How to Use the Mixolydian Mode

mixolydian

Mixolydian, one of the seven modes of the major scale, is also one of the most popular modes among guitarists across a wide variety of different genres. If you’re looking to take your rock, blues, and even jazz playing to the next level, the mixolydian mode is an essential tool that you can use.

However, learning how to use the mixolydian mode requires a bit of technical knowledge, particularly knowledge of basic modes and how to use them over different chord progressions. You’ll also want to have a firm grasp of playing basic scales — if you regularly practice your major scales, the mixolydian mode will be a lot easier for you to get used to!

This guide is designed to walk you through all of the most common ways that you can use the mixolydian mode in your playing. We’ll break down the basics of the scale, from how it’s constructed across the guitar neck to all of the ways that you can practice the scale in your warm-up routines. We’ll also take a look at the theory behind the mode, and analyze which chords it works great over.

Finally, we’ll also give some classic examples of famous guitar players using the mixolydian mode in their own playing, in order to help you get some ideas of how to incorporate it into your own improvisation. Let’s break it down and find out!

Basics of the Mixolydian Mode

The mixolydian mode is the fifth mode of the major scale — it’s constructed by taking the standard major scale and lowering the seventh note by a half step. That note creates a dominant seventh interval between the root and the final note of the mode. The dominant seventh interval is found in dominant seventh chords, which are frequently used in blues and rock songs. As we’ll discuss in further detail later, that’s part of what makes the mixolydian mode so popular to play with in these genres!

Because the mixolydian mode is only one note away from the standard major scale, it’s easy for most guitarists to get the hang of without too much extra effort! In order to practice this scale in your own routines, you’ll need to learn how to play it with the root note on both the fifth and the sixth strings. While these patterns are both very similar to the traditional major scale, they still require a bit of extra focus and attention to get under your fingers!

2 Sixth string root

The picture above displays the classic scale pattern for the mixolydian mode, with the root of the scale on the sixth string. As you can see, the only differences between the major scale and the mixolydian mode come at the seventh note of the scale form. Rather than the traditional major seventh, the mixolydian mode flattens the note by a half step to create a dominant seventh interval.

On the second octave of the scale, that flattened seventh is usually played on the second string, rather than the first string as usual. This fingering pattern makes it easier to play the scale without having to move your hand position, rather than playing the note on the first string.

But even though most guitarists play the seventh note on the second string, it’s not unheard of to simply move the note down a fret yet continue to play it on the first string. Ultimately, whatever method feels more comfortable for you is the way that you should play the mode.

Even if you play the seventh note on the second string, as is most common, it’s still a good idea to practice shifting your hand position and hitting the note on the first string as well. The more familiar you can get with playing that seventh note on both the second string and the first string, the more natural improvising over the mixolydian mode will feel. Opening up more ways to play the same notes makes it easier for you to always have the notes of the mode underneath your fingers, no matter what strings you’re improvising with.

3 fifth string root

This photo, on the other hand, is the same mixolydian mode played with the root on the fifth string, rather than the sixth string. While this is fundamentally the same scale, playing it from the fifth string root opens up an entirely new scale form — and with it, a new set of challenges to master.

Thankfully, even with the root on the fifth string, the mixolydian mode still mirrors the major scale. If you practice playing the major scale with a fifth string root, switching over to playing the mixolydian mode won’t take much time or practice at all. As long as you put a bit of effort into getting the differences between the two scales underneath your fingers, it’s easy and rewarding to play both of them.

Because this is fundamentally the same scale as the mixolydian mode from the root on the sixth string, it retains the exact same differences with the major scale. All you need to look out for is the flatted seventh note, which is the last note before the octave of both the major scale and the mixolydian mode scale form.

For the first octave of the scale played from the fifth string, you’ll need to make sure not to accidentally raise the seventh note to the standard major seventh found in the major scale. This isn’t a very difficult thing to get the hang of, but it does require that you pay attention throughout the time you practice the scale.

Because most players slide up from the octave note to play the second octave of the scale, it might be tempting to raise the seventh note to lead into that octave! Moving the seventh note one fret closer to the octave makes it a bit easier to slide into the second octave of the scale, because it keeps your hand closer together throughout the transition from first to second octaves.

However, as long as you keep your hand position straightened out, it’s not too much more difficult to play the flattened seventh note and preserve the mixolydian scale as it should be played. Just make sure to fret that note with your second finger (your middle finger) in order to keep your third and fourth fingers open for the slide to the second octave of that scale pattern.

The second octave of the scale from the fifth string root is much more intuitive for most guitarists to play. It’s the exact same form as the first octave of the scale from the sixth string — just make sure to lower the seventh note one fret before the highest octave of the two-octave scale form!

If you’re still struggling to play the Mixolydian mode on your guitar, this simple video might help you conceptualize the scale pattern more effectively. 

DNA of the Mixolydian Mode

As we’ve already discussed, the mixolydian mode gets most of its notes and overall structure from the standard major scale. This gives it a broadly happy feeling, without as much sadness or darkness to the sound as modes which more closely follow the pattern of the natural minor scale.

However, the flattened seventh introduces an element of tension to the sound. It’s not quite the happy, polished ending to the octave that the major scale has — instead, the mixolydian mode incorporates a bit more dissonance and darkness to the mixture. Many listeners think that the mixolydian mode sounds slightly mysterious, darker, or more “cloudy” than the major scale for these reasons. That’s one of the reasons why many of the most popular sad chords on guitar imply the Mixolydian mode!

In terms of structure, the mixolydian mode is a sort of cross between the major scale, with elements of some other minor-based scales incorporated as well. The dominant seventh note makes this mode look a bit more like the minor pentatonic scale, or the blues scale. While it still retains a lot of its DNA from the major scale, the extra influence of that flattened note makes it a great option to use to improvise over classic blues progressions. If you’re struggling with this try looking at our article on how to play the pentatonic scale for some tips.

This influence from the scales used in lots of blues and rock playing makes the mixolydian mode a great option to give a different feeling to your playing when you solo over progressions where you might normally use the minor pentatonic or blues scales. The extra notes in the mixolydian mode, compared to the minor pentatonic and blues scales, is another big plus.

That rock-heavy feeling also means that the Mixolydian mode comes up in many popular riffs. We’ll take a look at a couple of those riffs later on — but for more options, make sure to check out our article on 10 easy guitar riffs for beginners! Beyond that, you can look at our 15 easy guitar solos to learn for extra concepts to learn.

These additional notes allow you to fill out your sound with more color and nuance than you might be able to if you only used the minor pentatonic in your solo. While you can still incorporate passing notes and chromatic half-step notes to bend and slide to without leaving the blues scale, the sound is still a bit different than the mixolydian mode.

Because there aren’t as many notes in the minor pentatonic scale as there are in the mixolydian mode, the jumps between notes of the minor pentatonic scale are often a bit larger. This can lead to an angular sound, with sharper tones and more cutting, quick jumps between intervals along the scale.

The fewer notes also translates to fewer possibilities for you to use in your solo. If you only stick to the notes of the standard scale, without using any chromatic passing tones nearby, you might risk sounding generic, or even rudimentary when you solo. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of the minor pentatonic scale doesn’t help here. Because the scale is so common as an improvisational tool over so many different progressions, many listeners can pick out its distinctive sound and will recognize if you only solo using that scale throughout your entire improvisation.

The mixolydian mode, on the other side of the spectrum, is often played as a full scale form, with just as many notes as the traditional major scale. This gives you more options to play chromatic half-step intervals, as well as to make larger jumps without always landing on the same few notes. These extra notes at your disposal translate to more creative, unique solos that listeners are more likely to appreciate. Use these in tandem with our techniques on how to improve your guitar solos to see the best results.

If you’re looking for ways to incorporate the mixolydian mode into your playing, try it out by substituting it for the blues scale at the start. Because the two scale patterns are so similar, you can still use the parts of the mixolydian mode that look most like the minor pentatonic and blues scales anyways — just incorporate a few of the extra notes from the mixolydian scale at certain intervals to give your playing a bit of a new and unique influence.

This video from jazz guitarist Jens Larsen is a great resource to help you build jazz licks using the Mixolydian mode!

Playing the Mixolydian Mode in Other Styles

As you grow more comfortable using the mixolydian mode, you can begin to use it in other places, beyond just as a substitution for the minor pentatonic and blues scales. If you play jazz guitar often, that’s a great place to start using the mixolydian mode for its own sake — it’s a favorite scale pattern to play over ii-V-I chord progressions, which are some of the most common progressions in all of jazz.

To understand how you can use the mixolydian mode in these progressions, it’s a good idea to first understand the basics of ii-V-I chord changes. These stock progressions are called “ii-V-I sequences” (or often just “two-five-ones”) because they move from the second chord of a given key, to the fifth chord and finally to the root chord. If you want to play jazz guitar, these are absolutely essential to know — and the mixolydian mode is a key tool that you can use to help master them!

The mixolydian mode comes in handy because it’s the fifth mode of the major scale. With that in mind, it works great over the fifth chord of a given key. If you’re in the key of E, for example, the fifth chord of the key would be a B major chord (often extended to a B7, B9, or other forms as well). The B mixolydian scale would correspond perfectly to that B major chord, and would provide a great setup to lead back into the root chord of the key: an E major.

Because of the seventh note in the mode, the mixolydian mode creates a strong pull to resolve back to the major. This pull is made even stronger by the fact that the mixolydian mode is most often used over the dominant chord in a given key. The dominant chord already creates a strong pull back to the root chord of a key, and added to the pull of the dominant seventh to resolve to the major chord, it’s a powerful tool that you can use in your playing.

Both modern jazz and classic standards love to use ii-V-I chord progressions, which provide a perfect platform for the Mixolydian mode.For a more in-depth look at ii-V-I chord progressions and how to improvise consistently over them, make sure to check out our full guide on jazz guitar essentials: how to play over ii-V-I chord sequences!

Examples of the Mixolydian Mode

The mixolydian mode, as we’ve discussed above, is one of the most popular modes in genres as diverse as rock, blues, and jazz. That means that it’s played a major role in many famous songs throughout the history of the guitar; the tunes  we’ve listed below are just a couple of the most famous examples.

Because these songs are from so many different genres, the mixolydian mode is used differently in all of them — in some, it’s forms part of the melody, while in others it’s implied from the underlying chord changes that make up the harmony. In others, it’s a prominent scale that the artist uses to improvise over the harmony behind them.

As you’ll see, the ways that you can use the mixolydian mode are extremely diverse — no matter what styles of music you prefer to play, or whether you play lead or rhythm, you’ll definitely be able to incorporate the mode into your own playing.

Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love”

Widely acknowledged as the first supergroup in rock and roll, Cream — led by Eric Clapton, along with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — fused blues with British psychedelic rock to create some of the most enduring anthems of the 1960s. “Sunshine of Your Love,” one of the band’s biggest hits, utilizes the mixolydian mode over a progression in a classic blues style.

Rather than standard major chords, “Sunshine of Your Love” utilizes dominant seventh chords throughout the chord progression — even on the tonic chord, a D. This means that the mixolydian mode works perfectly over the progression, particularly where it sits within the melody.

Listen to the melody of the song in the video above, and notice how the chromatic descending line highlights the seventh note of the chord harmony beneath it. If you play the melody on your own guitar, you’ll see that it outlines the D mixolydian scale, played from the root on the sixth string (at the tenth fret).

The use of the mixolydian mode in the melody of the song emphasizes the dissonance in the underlying chords, but without creating an undue clash on the tonic note. The dominant seventh note would traditionally sound harsh and out of place for a tonic chord, but by incorporating it into the melody through the mixolydian mode, the seventh chord becomes “tonicized.” It no longer sounds dissonant or out of place, but instead forms a happy resolution to the other chords in the sequence. For more in-depth analysis, look at our article on how to play dissonant chords on guitar.

The mixolydian mode also figures prominently into the solo of the song. If you’re new to blues and rock and roll guitar, this solo is a good one to learn — it’s not too complex for beginner and intermediate players to manage, but incorporates a lot of classic blues and rock vocabulary within the mixolydian mode and minor pentatonic scale.

Once you learn these scales and how to deploy them over dominant seventh chords, you can then use them to improvise over other songs with similar chord progressions. The extreme versatility of the mixolydian mode, along with the blues and minor pentatonic scales, means that they can fit nicely over almost any classic rock, rock and roll or blues rock song that you might want to play.

For a more in-depth guide on how to play some of these styles on your own axe, you can also check out our other articles on those genres in particular. We’ve written extended guides on how to play classic rock guitar, how to play blues guitar, and how to play rock and roll guitar.

Miles Davis, “All Blues”

While “All Blues” might not be as popular as Cream among rock and roll fans, it’s one of the most famous standards in jazz history. Featured on Miles Davis’ groundbreaking modal jazz album Kind of Blue, “All Blues” is a favorite standard for beginners and intermediate players. The simple chord progression, slow chord changes, and open, uncomplicated melody line lend themselves to improvisation with a wide variety of different scales and arpeggios. If you’re learning to improvise with arpeggios, check out our article about how to play arpeggios on guitar!

The mixolydian mode, however, is one of the obvious choices for improving over this progression. The seventh chords used through all of the changes add the sort of bluesy dissonance that the mixolydian mode is uniquely suited to improvise over. Using the mixolydian mode to solo over these chords highlights their unique tonality, and prevents your solo licks from clashing with the harmony line underneath.

The use of the seventh note in the melody also points towards the mixolydian mode — if you highlight the notes from the melody as you solo over the progression, you’ll be able to work within the mixolydian mode without creating any dissonance or clashing with the flow of the song.

Beyond the mixolydian in the melody and the dominant seventh chords in the harmony, “All Blues” progresses in a rough jazz blues format. It’s not a traditional 12-bar blues, like the kind usually found in classic Mississippi blues songs or Texas shuffle blues, but the chords still lend themselves well to the minor pentatonic, major pentatonic, and blues scales.

If you’re new to jazz in general but want to become more familiar with the genre, jazz blues standards like “All Blues” are a great place to start. If you know the basic pentatonic scales (including the blues scale, which is just the minor pentatonic scale with one extra note added), the major scale, and the mixolydian mode, you can craft outstanding solos over these chords without needing to learn any particularly “jazzy” new vocabulary. They also incorporate some of the three famous jazz chord progressions you should master — look at our guide for more information!

“All Blues,” in particular, is an outstanding choice for players looking to get into jazz. Modal jazz, the style of jazz that “All Blues” is crafted in, focuses on playing one or two scales over just a handful of chords, rather than navigating complex gauntlets of chords which change each bar (and sometimes even twice in one measure).

Great modal jazz players, on the other hand, prize the ability to work with fewer notes and create interesting, unique licks from them. This is much easier said than done, of course! But for players that haven’t built up the knowledge or the hand speed to manage complex bebop changes, modal jazz offers a great opportunity to experiment. Players in modal jazz have the opportunity to improvise for extended periods of time and work on their jazz feel, even from a framework of scales used mostly in blues and rock.

The Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’’ Man”

Finally, the Allman Brothers Band’s “Rambin Man” is another famous example of a melody which uses the mixolydian mode prominently. Here, it comes as the melody slopes back downwards towards the end of the pattern.

Unlike some of the other examples that we’ve given, here the band isn’t using the Mixolydian mode to imply a strange, otherworldly feeling or a sad, wistful one. The use of the Mixolydian mode here offers more of a straight-ahead rock feel, with a tone that remains consistently upbeat.

If you’re searching for a way to incorporate the Mixolydian mode into your playing without evoking sadness or darker feelings, this is a great way to do so! Pay special attention to the solo towards the end of the track, which provides another nice example of classic rock guitar solos. If you feel up to the challenge, it might be a good solo to try and learn!