How to Use the Ionian Scale on Guitar?

Updated August 4th, 2022 . 

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Scales

Making the way up the ranks as a guitarist, one could be forgiven early on for feeling as though the modes were another language altogether, one that would evade understanding, like audio-linguistic eels. However, like much of Western music theory, they have much more to do with mathematics and formulas (cue the Pythagorean mode!), so with some dedication in a logical mindset they can be mastered with ease.

What makes modes unique is their ability to relate to one another, and to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling. Where scales are ordered sequences of notes that can feel rigid in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.

What is the Ionian Mode?

And this ought to be taken very literally. The Ionian Mode is the major scale, pure and simple. Taken as the first degree of the key in which the song is set, we approach this key without any of the aforementioned mutations, and it is thus that the Ionian mode is and seeks to be appreciated.

If we were to put more precise theoretical labels on this, we would say that the Ionian mode is a mode that would have been familiar to the medieval church, corresponding to post-enlightenment understandings of tonality; the modern major diatonic scale of the prescribed key.

The first mode of any major key is always the Ionian mode, unchanged as it is by any of the permutations that otherwise modify this base scale. For this reason, many people scarcely use the term when referring to the notes that it signifies, though as a way of understanding the modes in general it is a vital stepping stone through which to grapple with these other, more extended modifications. Without understanding the existence of this first degree, how might we understand anything further at all?

Working from the centre of Western tonality, C major, we can begin to map out what this theory looks like in action. Using the major scale formula, we can see that every major scale is comprised of the following formula: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole -Whole – Whole – Half.

Each of these, you would be right in assuming, corresponds to a separate scale degree, and so we can use this formula to calculate any major scale, and any minor scale with only slight modifications (Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole); and this isn’t exclusive to guitar, but to the entirety of Western tonality itself!


So, before reading the diagram below, which itself expands upon all of this vital knowledge in the context of the C major scale, I would encourage you to attempt to chart this out yourself, as it is in your own intuition and initiative that the key to cementing this learning lies. That being said, once you have given this a good go yourself, you can find the full details of the exercise expanded below:

Scale DegreeI
Tonic
ii (9)
Supertonic
iii
Mediant
IV (11)
Subdominant
V
Dominant
vi (13)
Submediant
vii
Leading Tone
I (8)
NoteCDEFGABC
TriadCDmEmFGAmBmC
TetradCmaj7Dm7Em7Fmaj7G7Am7Bm7b5C
Steps (from previous)HalfWholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWholeHalf

This is, of course, quite a lot of information to absorb in one go. The modes are a lot in themselves, and much of this won’t immediately be very important to you. In fact, the hope is that a lot of this becomes so innate and part of your subconscious and muscle memory that you won’t necessarily need to think or discuss these things specifically.

However, having an even basic knowledge of how this aspect of Western harmony and tonality is formulated, and subsequently how it functions at a molecular level, can be a massive help in understanding many of your favourite songs, as well as plenty of your favourite guitarist’s finest moments or best improvisations.

What Does This All Mean on The Guitar?

As we are talking in terms of the fundamental building blocks of the Western harmonic tradition, this won’t make a whole lot of difference which instrument you’re discussing it on, so long as it’s designed to understand and perform these notes and the kinds of music that it’s attached to. This is vital knowledge for any musician seeking to operate within the so called confines of the Western musical canon established in the last half millennium or so.

However, by the very nature of this website you are more than likely here to learn how to play this on guitar, so below you will find a tablature diagram detailing how to play the C major scale, ascending and descending through two octaves in its simplest form:

Hold this dear, and run through this up and down as many times as it takes for you to feel totally comfortable within its bounds. Once this is the case, it would be a helpful idea to begin from a random point in the scale and see if you can work your way from this point up or down and back to the highest or lowest possible root note.

Perfecting Your Ionian Mode

Rather than simply repeating this over and over without considering what the notes mean or represent, I would strongly encourage you to try singing along to each note as you play it.

This has numerous benefits, not limited to:

  • strengthening your sensory connection between the feeling of playing the note, the theoretical understanding behind the note, and the sound of the note itself, as well as the relative connections between these and all your other senses at once;
  • exercising your ability to multi-task and, if it is your aim, to be able to sing and play guitar at the same time – being able to perform notes and sing them at the same time will already set you ahead of simply strumming and singing simultaneously;
  • practising singing and plucking in this way is also an apposite way to practise and perfect your phrasing, not only in making it precise but also unique to you, for at base the voice offers more capabilities for expressive intent than a dry, clean acoustic guitar.

As ever, I would urge you to work this knowledge around your own self and studies. With so much of the learning of guitar, the beauty is that it is so easily transposed. For an instrument like piano, or a brass or woodwind instrument, the modes can be a far more painful process. For guitar, with a fretboard so repetitive and blank, as to welcome key changes and adjustments to tuning aplenty, to transpose guitar chords, is not much more difficult than moving up and/or down the neck in relation to wherever it is that you wish to go.

Along such a line of argument, I would suggest you try picking a key, a favourite or simply one that you come to at random, and to work out, using the diagram and formula above as a guide, the Ionian mode in whichever key you happen to have chosen.

Don’t forget to hold dear the fact that what makes the Ionian itself is that, in its relation to the major scale of the given key, its centre is the root or first degree. Thus, whichever key you choose in the above exercise, the scale will gravitate around the tonic. While the chords might not always be on the tonic – as seen in the table above there are plenty of other chords in the Ionian series of any given key – for it to be Ionian, the chords and melodies will almost completely centre on this root; whether it is played or not, its presence will always be felt, as the music will feel like it is returning to this tonic. Thus, though not always essential, I would encourage at least initially that you begin working out this mode simply on the root, working your way from there.

Final Tones

Taking your first steps into the world of modes like this ought only to be commended. By following any of the advice or practising any of the exercises above, you are ensuring that your mind is active and engaging with the topic here, and not simply learning a series of abstract shapes and numbers, but absorbing this information for what it really is: the sounds that they will eventually create, for without these sounds and the music which they comprise what would separate this from the study of mathematics? (Answer: next to nothing at all).

FAQs Ionian Scale on Guitar

Is the Ionian Mode the same as the Major Scale?

Almost entirely, yes. What separates them is their title, the fact that the major scale is itself a scale, whereas the modes are permutations of this or other scales, the Ionian mode being calculated from the root of the given key. Thus, to anyone on the outside not privy to its inner machinations, they are essentially the same and are played much the same too.

What are the notes in an Ionian Mode?

Formulaically, the Ionian Mode is comprised, like the corresponding major scale of the given key, of the I-ii-iii-iv-V-vi-vii, scale degrees relating to said key. For this major scale we can use another formula which, when beginning from the tonic, makes calculating the mode a little easier: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half (whole being 2 frets, and half being 1).

What Major Scale is E Ionian?

By the logic of modes, the Ionian being the first degree of the parent key, the E Ionian would be the E major scale itself. Mapping it out, we would be left with the exact same notes in each, beginning from the tonic: E (I) – F# (ii) – G# (iii) – A (iv) – B (V) – C# (vi) – D# (vii) – E (I (8) ).

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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