th and/or 2nd (9th) degree. FIGURE 4 il­lustrates this method with a G minor pentatonic-based (G-Bb-C-D-F) lick seasoned with Dorian highlights: the 6th (E) and 9th (A).


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To really cash in on the Dorian mode, you'll need to concentrate on certain notes, specifically, the 6th degree. FIGURE 5, drawn from the third pattern in FIGURE 1, employs bending maneuvers to emphasize not only the 6th degree but also several other crucial F Dorian notes: the 6th (D), b7th (Eb), 9th (G) and b3rd (Ab).


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FIGURE 6 places C Dorian (C-D-Eb-F­ G-A-Bb) in its diatonic setting-over the ii chord (Cm7) in a ii-V-I progres­sion in Bb major. Carved from the fourth pattern in FIGURE 1, the line scatters all of the notes of C Dorian in an arpeggiated fashion. An F7 arpeggio drapes the V chord (F7), and the line resolves on the 3rd (D) of Bbmaj7.


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Finally, FIGURE 7 is a greasy phrase based on diatonic 6th intervals harmonized from A Dorian (A-B-C-D-E-F#-G).


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Now let's put some of these patterns, licks, and concepts to work in an improvisa­tional setting.


This 24-bar Dorian-based solo, FIGURE 8, is equal parts blues, rock and jazz. It's a 12-bar form, repeated once, and featur­ing a chord progression loosely based on i-iv-V blues changes in the key of C minor.

Right out of the gate, the opening phrase announces the Dorian theme that maintains throughout the entire solo. It's a cycled bend/release move comprising the 6th (A) and b7th (Bb) degrees of C Dorian (C-D-EF-G-A-Bb).

Just in case there were any doubts about the tonality, the answering phrase (measure 2) rides each and every note of C Dorian. All this activity is right on the money with the underlying harmony (i-ii-biii-ii), which is harmonized from C Dorian. The har­mony of the next two measures is the same except for the Bb/C. Since this chord is also diatonic to C Dorian, we'll stay with the mode and throw in a couple of slid­ing double-stop moves.

Measure 5 brings the iv chord change, but like the previous measures it's actu­ally a mini-progression based on the chord itself. Reflecting bars 3 and 4 in reverse order and in a new key, the har­mony now draws from F Dorian (F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb). Our solo follows suit, forging a slippery path up and down the F Dorian mode via the fourth and fifth patterns from FIGURE 1. With a resolving C note (5th of F Dorian and root of C Dorian) we return to C Dorian in meas­ure 7, both in the harmony and in the ensuing lines (courtesy of the first pattern in Fig. 1).

At measure 9, an F/G (suggesting G9sus4) and a 3rd-inversion (7th in the bass) G7 chord break us out of our Dorian reverie. Glancing ahead, the next measure mirrors these changes, down a whole step. Rising to the challenge, a G minor 3rd/major 3rd set of bends takes on bar 9, and a bluesy excursion down C Dorian weathers the storm in bar 10. After a breath of air, an aggressive C Dorian/ blues hybrid (C Dorian mixed with the C blues scale: C-D-E-F-Gb-Bb) lick handles the i-V7 turnaround in measure 12.

As we move into the second chorus of the solo, it's time to turn up the heat. So far we've been relying on call-and­-response phrasing to shape our Dorian solo. Let's forgo that for the moment and go for some plain-old flash.

The C Dorian phrase in measure 14 stirs things up with an accented diatonic 3rds sequence (see FIGURE 3) that culminates in a sneaky set of bends. Measure 16 goes a step further with a bebop-inspired passage that sails over the shuffle groove in a burning 16th-note climb up the C Dorian/blues hybrid scale. Going for broke, measure 18 puts a cap on the one-upmanship with a sizzling sequenced descent down carefully selected notes from C Aeolian. Take heart—careful analysis of this last lick reveals it’s much easier than it looks.

Easing down on the brakes, a sliding set of diatonic 6ths intervals from C Dorian (see FIGURE 7) and a quirky G minor 3rd/ major 3rd lick cool things off in measures 19–21, and the solo goes out on a succession of bluesy, C Dorian phrases.


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