At BeginnerGuitarHQ, it’s our mission to teach you how to play the guitar as well as possible. One of the most important parts of a guitarists toolbox is the humble scale. You’ve probably become rather used to standard major and minor scales, but were you aware of the basically endless possibilities modes afford you? They can change the tone, style and feel of your playing with just one unexpected note.
In this important guide, I’ll be explaining how you can use the Locrian mode within your guitar playing.
If you’re on the lookout for a way to spice up your melodies, chords and improvisation look no further than this useful guide.
What Is A Mode?
The most important first thing to be aware of when approaching the Locrian mode, is what a mode actually is. Technically, the term ‘key’ only applies to diatonic music. As such, you can have your major and minor keys and be diatonic to them (that is, stay within them when playing), but you can’t really use the term diatonic to refer to a mode. A mode is, to all intents and purposes, however, basically the same as a key. You’d very rarely see the notes of the mode written out in a key signature, but they’re basically the same thing, just with more possibilities.
There Are A Lot Of Modes
Today, we’re looking at the Locrian mode (which we’ll get to in a moment) but there are hundreds more modes in existence. One way to look at modes is to imagine a piano. The white notes from C-C make a simple C major scale. Move down to B, and if you simply go from B-B without hitting a black note, you’ll be playing the Locrian mode. Now remember that there is a minor scale equivalent (so the equivalent of having the same approach, but with the C minor scale as your basis), and a harmonic minor scale equivalent, and melodic minor, and all of the modes, and all of their variants. It basically goes on forever, but you don’t need to worry about that. For now, you just need to worry about the Locrian mode.
And What Is The Locrian Mode?
The Locrian mode is, in its purest form, the white notes from B-B. This means that a B Locrian scale is B, C D, E, F, G, A. Obviously, this is the enharmonic equivalent of C major, so the notes are exactly the same; it’s the way you use the scale that changes things. One important thing to remember about the Locrian mode is how rare it is. You’ll almost never see it in use, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly effective.
The most important notes in the B Locrian scale are:
- B. The B note is the root note of your mode. This means that this is where your scale will feel final. If you’re using the Locrian mode, then (no matter how strange the scale is) your point of finality should be the root note.
- C. The C is the first of two notes that really give the Locrian its trademark darkness. Rather than the majority of scales where you would move up by a major second to reach the next note, the very first interval in the Locrian mode is a minor second.
- D. After the jarring darkness of the opening movement in the scale, the minor third seems a little redundant. This mode is obviously incredibly dark, so the revelation that it has a minor third in the middle shouldn’t be that shocking, but it is helpful in reminding you that this is a minor mode.
- F. The F is the other important note used to remind you that you are in the darkest mode available. There are no other natural modes that have a diminished fifth by default, so the presence of this tritone above the tonic means that your root chord is a diminished triad. This is perhaps why the Locrian is so rarely used in full.
So remember: B, C, D, E, F, G, A
B Locrian Mode
Transposing The Locrian Mode
Moving The Locrian Mode To C
While looking at the Locrian mode in its most simple formulation gives us the simplicity of the B, C, E, E, F, G, A scale mentioned above, it isn’t as though the Locrian mode can’t be moved to every single other note.
We can start with the C Locrian mode, which brings the D Locrian down by a major second. This means the C Locrian is made up of the notes C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb. We’ll now focus the rest of this guide around the C Locrian mode for simplicity, but remember that it can be moved to any note you need via transposition.
C Locrian Mode.
Moving The Locrian Mode To Every Other Note
The easiest (but longest) way to do this is to simply look at the notes, and move every single one of them up by the amount necessary to reach the new tonic. For example, if you’re starting on C and want to play the Eb Locrian, then you need to move every note up by a minor 3rd. Take the Db and move to an Fb, the Eb to a Gb, the F to an Ab. Keep going until you’re in the new correct place.
The second way, which is quicker but a little more complex, is the preferred method which will benefit your theoretical understanding of the mode as well as your use of it. You’ll need to remember the interval pattern of the Locrian mode:
Semitone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone.
Now you can use this anywhere you want. To create the E Locrian scale, for example, start with that movement of one semitone: E – F. Then add two tones to take you to G and A. Then move by one semitone to include that tritone Bb. The final three tones takes you through C and D before finally landing back on your tonic.
Apply this same logic to any note you may need to use, and you have a basic understanding of how to form the Locrian mode anywhere you want, and can start to use it in melodies.
Using The Locrian Mode In Melody
Avoid: Remaining Locrian For No Real Reason
The thing with the Locrian mode is that it is weird. Very, very weird. You’ll be incredibly hard pushed to find a nice, listenable pop song that remains in the Locrian mode throughout. If you’re trying to craft a ballad with an emotional melody, then the Locrian simply isn’t for you. If you have a little moment of chromatic genius using it, then great, but trying to figure out a way to remain Locrian afterwards just isn’t going to help what you’re going for.
If you’re using the Locrian in the way you’re most likely to see it used (for effect in a dramatic film score, or to show a particularly dramatic, negative emotion in a song) then that’s an entirely different matter. However, you’ll still do well to remember that you don’t have to remain in one mode. If a non-Locrian note sounds better, just use it.
Do: Use It In Jazz Improvisation
The one thing that the Locrian can lend itself very well to without sounding completely manic and out of place is jazz improvisation. Obviously, if you’re just playing along with some nice Frank Sinatra then the Locrian is probably best avoided, but things like free jazz or an experimental work like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew can handle such a chromatic mode quite well.
Throwing in that opening minor 2nd can really set the tone for your solo, and leaving things open ended by using a tritone in place of the fifth in your scale will give you the edge to stand out. If you’re in a band and you’re all exchanging solos, using the Locrian is going to give you the edge to stand out.
Do: Use Its Darkness
The whole point in the existence of the Locrian scale is that it is entrenched in natural darkness. Through its multitude of flattened notes, it is the darkest mode that exists naturally from the major scale. It has the minor third to kick things off, but the minor sixth, minor second and diminished fifth basically means it covers darkness from every possible angle.
If you aren’t making sure that darkness is the main thing you’re trying to convey in your use of the Locrian then you’re doing it wrong, because you pretty much can’t get brightness out of it. The Locrian mode is particularly helpful in composition to some sort of dramatic source; imagine you’re scoring a horror film. The use of the Locrian (no matter which way you use it) is always going to support the idea of darkness, tension and horror.
Use the mode’s natural darkness
Do: Emphasise The Tritone
Speaking of darkness, the first of two important intervals in the Locrian mode is the tritone above the tonic. While pretty much every mode has a tritone somewhere, very few of them include the tritone above the tonic, and none of them replace the fifth above the tonic with its diminished brother. As such, it is this intervals that helps to define the mode.
While there are many notes you can use to suggest to your listener that you’re using the Locrian mode, none of them are going to confirm it with as much clarity as the tritone. Moving from the tonic to the diminished fifth while avoiding the natural fifth is going to suggest an unstable sense of tonality: if you’re using the Locrian, then this is what you want to achieve. The tone of your playing will be creepy and mysterious, and if you’re playing with some heavy distortion, it can sound truly aggressive.
Do: Emphasise The Minor 2nd
The presence of the minor second is just about as important as the tritone. However, remember that the Phrygian mode is also built on a prominent minor second, so don’t let this one try to keep the Locrian tone on its own.
As mentioned above, the use of this interval is going to give off an idea of stability that an audience can’t associate to a major or a minor scale, so they’ll know something else is going on tonally. I also mentioned distortion above. Metal music in particular is known for its overt use of minor second intervals, as they give off the feeling of aggression and power than many of the heaviest subgenres aim to bring to the foreground.
Use The Minor 2nd
Avoid: Accidental Modulation Through Melody
One of the issues with the Locrian mode is simply how unstable and unreliable it is as scale. Because the idea of using a diminished fifth and a minor second promotes such an unclear tonic, it’ll prove incredibly difficult to make your use of the Locrian mode actually sound ‘final’ when it reaches its tonic.
There are a couple of ways around this. The first is simply not to try and make it final. If you’re using the Locrian in the first place, you probably want instability. Maybe just don’t attempt to resolve anything? The second is to start to avoid the most-Locrian intervals as you’re approaching the resolution. A descent from the fourth to the minor third to the tonic is a normal movement that implies a standard minor key, while technically remaining Locrian.
Using The Locrian Mode In Harmony
Avoid: Accidental Modulation Through Harmony
Just like the above, accidental modulation can happen through harmony too. Interestingly, the Locrian mode isn’t typically the type of mode you’d harmonise with rigid commitment to the mode, you’d borrow (which we’ll get to in a moment) frequently. However, if you are using the Locrian for harmony too, then there are a couple of ways to avoid accidental modulation.
The first is based on which chords you should avoid. The flattened second, for example, is very rarely going to allow your tonic to sound like the final note of the scale. The easiest way to confirm any key is via a perfect cadence (V-I), but that doesn’t really exist here, as the chord V is naturally flattened and would never sound final.
The one way that has the most chance of being able to make your Locrian tonal centre sound final is through the use of chord IV. The fourth is the only non-flattened interval in the scale and a lot of music reaches its end-point via a IV-I cadence- try that here. Remember, however, that your tonic triad is diminished naturally. Omitting the fifth when resolving will avoid that dissonance.
Do: Create Dissonances With It
Even if the Locrian mode sounds like a terrifying, unusable prospect, one of the best things it can provide you is a wealth of dissonances. If you’re aiming to stretch your ability to play some truly crunchy guitar chords, then this is the scale to use. For example, the tonic chord is naturally diminished, but try adding a seventh and ninth above. You’ve got a Cdimm7b9 chord (C-Eb-Gb-Bb-Db). The major equivalent of this is simply Cmaj9 (C-E-G-B-D), which is dissonant but in a very different way.
Of course, beyond the wealth of additions you can make to the tonic chord, there are a variety of natural dissonances lurking around the mode. One of the most interesting is the simplicity of the dissonance on chord VII (normally the most volatile chord in any scale). In the Locrian mode, chord VII with a seventh above it is simply Bbm7.
Use Dissonant Chords
Do: Borrow Chord From Other Modes While Using It
As I’ve mentioned a variety of times above, the Locrian mode isn’t something you stick to rigidly. If you’ve got a chord sequence that happens to lurk around a Locrian sound, then great, but just be aware that the likelihood of it working consistently throughout an entire song is very small. As such, you can make use of modal borrowing.
This is the idea of using one mode as your basis, and then taking chords that are more associated with the sound of a different mode. For example, you could start with a Cdim chord in the Locrian mode, but you might want to use a simple chord II next. Left diatonically Locrian, this would be Db, but if you borrowed from the Lydian temporarily, you could use a simple D chord, thanks to its major second, major sixth and augmented fourth.
Do: Borrow Chords From The Locrian Mode
Just like you can take chords from other modes into a Locrian piece, you can take chords from the Locrian into a non-Locrian setting. This might actually be the most common way the Locrian scale is used, as composers will write just a very small section of a work in the mode before moving back away from it.
For example, you might be playing in a very simple C major but want to create a dissonant, unresolved feeling all of sudden. You could borrow the diminished chord V (Gb-Bb-Db) from the Locrian mode, and move straight back to C major.
Do: Use The Diminished Tonic Chord For Effect
While the diminished tonic chord isn’t going to sound final or ‘normal’ in a pop song, there are a million ways you can use it for effect without accessibility in mind. For example, an extreme metal song. Most tracks you hear from bands like Cannibal Corpse aren’t trying to leave you with a catchy melody. They want to create the heaviest, most aggressive sound possible, and leaving their tonic chord diminished is going to do exactly that.
Similarly, the idea of film scoring is something it is easy to return to with the Locrian mode. Anything cinematic, with high levels of emotional tension will be heightened by the use of such a dramatic, dissonant mode. Imagine a horror film jump scare that plays a nice, resolving cadence; it wouldn’t work. Replace that with a shimmering, crunchy diminished chord and everything makes a lot more sense.
Use the diminished tonic
Avoid: Accidentally Trying To Use The Tonic Chord With Consonance
Taking the above into account, don’t attempt to use the diminished tonic chord with a consonant sound in mind, because it simply won’t work. The very presence of a tritone is always, without fail, going to sound dissonant. Attempting to resolve to a chord with a tritone in it isn’t a resolution, it just sets up another movement to a different chord that wants to resolve.
As suggested above, the only way to truly give the tonic in the Locrian mode a feeling of finality is to just take the diminished interval out altogether.
Examples Of The Locrian Mode In Use
- Rational Gaze- Meshuggah. I’ve mentioned extreme metal multiple times through this guide, and here is the proof of its presence in heavy metal. There a countless examples across the genre that use the mode for its dissonance, but ‘Rational Gaze’ is perhaps the best option simply because it shows off the pure intensity and heaviness that comes with the Locrian riff. Meshuggah are known for writing some of the heaviest songs ever, while combining an incredibly intricate level of technical skill. This track opens with the guitars each using the Locrian mode (focusing in on those minor second and diminished fifth intervals for extra intensity), but this use of tonality is used within a 25/16 time signature against the 4/4 of the drum kit. Complexity and heaviness from every angle is the most Meshuggah-esque approach possible.
- Claude Debussy- Jeux. Claude Debussy is a classical composer known for his engagement with some truly bizarre extremes of tonality, many of which could barely be analysed in traditional term. His ballet Jeax is a good example of compositional prowess, but even he couldn’t figure out a way to keep a piece consistently Locrian throughout. This ballet uses the Locrian just three times throughout, but those moments are notable for their extreme darkness. One of the most interesting things about his use of the mode is how it appears just after the Dorian mode, employing a technical called ‘modal darkening’. This effectively means that modes are used one after another to slowly introduce darker intervals.
- Dust To Dust- John Kirkpatrick. One of the most interesting uses of the Locrian mode comes from folk singer John Kirkpatrick. His song ‘Dust To Dust’ is completely unaccompanied, allowing just his voice (which is impressive in itself) to explore the Locrian mode. Despite sounding on the surface like a traditional folk melody, the unexpected intervals add a very unique flair to the sound of the recording. Despite the unconventional sound, this track is a good representation of the Locrian mode used to perfection, with his voice being able to bring those final notes to a resolution, despite the presence of both the minor second and the diminished fifth.
Different Types Of The Locrian Mode
- Locrian Natural 13. This version of the Locrian mode does exactly what it says. It is the second mode of the harmonic minor scale and is built on notes that pretty much make up the Locrian mode as you’d expect it, the only difference being that the 13th (or 6th) interval of the mode is raised. While the normal scale would have a minor 6th, this one is very slightly brightened by a major 6th. In C Locrian, for example, this would mean an A natural replaced the Ab. The one thing to be very careful of when using the Locrian Natural 13 is that you don’t accidentally turn the raised sixth into a leading note that forces you to modulate into the key of the seventh note of the mode.
- Major Locrian. The major Locrian remains a ‘Locrian’ scale in name, but many of its most valuable assets are missing from this version. While the diminished fifth (the most Locrian interval of all) remains alongside the minor sixth and minor seventh, its major feeling comes from the opening notes of the scale. The minor second and minor third are replaced by their major equivalents, which means that the first four notes of the scale are exactly the same as a standard major scale. The other interesting implication that this scale brings around is that aside from the perfect fourth in the middle, the scale is exactly the same as a whole-tone scale.
- Altered Scale. The so-called Altered scale is probably the strangest scale in music. The scale is defined by the idea that all ‘non-essential’ tones have been ‘altered’. The dominant seventh chord is the focal point of the scale, meaning that the tonic (C), the major 3rd (E) and the minor seventh (Bb) remain intact, while every other note exists in a variety of strange forms. The second is both flattened and sharpened (Db and D#), the fourth is sharpened (F#) and the sixth is flattened (Ab). This makes the following scale: C, Db, D#, E, F#, Ab, Bb. The reason it remains related to the Locrian is because of the flattened second and the lack of fifth (but presence of the tritone above the tonic).
The Locrian mode is the least accessible of all of the natural, common modes and the least used. There is a good reason for that: it is dissonant and unreliable. It simply sounds weird most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a use in certain situations. The biggest takeaway points about the Locrian are:
- Use it for its strangeness. In most situations, the Locrian can be harnessed for its ability to create incredible darkness and dissonance. Whether this is in metal, film scoring or just a particularly emotive part of a ‘normal’ song.
- Borrow chords from the Locrian. It’s incredibly hard to write an entire piece in which the harmony is exclusively derived from the mode, but there are a variety of very cool chords within that can be plucked out an used elsewhere.
- Engage with some of its related scales. The Locrian might seem about as dissonant and inaccessible as a mode can get, but things like the Altered scale give you an even more bizarre series of notes to take advantage of.