The Ionian mode aka major scale | Guitar lesson | Diagrams, theory & jazz licks

scale guitarWhat's the Ionian mode

The Ionian mode is the first of the seven musical modes. The other Greek modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian modes. The Ionian mode has exactly the same notes as the major scale and surely the first scale to learn for a beginner musician. It is made up of seven notes related to seven degrees :

C Ionian mode C D E F G A B
Formula 1 2 (9) 3 4 (11) 5 6 (13) 7
Intervals W W H W W W H

(W = whole step ; H = half step)

As you can see in the chart above the major scale consists of a root (1), second (2), major third (3), fourth (4), fifth (5), sixth (6) and major seventh (7). Note that the ninth, eleventh and thirteenth are respectively the same as the second, fourth and the sixth.

It is very important to know how is constructed the major scale to be able to build any other major scale. You have to memorize the order of whole steps and half-steps which is W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

You need to know that you can obviously apply the Ionian mode over major chords as : Major, major seventh (M7) , major sixth (M6 or 6) , major ninth (M9), major six/nine (M6/9), sus 2, sus 4. This will help you when you will have to improvise over a the I of a major II-V-I progression or I-VI-II-V sequence. 

What are the eight degrees of the major scale

  • 1st - tonic
  • 2nd - supertonic
  • 3rd - mediant
  • 4th - subdominant
  • 5th - dominant
  • 6th - submediant
  • 7th - leading tone
  • 8th - tonic (octave)

Chords of the major scale (Harmonization)

How to harmonize the major scale

In music theory, harmonization is the process of building chords from a given scale using common formulas. Here are the seven chords built from each degree of the major scale: 

Triad chords : These chords are built with three notes stacked in thirds.

Four note chords or tetrads : They are made of four notes stacked in thirds too.

In the key of C, the C major chord is built by stacking C, E, G and B respectively root (1), major third (3), perfect fifth (5) and major seventh (7). Go to see the blog post about the major scale harmonization.

C major scale C D E F G A B
Triad  C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
Tetrads  CMaj7 D-7 E-7 FMaj7 G7 A-7 B-7b5


Chords formulas

Tetrads in the key of C major.

Chords Notes Formula
CM7 C-D-E-F 1-3-5-7
D-7 D-F-A-C 1-b3-5-b7
E-7 E-G-B-D 1-b3-5-b7
FM7 F-A-C-D 1-3-5-7
G7 G-B-D-F 1-3-5-b7
A-7 A-C-E-G 1-b3-5-b7
B-7b5 B-D-F-A 1-b3-b5-b7

Major scale in all keys

Here are all the major scales related to the twelve keys. You will notice that one scale has no sharps of flats, six with flats and five with sharps.

  • C major scale : C-D-E-F-G-A-B 
  • Db major scale : Db-Eb-F-Gb-Eb-Bb-C
  • D major scale : D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#
  • Eb major scale : Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D
  • E major scale : E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#
  • F major scale : F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E
  • F# major scale : F#-G#-A#-B-C#-D#-E#
  • Gb major scale : Gb-Ab-Bb-Cb-Db-Eb-F
  • G major scale : G-A-B-C-D-E-F#
  • Ab major scale : Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G
  • A major scale : A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#
  • Bb major scale : Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A
  • B major scale : B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#

Related major chords, triads and arpeggios

How to build chords and arpeggios from the major scale ?

You must be able to write and play major chords, triads and arpeggios from the major scale. A major triad is made up of the same notes as a major chord, this rule also applies to major seventh, sixth and ninth chords. The most important are (example given in the key of C):

  • C major triad / chord : consists of a root (C) major third (E) and perfect fifth (G).
    • Related abbreviated chord symbols are : C, CM, C major.
C major triad / chord C E G
Formula 1 3 5


  • C major seventh arpeggio / chord : root (C) major third (E), perfect fifth (G) and major seventh (B).
    • Related chord notation : CM7, Cma7, Cmaj7, C∆.
C major seventh arpeggio / chord C E G B
Formula 1 3 5 7


  • C major sixth arpeggio / chord : root (C) major third (E), perfect fifth (G) and sixth (A).
    • Related chord notation : CM6, Cma6, Cmaj6, CM13, Cma13, Cmaj13.
C major sixth arpeggio / chord C E G A
Formula 1 3 5 6


  • C major ninth arpeggio / chord  : root (C) major third (E), perfect fifth (G), major seventh (B) and ninth (D)
    • Related chord notation : CM9, Cma9, Cmaj9.
C major ninth arpeggio / chord C E G B D
Formula 1 3 5 7 9


That means that you can apply any triad or arpeggio from the previous list over any major chord and inversely. One of the most efficient exercise when you want to master major triads and arpeggios is to play them in twelve keys following a chromatic progression like C | Db | D | Eb | E | F and so on... You can also play them by intervals of fourths (circle of fourths), that gives C | F | Bb | Eb | Ab | Db | Gb | B | E | A | D | G. 

Major triads and chords in twelve keys

  • C major : C-E-G
  • Db major : Db-F-Eb
  • D major : D-F#-A
  • Eb major : Eb-G-Bb
  • E major : E-G#-B-
  • F major : F-A-C
  • F# major : F#-A#-C#
  • Gb major : Gb-Bb-Db
  • G major : G-B-D
  • Ab major : Ab-C-E
  • A major : A-C#-E-
  • Bb major : Bb-D-F
  • B major : B-D#-F#

Major seventh chords & arpeggios in twelve keys

  • C major seventh : C-E-G-B 
  • Db major seventh : Db-F-Eb-Bb
  • D major seventh : D-F#-A-C#
  • Eb major seventh : Eb-G-Bb-D
  • E major seventh : E-G#-B-D#
  • F major seventh : F-A-C-E
  • F# major seventh : F#-A#-C#-E#
  • Gb major seventh : Gb-Bb-Db-F
  • G major seventh : G-B-D-F#
  • Ab major seventh : Ab-C-E-G
  • A major seventh : A-C#-E-G#
  • Bb major seventh : Bb-D-F-A
  • B major seventh : B-D#-F#-A#


Major sixth chords & arpeggios in twelve keys

  • C major sixth : C-E-G-A
  • Db major sixth : Db-F-Eb-Bb
  • D major sixth : D-F#-A-B
  • Eb major sixth : Eb-G-Bb-C
  • E major sixth : E-G#-B-C#-
  • F major sixth : F-A-C-D
  • F# major sixth : F#-A#-C#-D#
  • Gb major ssixth : Gb-Bb-Db-Eb
  • G major sixth : G-B-D-E
  • Ab major sixth : Ab-C-Eb-F
  • A major sixth : A-C#-E-F#
  • Bb major sixth : Bb-D-F-G
  • B major sixth : B-D#-F#-G#

Major ninth chords & arpeggios in twelve keys

  • C major ninth : C-E-G-B-D 
  • Db major ninth : Db-F-Eb-Bb-Eb
  • D major ninth : D-F#-A-C#-E
  • Eb major ninth : Eb-G-Bb-F
  • E major ninth : E-G#-B-D#-F#
  • F major ninth : F-A-C-E-G
  • F# major ninth : F#-A#-C#-E#-G#
  • Gb major ninth : Gb-Bb-Db-F-Ab
  • G major ninth : G-B-D-F#-A
  • Ab major ninth : Ab-C-E-G-Bb
  • A major ninth : A-C#-E-G#-B
  • Bb major ninth : Bb-D-F-A-C
  • B major ninth : B-D#-F#-A#-C#

Ionian guitar diagrams | Two-octaves positions

There are many ways to play the Ionian mode on the guitar. Here are two recommended patterns. This first pattern has roots (R) on the sixth, the fourth and on the first string.

To understand and hear correctly the sound of this mode it is better to play these patterns starting with the root (orange note in the diagram). You need to know that each scale as a root note, this is the main note that a scale is build from, it gives its name to a scale.

For example, to play the C major scale starting with the lowest root you must put your second finger at the eighth fret on the sixth string. Now you are ready to play each note of the scale from the lowest root to the highest. That's the basis approach, you have to do this in twelve keys by moving the root keeping the same intervals and fingerings.

Ionian mode diagram

This second pattern has roots on the fifth and the second string. To play the C major scale starting with the lowest root just put your second finger at the third fret on the fifth string, you can now play each note of the major scale from the lowest root to the highest as you did with the first position.

One of the most important things when you learn scales is to sing notes while playing them on guitar, indeed this is an effective way to reinforce the link between what you play and what you hear. This technique helps you to develop your musical ear. You can apply the singing/playing technique to all your guitar solos and improvisations using arpeggios or triads.



Ionian mode 6 guitar diagram

Ionian jazz guitar lick

Here is an easy jazz guitar lick using C the ionian mode. 

C major jazz guitar lick with tabs

Major II-V-I sequence

This jazz guitar line is a major II-V-I progression in the key of C:  Dm7 | G7 | CM7 . You can notice the use of a C major sixth arpeggio at the end of the sequence. Basically, you can play the D Dorian mode (D-E-F-G-A-B-C) which is a minor type scale over Dm7 and the G dominant bebop scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F-F#) over G7.

II-V-I jazz guitar lick

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Last edited: 13/08/2018