Breaking Down the Barriers: The Aeolian Mode

Welcome to the next installment of my series on the modes of the major scale. This is probably the most popular mode, and the one most associated with music we have learned on guitar. The reason being is that the Aeolian mode goes by another, more common name: the minor scale.
It makes more sense when we think of it like this:
Major scale:                                     C D E F G A B  
Minor scale (or Aeolian mode):                         A B C D E F G   
Same notes, yet starting on a different letter, we get a completely different sound.

So if you take any major scale, and start on the 6th degree, you have the Aeolian mode, or as it is more commonly called, the relative minor scale. Every major key has a relative minor (the Aeolian mode!) built upon its 6thdegree. Take a look at a very important diagram, called the Circle of Fifths:

This has many uses, but for now it tells us the major and relative minors of all 12 keys.

One of the uses of this diagram is to show all 12 major keys (on the outside of the circle). The inside of the circle shows the relative minor, or Aeolian mode.
Now, we will compare A major to A Aeolian:
A Major:              A B C# D E F# G#                                      
A Aeolian:           A B  C   D E F   G     
And in numbers:
A Major:              1 2  3  4 5  6    7                                     
A Aeolian:           1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7  
Changing 3 notes certainly gives a different sound!

So, by flatting the 3rd, 6th and 7thnote of any major scale (the Ionian mode), you wind up with its parallel minor scale.

This is A Minor.

The Aeolian mode probably the most commonly used mode in metal, rock, jazz and blues. In fact, the first scale most guitarists learn is called a pentatonic scale, which is derived from the Aeolian mode:
A Aeolian:                      A B C D E F G
A Pentatonic Minor:       A     C D E   G

This is also A Miner.

These two scales are very close to each other, with the pentatonic scale just missing two of the notes from the Aeolian mode. So, if you regularly use minor pentatonic scales, you are 5/7ths away from using the full Aeolian mode. You will find those extra two notes are not too hard to learn, and they will add a lot of color to your solos.
Since this mode has a minor 3rd (b3), and it is also called the minor scale, it is used over minor chords. One of the most common guitar songs in A Aeolian is the end solo in Stairway to Heaven. Using the same chords, Bob Dylan’s version of All Along the Watchtower is a great song to jam in A Aeolian too. The Aeolian mode works well in a slow blues along with the standard blues licks.
Here is a slow backing track, which incorporates an Am, Dm & F chord:

Here is a solo incorporating not just the A pentatonic minor, but the notes of A Aeolian as well:

Now we will try a slightly different use, having an A bass note, with chords from the parent key of C major overtop:

And now a solo:

The Aeolian mode (or minor scale) is a familiar sound in guitar playing, and chances are most guitarists know it without realizing it. It is the ‘go to’ scale for improvising with minor chords, and understanding the use and sound of the minor scale will make the study of more exotic scales more rewarding.
So what is your favorite minor chord progression to solo over? So many bands use exclusively minor scales and chord progressions, so what is your favorite solo using the minor scale?

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you! This was really useful for understanding what the aeolian mode is. I never realised it was just the relative minor!

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