The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists

In music theory, the “modes”, also called “Greek modes” sometimes, are one of the most important tools that musicians can use in songwriting and improvising. There are 7 Greek modes, each with its distinct sound and color.

This KillerGuitarRigs guide will focus specifically on the Aeolian mode, which incidentally is the same as the natural minor scale that you probably already knew about before hearing of the modes.

It is obviously a “minor mode” because of its minor third interval. However, its most defining note is the minor sixth.

This mode tends to sound sad, dark and melancholic, even haunting, depending on how you use it. You can hear the Aeolian mode in songs such as “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Not a Second Time” by The Beatles.

Want to learn more about music theory?
Check out our ultimate guide to music theory to find more jumping off points.

Aeolian Mode – Overview and Scale Formula

Aeolian is the 6th mode of the Major scale.

In other words, if you start reading the Major scale from its 6th degree instead of the root, you will obtain an Aeolian/natural minor scale. 

Changing the root and maintaining the same notes shifts the intervals in the scale, which is how we get different modes from the same Major scale.

Let’s start by looking at the C Major scale, and then at A Aeolian, which we obtain by reading C Major from its 6th degree (A).

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - C Major scale

Now, let’s take a look at the A Aeolian scale:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - A Aeolian scale

Because we obtain A Aeolian from C Major/Ionian, we say that C Major is A Aeolian’s “parent scale”. They use the same notes, but the scale is built around a different root note.

You should know that the Aeolian mode is built on the 6th degree of the Major scale, and keep that in mind when you want to figure out the parent scale of any Aeolian/natural minor scale.

To figure this out, take your Aeolian scale and go back 4.5 whole tones (9 semitones, or a major sixth) to find its parent scale. Alternatively, you can also move a minor third up since you’ll end up on the same note.

You can use the table below to confirm any parent scale if you ever have doubts about this topic.

Parent Scale (Major)Aeolian (VI Degree)
CA
DbBb
DB
EbC
EC#
FD
F#D#
GE
AbF
AF#
BbG
BG#

The Aeolian mode can be represented numerically by its formula: “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7”. This is also the natural minor scale’s formula, so if you’ve studied that before, you already know this one too.

The note that differentiates this scale the most from other minor scales is its b6 (flat/minor sixth). If you omit it while playing, your listeners won’t have all the information they need to perceive it as Aeolian or Dorian, for instance, since that one has a natural 6 instead.

Through the course of this guide, the A Aeolian scale is going to be used to demonstrate the main scale patterns that you should be aware of. 

Given the fact that most players are introduced to the modes that can be extracted from C Major, A Aeolian is often their first example of this mode.

However, you should keep in mind that all of the shapes and patterns shown in this guide can be moved around the guitar’s neck in order to play any other Aeolian scale. The most important aspect is memorizing the patterns in relation to their root note.


Aeolian Mode – Scale Notes in A Aeolian, When to Play

The notes in the A Aeolian scale are:

  • A (Root)
  • B (Major Second)
  • C (Minor Third)
  • D (Perfect Fourth)
  • E (Perfect Fifth)
  • F (Minor Sixth)
  • G (Minor Seventh)

The minor third interval in this scale makes it one of the 4 minor modes, alongside Dorian, Phrygian and Locrian.

The table below should help you visualize this scale a little better. It represents its notes, intervals and whether you’re moving up a semitone or a whole tone when you go to the next scale degree.


Notes

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

Scale Degrees
1Root2Major Secondb3Minor Third4Perfect Fourth5Perfect Fifthb6Minor Sixthb7Minor Seventh

Interval

W

H

W

W

H

W

W

Since this mode has the same notes as the natural minor scale, it obviously sounds good when played over minor chords. For instance, in a tune played in C Major, if the A minor chord comes up, that would be a great opportunity to improvise using the A Aeolian scale.

There are many other moments where this scale shines – if you come across a minor chord with a flat 6, you should also use it. These chords are frequently described as “Aeolian chords”, since they pretty much have the same sound as the mode itself.

Want to learn more about scales?
Check out our complete guide to scales to find more jumping off points.


The Main Scale Patterns for the Aeolian Mode – Fretboard Diagrams, Tabs and Notation

This section will provide you with the most important shapes and patterns to use whenever you want to play an Aeolian scale. Every diagram will have its corresponding tab so you can practice it calmly, both ascending and descending.

Use these when composing melodies or improvising over chord changes.

Remember, the most important aspect of practicing the following diagrams is to memorize the shape so you don’t have to think about it in the midst of playing, and being able to quickly locate the root notes of that scale, which you should use as reference points.

If it helps, you should also take into account that A Aeolian has the same notes as C Major, they only have a different root note. This doesn’t mean that you should just think about C Major when you’re playing in A minor, but it can help you locate patterns in the fretboard.

The diagram shown below illustrates where every note in A Aeolian is located. The root is displayed in red, and the rest of the notes are in black.

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists -  Fretboard Diagram

Of course, memorizing the fretboard using a dense diagram such as the one above is very challenging. This is why it is great to split it into smaller pieces with unique scale patterns that can be learned much faster.

The diagrams below will show you some of the most important Aeolian scale shapes that you should learn.

Root on 6th String (5th Fret) and 4th String (7th Fret)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Root on 6th String (5th Fret)

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on 5th String (Open String or 12th Fret) and 3rd String (2nd or 14th Fret)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Root on 5th String (Open String or 12th Fret)

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on 4th String (7th Fret) and 2nd String (10th Fret)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Root on 4th String (7th Fret)

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on 3rd String (2nd Fret) and 1st String (5th Fret)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Root on 3rd String (2nd Fret)

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

You can also combine some of these patterns to create shapes that allow you to play 2 octaves of the Aeolian mode without moving away from the same fretboard region.

Here are a couple of examples that you should learn.

A Aeolian 2 Octave Pattern #1 (Root 6 String)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - A Aeolian 2 Octave Pattern #1

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

A Aeolian 2 Octave Pattern #2 (Root 5th String)

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - A Aeolian 2 Octave Pattern #2

Tab:

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

3 Notes per String Method Applied to A Aeolian

The 3 Notes per String method is a strategy used by countless guitarists to help them navigate freely through the fretboard within a certain scale, while playing 3 notes on each string. 

Some other methods such as the CAGED System often have strings with 2 notes.

There are 7 unique patterns, and each of them starts on a scale degree (root, second, third, etc.).

By memorizing all of these shapes, you should be able to locate yourself very quickly, regardless of the neck region where you decide to play.

Just like before, the patterns below use the A Aeolian scale as an example, but you can shift them to another section of the neck to play in other keys as well.

First Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - First Pattern

Second Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Second Pattern

Third Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Third Pattern

Fourth Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Fourth Pattern

Fifth Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Fifth Pattern

Sixth Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Sixth Pattern

Seventh Pattern

The Aeolian Mode for Guitarists - Seventh Pattern

Final Thoughts about the Aeolian Mode

Since the Aeolian mode is essentially the same as the natural minor scale, it goes without saying that you must know and master this scale as soon as you can, since it is one of the most common scales in any music genre.

If you want to use it fluently, the best way to achieve it is to memorize the most important scale shapes and patterns, and then apply them when composing and improvising.

You should remember that Aeolian is the 6th mode of the Major scale – this will help you find its patterns quicker.

Gustavo Pereira

Gustavo is a Portuguese musician based in Barcelona, where he’s studying jazz & modern music interpretation on the electric guitar. Favorite genre: blues, jazz, funk, soul

Gustavo Pereira has 44 posts and counting. See all posts by Gustavo Pereira