Basics of Phrygian (iii) mode on the Guitar - dummies

By Desi Serna

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale on the guitar — when the 3rd scale degree functions as the tonic. 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





B Phrygian





Phrygian is a type of minor scale with a flattened 2nd as its most defining characteristic. Here is how B Phrygian comes from its parent major scale, G.

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

Remember that this 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.

You can also move the pattern around the fretboard to play Phrygian mode in other keys. Here is how E Phrygian is taken from its parent major scale, C.

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

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 (shown in parentheses) and then renumber it according to its Phrygian tonic.

“The Sails of Charon” by Scorpions


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

“Remember Tomorrow” by Iron Maiden


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

“War” by Joe Satriani (guitars tuned down one half step to Ef)


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

“Symphony of Destruction” by Megadeth


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

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

Songs don’t always stay in one key. 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.