The Dorian mode is a minor scale used frequently in jazz guitar playing. It is the second mode of the major scale, and is can be called either the Dorian mode, or the Dorian minor scale.
Your Dorian mode is typically used for improvising on minor 7th chords.
Specifically, this is the scale used for the "2" chord in 2 5 1 and other common diatonic chord progressions. You'll also use it for modal jazz tunes that are written around the Dorian mode - like So What and Impressions.
If you're learning jazz guitar, you need to know how to play this scale in any key, and anywhere on the guitar fretboard.
Here's the good news - if you've been playing guitar for very long, you likely have the raw tools to be able to play this scale already. You just need to be able to think, play, and hear these tools as the Dorian mode.
What Should You Know First?
To get the most out of this lesson, you should already know and be able to play all 5 forms of the minor pentatonic scale, and all 5 forms of your major scale.
It would be helpful to have gone through the major scale modes lesson as well. That will give you a good overview of how modes work, while this lesson will dive into the Dorian mode in specific.
It's also important for you to know the notes on the guitar neck. All of our scale shapes are movable, which means you can change the key by moving your scale to a different fret.
The only way you can really know what key you are in is to learn the notes on the guitar neck.
If you don't know these already, it's a good idea to get started now I'll include a fretboard map in the practice tips section at the end of this lesson.
How Does This Help You?
The Dorian mode is an essential jazz scale for guitar. It allows you to improvise single note lines over minor 7th chords, specifically over the 2 chord of a diatonic progression like 2 5 1.
You will get a lot of mileage out of this scale if you're learning jazz guitar, so it's a good idea to get a solid handle on it now.
How To Practice This
Like any scale, it's a good idea to start your practice slowly, and pay attention to the details.
Work with one scale pattern at a time, and get that pattern programmed into your muscle memory.
If you already know your major scales, you'll be able to learn this pretty quickly - the major scale and modes are exactly the same finger pattern, just starting on a different note/finger.
This means you're not really learning a new scale - you're just registering a new note as a possible starting point for your finger pattern.
This takes time, so be patient and follow the practice advice at the end of this lesson.
It's better to get really good at one pattern before moving on than it is to gloss over all 5 scale shapes.
Too many people get halfway good at all 5 patterns, and it doesn't help their playing very much.
There will be more practice advice at the end of this lesson.
What Is The Dorian Mode?
Dorian is the second mode of the major scale, and can be played by starting any major scale pattern on its second note.
For example, if you play a G major Scale from the second note, you are creating an A Dorian scale.
Here they are written with only major scale tones:
And here they are adjusted to show the A Dorian scale tones:
This is a common shorthand for teaching modes, and can be helpful for transitioning into using scales to play chord changes (rather than playing a single scale to try and cover the whole key).
Essentially this is the approach: it's the 2nd mode, so you start from the 2nd note of the major scale and use it to play over the 2 chord of a progression.
Another way of looking at the Dorian mode is to treat it as a separate scale, without referencing the major scale patterns.
That is how we are going to look at the Dorian mode today.
I like practicing modes this way because it really gets the sound into your ears so you can use it. This approach also makes it easier to recognize mode patterns in your major scale shapes later on.
The dorian mode is made up of 7 notes: the Root (1), major second (2),minor/flat third (b3), perfect fourth (4), perfect fifth (5), major sixth (6), and a minor/flat seventh (b7).
As usual, I typically avoid the major/minor/perfect/etc names for intervals, and prefer to think of the number by itself.
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
I accept that if a note doesn't have a flat or a sharp, it's a normal interval (major or perfect). This keeps things simpler in your head, and ties the intervals to your scale pattern in a concrete way.
5 Dorian Scale Shapes
Just like the major scale, the Dorian mode has 5 scale patterns on the guitar. These patterns start on the 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings.
Each pattern will give you access to a different area of the neck when all patterns are played in the same key.
I also find that each pattern lends itself to different licks, ideas, and melodies when improvising.
Because of how the notes fit differently under your fingers with each pattern, different sequences will be easier or harder for you to play in different scale shapes.
6th String Form
5th String Form
4th String Form
3rd String Form
2nd String Form
Practicing Your Dorian Mode Shapes
Too many students mistake knowledge for skill - they know what modes are and how to create them, so they assume that they can play the modes in solos.
Knowing what mode shapes are and how to put them on the guitar fretboard is not enough - you have to practice and make them second nature.
Below are some good options for practicing dorian mode shapes on guitar:
Get The Mechanics First
Most of the time you don't have a knowledge or theory problem in your guitar playing. You have a mechanical or physical problem - a lack of skill development that you mistake for a lack of knowledge.
It's not that you don't know what to do, it's that you haven't actually practiced doing it enough to make it an automatic part of your vocabulary.
That's why you don't sound the way you want to when you're playing jazz. Luckily, all you have to do is practice the new scale pattern in a way that makes it useful to you.
Here's a simple process to help you get your Dorian mode shapes under your fingers as quickly as possible:
If you're serious about these scales, start working your way back down the neck one fret at a time until you're back where you started.
This is a simple way to get the basic mechanics of a scale under your fingers, without having to think too hard other than making sure you've got the pattern right. It's also a great warm up exercise.
To get the most out of this practice, I recommend that my students do one scale pattern per day, for a couple of weeks.
This lets you put all of your focus into one scale pattern, so you can learn it better. Each Dorian scale pattern will sink in more and more over time, because you'll actually spend more time per scale this way.
Improvise In Dorian
If you want to learn how to improvise with the dorian mode, you have to practice improvising with the dorian mode.
It sounds so obvious when I put it like that, but too many students avoid taking this critical step (and wonder why their solos sound like scale patterns).
Here's a good way to practice this:
You can record yourself playing the root of the scale, or a min7 chord from the root of the scale (If you're playing A Dorian, play an Am7 chord) to practice against if you'd like.
A looper pedal can be really helpful for this kind of practice if you want to have a chord or drone to play with.
Cycle of 4ths/Cycle of 5ths
Practicing around the cycle of 4ths and cycle of 5ths is a good way to test yourself on how well you know your Dorian scale patterns.
Do this once you are comfortable with each of the 5 Dorian scale shapes on their own (playing at least 80% correct). Practicing around these cycles is a great way to improve your fretboard knowledge, and quiz yourself on your scale shapes.
Here's how to do it:
Choose a limited area of your fretboard to work with, like finding the root at the 5th fret and below (no open strings), or finding the root at the 5th fret and above.
In both scenarios, notes on the 5th fret are fair game - just don't lean on it too much or you'll cheat yourself out of some alternative scale patterns. Not every single note needs to fall in this range - only the root of the scale (6th string, 3rd string, etc.).
Practice finding your scale roots (and playing the scale) as you work your way through the two progressions:
Cycle of 4ths
C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B E A D G
Cycle of 5ths
G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F C
Use the fretboard maps below to find your root notes as you practice.
Use Dorian To Improvise In 251 Progressions
Dorian is the scale used to create melodies on the 2 chord of 2 5 1 progressions.
Practice 2 5 1 progressions in all 12 keys, and in all 5 scale shapes to get used to playing this mode in context, focusing on creating melodies with the Dorian mode scale pattern.
Use The Dorian Mode In Songs
Every time you find a 2 chord in a jazz standard you're playing, play the Dorian mode.
You might have to go a little slower, or even pause for a moment to get your bearings at first. And that's ok.
It's important to take the time you need while you're learning, so you can get the right sounds into your ears and under your fingers.
Pretty soon you'll get used to accessing this mode any time you find the 2 chord in a song, and it will eventually become second nature.
Things To Think About
The dorian mode is an essential jazz scale for guitar that will help you play better solos and improve your ear.
Your first step to learning these scales is to get the scale shapes internalized - learn them so that you can play them automatically.
With practice, these jazz scale shapes will become second nature for you and it will be easy to use the Dorian mode in your guitar playing.
The key is to put these scales to use as soon as possible by improvising with them, and playing them whenever possible in tunes that you are playing.
Keep practicing, and let me know how it goes.