How to Play the Guitar in Phrygian Mode

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale — when the 3rd scale degree functions as the tonic on the guitar. It’s considered a minor key because it centers on a minor chord. This type of minor scale is pretty uncommon, but some heavy metal artists use it for its dark, unusual sound.

Here’s what happens to the G major scale when you reorganize its notes and chords, beginning with the 3rd degree, B, to produce B Phrygian mode:

G major

1-2-3-4-5-6-7

G-A-B-C-D-E-F♯

I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii♭ó5

G-Am-Bm-C-D-Em-F♯m♭ó5

B Phrygian

1-♭ó2-♭ó3-4-5-♭ó6-♭ó7

B-C-D-E-F♯-G-A

i-♭óII-♭óIII-iv-v♭ó5-♭óVI-♭óvii

Bm-C-D-Em-F♯m♭ó5-G-Am

Phrygian is a type of minor scale with a flattened 2nd as its most defining characteristic.

Remember that the example is just a starting point. You can play B Phrygian anywhere on the fretboard as long as you use notes and chords from the G major scale and center on B. When playing in B Phrygian, most guitarists opt to put the chords Bm and C right next to each other on the same string.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can also move the pattern around the fretboard to play Phrygian mode in other keys. You can see how E Phrygian is taken from its parent major scale, C. This example puts you into a chord pattern that begins on the 5th string.

You can move this pattern around to play in other Phrygian keys, too. In E Phrygian, guitarists seem to prefer playing off of the open 6th string, putting an E5 and F5 right next to each other.

Here are some sample chord progressions and songs based on the 3rd degree of the major scale. You may find it easier to work out the chord progression by number in a familiar major scale pattern first and then renumber it according to its Phrygian tonic.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

“The Sails of Charon” by Scorpions

B5-C5

i-♭óII in B Phrygian (iii-IV in the G major scale)

“Remember Tomorrow” by Iron Maiden

Em-F

i-♭óII in E Phrygian (iii-IV in the C major scale)

“War” by Joe Satriani (guitars tuned down one half step to E♭ó)

E5-F5

i-♭óII in E Phrygian (iii-IV in the C major scale)

“Symphony of Destruction” by Megadeth

F5-E5

♭óII-i in E Phrygian (IV-i in the C major scale)

Though this progression starts on the ♭óII chord, F5, the i chord, E5, is functioning as the tonic in the song example.

Songs don’t always stay in one key. Some songs have certain modal sections but then move on to other keys. For example, “War” by Joe Satriani starts in E Phrygian but then cycles through other types of keys from there. Similarly, “Moondance” by Van Morrison starts in A Dorian but then changes to other modes.

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