Metal Soloing: Alternative Scales for Soloing in a Phrygian Dominant Context

In this article I explore some lesser known scales that can be used to add spice and color to a Phrygian Dominant solo.

Metal Soloing: Alternative Scales for Soloing in a Phrygian Dominant Context
Hello and welcome, fellow UGers! In this article I want to present some of my own thoughts and ideas on how to use exotic (and non-exotic) scales that can be used if you are playing over a Phrygian Dominant (also know variously throughout the world as Hijaz, Spanish Gypsy, Freygish, Jewis scale, etc.) based backing. All of the scales and the examples will be presented in the key of E for simplicity.


So, the Phrygian Dominant scale, as most guitarists know, can be derived from the Harmonic Minor scale. Specifically, it is its 5th mode (A Harmonic Minor in this case). It is a scale a lot of guitarists across a variety of genres know and love. For me, personally, it is my all time favorite scale to play in. Harmonically, though, we are faced with a problem of sorts: the chords in the scale are of the following qualities (in ascending order): major, major, diminished, minor, diminished, augmented, minor.

Since we have essentially only 4 chords that can produce the characteristic sound of the scale without creating so much tension that the backing we are playing over starts to sound unstable, we are kind of limited in the actual harmonic options we can use with a reasonable amount of freedom. For example, Phrygian Dominant backing tracks often consist of a simple E-F groove, or an E-F-Dm, or an E-Am-F... You get the idea. So if we want to play a solo using just the Phrygian Dominant, we can end up playing the same licks and runs, depending, of course, of the feel, tempo, and rhythm figures that are being used.

The Obvious Choices

Now, I'm not saying we should avoid the scale entirely. After all, there's a reason it's one of the most popular scales in metal, and if we don't play it at all, we will sound like we don't know what we are doing. It would be like playing the blues without the Minor Pentatonic scale!

On to our options then:

Phrygian Dominant (1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7) (E F G# A B C D)

Our first option is the scale that the chords and riffs in the backing are derived from. Instantly recognisable and exotic sound.

Diminished arpeggios (1 b3 b5 bb7) (F G# B D, these notes in any order

Made popular by Yngwie Malmsteen and a lot of neoclassical guitarists, these emphasize the inherent tension of the scale (since the Phrygian Dominant is ostensibly a major scale with minor intervals). These are derived from the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th degrees of the scale, in no particular order, since the diminished chord/arpeggio is a symmetrical one (stacked minor 3rds). You can either use the sweep patterns or the symmetrical 2 notes per string pattern to create a lot of interesting, tension filled lines.

More interesting choices:

Double Harmonic scale (1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7) (E F G# A B C D#)

This scale contains a leading tone (major 7th degree), and is otherwise identical to Phrygian Dominant. It has a very strong Middle Eastern flavor. You can hear it in Dick Dale's "Misirlou" (a guitar version of an old Greek folk song), and Rainbow's "Gates of Babylon" and "Stargazer."

Phrygian mode (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7) (E F G A B C D)

By flattening the 3rd degree of the Phrygian Dominant scale, we get our good old Phrygian mode, which can also be derived from the major scale (the 3rd mode - the parent scale is C major in this case). Very useful when you want to tone down the exotic sound of the Phrygian Dominant, or when you want to introduce a bluesy major/minor 3rd clash within a diatonic context. It also contains a lot less stretching than the Phrygian Dominant, if we look at it ergonomically.

Dominant Pentatonic scale (1 3 4 5 b7) (E G# A B D)

This scale is essentially the Phrygian Dominant but with the 2nd and 6th degrees omitted. Alternatively, you can look at it as a Minor Pentatonic with a raised 3rd degree. With it, you introduce the characteristic "openness" of the Pentatonic scales, while retaining a lot of classic blues licks, now revamped due to the alteration of the 3rd. Feel free to include the flat 5th (blue note) occasionally!

Hirajoshi scale (1 b2 4 5 6) (E F A B C)

Our next scale hails from the Far East, Japan in particular. It contains no 3rd degree, which means it is neither major nor minor (to my ears it also sounds quite mysterious). Yet the flat 2nd makes it a perfect fit for our purpose. I suggest you use it sparingly, as in a couple of melody lines and one or two runs here and there, since the 2 frankly huge gaps it contains (major 3rd between the 2nd and 3rd degrees, and between the 6th and 1st degrees) make it difficult to play on the guitar without constant position shifting.

Locrian #6 (1 b2 b3 4 b5 6 b7) (E F G A Bb C# D)

One of my personal favorites, the Locrian #6 sounds weird and twisted as all hell on its own, although it can fit over a Phrygian Dominant backing quite well, in my experience. It is the 2nd mode of the Harmonic Minor scale (D Harmonic Minor in this case). You don't hear it often, if at all, and will definitely turn some heads. Great choice for creating dissonant-but-not-quite lines.

Minor Pentantonic scale (1 b3 4 5 b7) (E G A B D)

The final scale we will see here is arguably the most popular scale for our instrument. The good old Minor Pentatonic comes through for the guitarist yet again. Playing your standard blues and rock licks over an exotic flavored backdrop produces some very interesting musical colors indeed. Use it when you want to drop the exoticness of Phrygian based scales entirely, returning instead to classic rock style phrasing. It also produces the recognisable major/minor 3rd clash that sounds very much at home in the blues. I personally like to emphasize that clash by playing the minor 3rd (G in this case) over the tonic major chord (E in this case) which contains the major 3rd (G# in this case). Of course, feel free to play the Blues scale as well, by adding the flat 5th.


So, there you have it! 6 scales that can be used very effectively when you solo in Phrygian Dominant and want to break out of that particular scale. Have fun exploring the possible harmonic colors and melt some faces for me while you're at it! Be sure to leave me some feedback in the comments below, and suggest some alternative scales of your own. Cheers, and rock on brothers and sisters!

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