Decoding Phrygian Dominant

There's a lot to be left on the table if you are not utilizing this scale in your playing, where you can easily achieve a dark, Eastern-inspired feel.

Decoding Phrygian Dominant
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The Phrygian dominant scale is used extensively in metal and shred guitar, but a lot of musicians do not a) understand how it works, or b) use it at all. There's a lot to be left on the table if you are not utilizing this scale in your playing, where you can easily achieve a dark, Eastern-inspired feel.

There are two ways to think about this scale, so we'll discuss both. Personally, I think about each of these things together when using Phrygian dominant in my soloing and songwriting:
  • Phrygian scale with a raised third.
  • The fifth mode of harmonic minor.
Let's first review the Phrygian scale - if a natural minor scale's intervals are counted as 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7, then the Phrygian mode's intervals are 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7. Play a minor scale, then play the Phrygian scale starting from the same root to contrast their flavor (Ex. 1).

To create Phrygian dominant, simply raise the third a half step- 1 b2 3 4 5 6 b7 (Ex. 2)

Notice that you have a dominant seventh chord outlined (1 3 5 b7) but it retains the key element of what defines the Phrygian mode, the b2. Hence, Phrygian dominant.

We could then map this all out on the fretboard, OR we can save ourselves a lot of work by relating this mode to the harmonic minor scale.

Harmonic minor: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

Now build the scale starting from the 5 (where the dominant chord is built) so that your fifth is now the root.

5 = 1 b6 = b2 7= 3 1= 4 2= 5 b3= b6 4= b7

A harmonic minor - A B C D E F G#

E Phrygian dominant - E F G# A B C D

You can see that A harmonic minor and E Phrygian dominant contain the same notes!

So here's how we apply this:
  1. If you're learning a song that is in E Phrygian dominant, add 5 frets and solo using the harmonic minor scale (A in this case).
  2. Songwriting - If you wanted to write a song in E Phrygian dominant, keep E as the central tonality throughout the song and use chords from A harmonic minor.
  3. The blues - the Phrygian dominant scale is great over the V chord in a blues progression.
Here is a key to help you match up Phrygian dominant with its parent harmonic minor scale:

E Phrygian dominant = A harmonic minor

A Phrygian dominant = D harmonic minor

D Phrygian dominant = G harmonic minor

G Phrygian dominant = C harmonic minor

C Phrygian dominant = F harmonic minor

Again, notice that the corresponding Harmonic minor scale is up a fourth (or 5 frets) from the Phrygian dominant's root.

It can take some time to fully wrap your mind around the concept if you're not really comfortable with modes, but practice building the scale from various positions on the neck and matching it up with its parent harmonic minor scale on a regular basis, and you'll be blazing like Yngwie before you know it.


About the Author:
Eric Bourassa teaches rock guitar at his studio in Fort Worth, TX and plays Mario games with his wife and 3 children far too often.
www.fortworthrockguitarlessons.com

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Zan595
    As someone who admittedly abuses the hell out of the harmonic minor scale, I found this very fun to play around with. Thanks, great lesson!
    HeidiCPascua
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    AeonOptic
    Great article, however you forgot to write b6 on the text for example 2, so it looks like there's a major 6th.
    alexander.simmo
    I love Phrygian Dominant. I think a lot of people probably end up using it without actually knowing what it is or what it's called. I remember when I was in like 4th grade or so and I had been playing the cello for a year and I liked to just jam and improvise I stumbled upon what I called "the Egyptian" scale because it had that middle-eastern sound to it. Years and years later I would find out that my "Egyptian scale" was actually called Phrygian Dominant. I discovered regular Phrygian itself the same way, seeing as they're only different by one note. I was always drawn to the minor scale and darker sounding stuff and I was like "if I flat the second note of the minor scale it sounds even more metal" given how much I hear it being used in metal and how little formal training a lot of metal musicians have, I bet I'm far from the only one who found it on their own like that. It was really cool when I eventually found out that the stuff I had stumbled across by instinct turned out to be something that's usually considered advanced and exotic, and learning the technical side of what made it tick.
    ericdbourassa
    Alexander, I agree. It's a pretty common scale in metal and guys just don't know that their ears lead them to this particular scale! It is fun to discover the theory behind the scales and things we use, for sure.