7 Phrygian Guitar Riffs That Get Harder

In this lesson I explain the theory behind the modes of the major scale, and in this lesson I show you the 3 note per string patterns that allow you to play in the Phrygian mode across the whole guitar fretboard.

In today’s lesson, we are going to concentrate less on the theory behind the Phrygian mode and more on how to put that theory into practice by learning Phrygian guitar riffs.

In addition to each riff, there will be explanations of the musical elements and techniques that are being used.

The first riff is easy, but subsequent riffs gradually increase in melodic, rhythmic, or technical difficulty.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we get into the Phrygian riffs:

What makes a riff sound Phyrgian?

Let’s take a riff in E Phrygian as an example.

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale, thus E Phrygian has the same notes of C major – C, D, E, F, G, A and B but starting the sequence from E – E, F, G, A, B, C and D.

This means that if you write a riff in E Phrygian you have the same note options as if you were writing in C major, but the home note of the riff is now E, and the notes that should be emphasized, particularly at the end of the riff should be the notes of the E minor triad: E, G and B.

Note: Riffs 3 – 6 in the examples below are in E Phrygian. You may notice that they all start and finish with either the note E or the power chord of E to establish the tonality. Though not featured in the examples, the E minor chord could also have been used.

There is another element that makes a riff sound Phrygian.

The E natural minor scale is made of the notes E, F#, G, A, B, C and D. This means that the only difference between E Phrygian and E minor is the second degree of the scale, which is lowered by a half step (F# – F in E Phrygian).

Thus, to make your riff sound Phrygian, this lowered second degree (F if you’re in E Phrygian) should be used at least once in the riff. 

Otherwise your riff may have been written in E minor. With which there’s nothing wrong, but it wouldn’t capture the flavor of the Phrygian mode.

Phrygian guitar riffs

Riff 1

The first riff is in A Phrygian and is very simple rhythmically and melodically. It makes use of only one guitar phrasing technique: vibrato on the last note of bars 2 and 4. 

Phrygian riffs 1

Riff 2

The following riff is in D Phrygian, and it incorporates several new melodic, rhythmic and technical elements, including palm muting, legato playing, power chords, and a rest before the final note.

Rests, that is, periods of silence in the music are usually underused by beginners in guitar riffing. Keep in mind that silence is a very useful musical tool. It can help the music breathe when necessary as well as accent the note that comes after the silence.

Phrygian riffs 2

Riff 3

This riff is in E Phrygian and doesn’t introduce any new elements. Rather, it helps you to see the musical elements used in the previous riffs in a different context.

Phrygian riffs 3

Riff 4

The following riff makes use of the drone, which is one of my favorite guitar techniques.

The drone is a technique that involves repeating a note while other notes or chords change. This technique is frequently found in heavy metal guitar riffs.  

The note that is being repeated here is the E, which is the root note.

Another common guitar technique, the slide, is used in this riff as well. 

Phrygian riffs 4

Riff 5

The following riff also uses a drone, but the string that is played against the drone is not the string that is adjacent to it. As a result, you will need to practice string skipping to play it correctly.

It should be noted that skipping strings is a more difficult task than playing notes on adjacent strings.

As a result, many beginners in guitar riff creation think that their only option is to use notes that are on adjacent strings. You will discover that you have more options after practicing string skipping, and as a result, you will be able to add more variety to the riffs you play.

Riff 6

This riff makes use of a more intricate rhythm.

Another essential ability for guitarists who want to write their own riffs is the awareness of the various rhythmic options available.

Phrygian riffs 6

Riff 7

The final riff is in the A Phrygian mode and features long legato runs, an advanced technique that is particularly challenging when the riff is performed at a fast tempo.  

You can play this riff at a slower tempo if you’re finding it too hard, or at a faster tempo if you’re finding it too easy.

Phrygian riffs 7

Conclusion: Where to go from here

When it comes to playing the guitar, mastery doesn’t just come from memorizing riffs, licks, and solos, but also from putting every concept you learn into practice and coming up with your own original variations on those concepts.

I would recommend that you create your own Phrygian riffs using some of the techniques that you have learned in this lesson rather than moving on to the next set of riffs to learn.

One final point to mention is that practicing a particular technique while playing in a particular mode can help you learn how to make the most of both the technique and the mode. 

On the other hand, you shouldn’t be thinking that way when you’re coming up with riffs that will be used in songs. This lesson on how to improve your guitar riffs will show you the difference between practicing riffs in order to master a technique and composing riffs in order to use them in your songs. 


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