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The Phrygian Mode Across The Fretboard (with guitar lick examples)

The Phrygian mode has a very particular sound and its use is found in many genres of music including Heavy Metal, Jazz, Classical music, even electronic music.

Songs that make use of the Phrygian mode include Symphony of Destruction (Megadeth), Wherever I May Roam (Metallica) and Sails of Charon (Scorpions).

In this lesson you will learn how to play the Phrygian mode on the guitar using five 3 note per string scale patterns that cover the entire fretboard.

With each scale pattern you will be given a guitar lick. This will help you explore the flavor of this mode. Every lick will only consist of notes from the scale pattern you have just learned.

At the end of the lesson you will be given a short guitar solo in the Phrygian mode. Unlike the licks, the solo uses notes from all over the fretboard and is not tied to any particular scale pattern.

If you don’t know how modes work yet, I suggest you go through this lesson on guitar modes and understand how the Phrygian mode, into which we’ll go in depth in this lesson, fits in the bigger picture.

Phrygian mode theory

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale.

In this set of lessons on guitar modes we’re using the scale of G major as the parent scale.

Thus, since the scale of G major (Ionian) is made of the notes G A B C D E and F#, the Phrygian mode derived from the scale would be B Phrygian which is made of the same notes but in a different order: B C D E F# G and A.

This mode is similar to the natural minor scale, but has a lowered second degree. This gives the Phrygian mode its distinctive dark quality (which is one of the reasons this mode is commonly used in Heavy Metal music)

In this example you’re given an octave of the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) and an octave of the Phrygian mode so that you can see how by changing just one note, Phrygian has a different sound flavor than Aeolian.

Phrygian mode guitar scale patterns and licks

In this section we’ll cover the five 3 note per string scale patterns that cover the B Phrygian mode over the entire guitar fretboard along with guitar licks that use notes from each pattern.

Pattern 1

The first pattern starts on the 7th fret of the low E string.

Before giving you a guitar lick in the B Phrygian mode I would like to explain what makes licks, riffs, or solos sound Phrygian in the first place.

We’re using the same notes as G major after all, why does the lick sound in B Phrygian and not in G major?

The answer is that if we were improvising in G major, the most important notes, usually the long notes at the end of each phrase would be the notes of the G major triad: G, B, and D.

But since we’re in B Phrygian, these emphasized notes will be the notes of the B minor triad: B, D and F#.

Another important thing to get the Phrygian sound is the use of the lowered second degree of the scale, C in our case.

If this characteristic note is never used, your licks and solos could have been written using the B natural minor scale since the notes that you actually play are the same.

(There’s nothing wrong with this of course, your music will still sound good. It just wouldn’t capture the sound flavor of the Phrygian mode if that’s what you’re looking for).

When playing these guitar licks, always take note of these two aspects:

  1. The long notes or those that have an important role, such as those that end a phrase are almost always B, D and F#. (To make this easier to notice, I’ve written the name of these notes when they occur above the music notation).
  2. In every lick the note C, the second degree of the scale, is used at least once.

Pattern 2

This pattern starts on the 9th fret of the D string

In the next lick example, each phrase ends on the root note of B Phrygian, while the characteristic note C is reached by the half bends in bars 2 and 4.

Pattern 3

To play this pattern, put your small finger on the first note.

In this lick, the second phrase finishes on the note A (the first note of Bar 3) which is not a chord tone.

This is not a problem, since there is no rule that states all your phrases should end on a chord tone. (Always keep in mind that music theory is a set of guidelines, not a set of rules).

Also, the phrase that finishes on this note could be seen as part of a bigger phrase – the entire guitar lick – which ends on the root note B.

Pattern 4

The next pattern starts on the 14th fret of the A string.

The next lick finishes with a scale sequence that’s quite fast. You should find this easier to play if you follow the given picking directions.

Pattern 5

To play this pattern, put your small finger on the 19th fret of the low E string.

Now, you may notice that we haven’t covered the first section of the guitar fretboard.

This will actually be covered by this pattern, since if you shift the whole pattern down an octave and start with your small finger on the 7th fret of the low E string, you will still be playing the B Phrygian mode, just an octave lower.

In this last lick, all the phrases end on the root note B.

Phrygian guitar solo

As with the guitar licks, this solo emphasizes the notes of the B minor triad B, D and F#, and makes use of the lowered 2nd degree of the scale (C).

Unlike the guitar licks it doesn’t stay in any particular scale pattern and makes use of a large part of the guitar fretboard.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

This lesson covered the horizontal aspect of the Phrygian mode on the guitar fretboard, that is, the melody.

A more in depth study of the Phrygian mode would also look at the vertical aspect, the harmony.

Harmony simply refers to the chords that back up the melodies, and the progressions formed from these chords.

Harmonizing melodies using the modes can get pretty complex and I suggest that you get fluent with creating melodies before delving deeper into its study.


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