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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

The Ionian/Lydian Distinction

The basic concept of this "Modal Distinctives" series is that you can get to the distinctive sound of a mode without learning the whole mode, or getting all confused by modal theory, but by adding, or altering, a single note of the most commonly-known scale among guitarists; the Minor Pentatonic. Here are the two Minor Pentatonic Scale patterns that we've been working from; one with a 6th-string root, and one with a 5th-string root:

The number of each note is based on the notes of the Natural Minor Scale (don't worry about whether you know it or not). As you can see, there are two notes missing; the 2nd and the 6th. You should drill the above two patterns in every key around the Circle.


If you don't know what I mean by, "around the Circle," stop right here and download the 5-Lesson Foundational Series. This series of lessons teaches the Circle of Keys as an organizational mechanism by which you ensure that whatever you learn is drilled in every key in all possible positions. It also gives you a method to find any note, anywhere, without memorizing note names on every string. That is a beautiful thing!

You can download the 5-Lesson Foundational Series right here for free with no further obligation or commitment:


Commensurate with the Quick & Dirty concept we're going to simplify things even more by only dealing with the upper octave, which is where most of the soloing activity occurs:

The Ionian Mode is the first mode we've covered in this "Modal Distinctives" series that is major in function. So how can you get from a Minor Pentatonic scale to a major-functioning modal sound?

Relative Harmony

It's at this point that I will take the opportunity to introduce the concept of relative harmony. I've already written a blog on this subject; Rut Busters: Double Your Vocabulary!

Here is the concept in a nutshell from a page in my method book (Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar) called, "Double-Function Pentatonics":

A Minor Pentatonic = C Major Pentatonic. For any two relative keys, the diagrams look like this:

Thus the term, "double-function." One pattern, two scales. If the Major root is C, then the Minor root is A. C Major = A Minor. C is the relative major of A minor. A is the relative minor of C major.

  • This concept is not just applicable to pentatonics; the C Major Pentatonic would correspond to the C Major Scale, AKA the Ionian Mode and the A Minor Pentatonic would correspond to the A Natural Minor Scale, AKA the Aeolian Mode.

So the fact that you know the A Minor Pentatonic means you also know the C Major Pentatonic; you just don't know that you know! Well, now you do!

Major Pentatonic

Now, let's renumber the notes of the scale relative to the Major Root:

These numbers relate to the Major Scale, otherwise known as the Ionian Mode.

Let's simplify by reducing things to the upper register:

Notice the space between the 3rd and the 5th. There is room for two different 4ths.

The 4th closest to the 3rd is a "Perfect 4th". The 4th closest to the 5th is an "Augmented 4th." We could call the Perfect 4th an "Ionian 4" and the Augmented 4th a "Lydian 4" because the 4th is the distinctive difference between the Ionian and the Lydian Modes.

Major Pentatonic w/Ionian 4th

Major Pentatonic w/Lydian 4th

Mess around with the two different 4ths. The more you mess with them the more you train your ear to distinguish between them and the more you perceive the difference in emotional content; the Lydian is brighter - it's more ambiguous compared to the definitive "major-ness" of the Ionian. For me, there's a vulnerable feeling to it; it has a more meditative or transcendent aspect. The Lydian has more “lift.”

So in any given situation, what do you want to hear? What do you want to feel? What color do you want to see?

You can make your decision based on those questions rather than some esoteric understanding of modal theory that forces you to go through a convoluted thought process.

Here's another comparison; ignore the scale degree numbers. Do the patterns look familiar? If you've gone through the introductory blog in this series, The Aeolian/Dorian Distinction, they should.

Just as the Ionian is the same fingering as the Aeolian (see "Relative Harmony" above), the Lydian is the same fingering as the Dorian.

The Lydian is the relative major of the Dorian!

If you know the Dorian, then you also know the Lydian, you just have to visualize the pattern relative to a different root. The mechanics are the same, and it's the mechanics that take all the time and repetition. It becomes a head game; your hand already knows the pattern.

That is a beautiful thing!

If you were to add the augmented 4th to your Major Pentatonic "stuff," an educated listener might say that you're using the Lydian mode, and they'd be right, but that's not the way we're thinking about it.

All we’re doing is adding the augmented 4th to the Major Pentatonic scale, which gives the Pentatonic a Lydian quality.


Would you like to gain a more complete understanding of modes? Going Modal is a complete, guitar-friendly lesson series that is currently (May 2021) being given away for free via Master Guitar School's monthly newsletter! To receive the newsletter just sign up as a Master Guitar School site member and get the next lesson of Going Modal in your inbox each month.

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