Phrygian Dominant Scale Guitar Lesson

Why this scale is the heavy metal guitarist's best friend

Led Zeppelin At Earl's Court
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, London, May 1975. Michael Putland / Getty Images

Here's a very cool sounding scale that doesn't get used a whole lot by guitarists. Not only is it a scale that can be used for playing great solos, but it works well as the basis for guitar riffs to create songs around.

Before we get started working on how to play and use the Phrygian dominant, we should make sure we understand what the scale sounds like -- YouTube features a video that illustrates this nicely. It has a very middle-eastern quality and is often a popular scale choice for rock guitarists looking to impart that flavor to their music. Bands like Canada's The Tea Party is one of the few that use the Phrygian dominant scale extensively. You'll also hear Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page occasionally use the Phrygian dominant scale.

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Notes in the Phrygian Dominant Scale

phrygian dominant scale notes

The graphic to the left is the notes in a D Phrygian dominant scale. Notice the unusually large interval between the second and third note of the scale; this leap is what gives the scale much of its characteristic sound.

Try playing this scale up one string, starting on the open fourth (D) string. To do this you'd play notes in the following order:

  • open string
  • first fret
  • fourth fret
  • fifth fret
  • seventh fret
  • eighth fret
  • tenth fret
  • twelfth fret

Alternately, you could start the scale on the third (G) string, starting at the seventh fret, using the open D string as a 'drone'; playing both strings at once. Your goal should be to memorize the distance between each note in the scale, so you can play it on any string, in any key.

If you're having trouble figuring out what notes you should be playing, spend a little time learning the note names all over the fretboard.

Once you understand the above, try moving on to playing the Phrygian dominant scale.

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Basic Phrygian Dominant Scale Finger Position

scale finger pattern

The Phrygian dominant is a tricky scale and requires a bit of finger stretching to play properly. Start with your first finger on the root of the sixth string, and play each note in the scale slowly and evenly. Your first finger should play both the first and second notes on the fifth string (stretch your finger down one fret to play the first note on the string, then slide it back to "home" position to play the second note.) Play the Phrygian dominant scale accurately, forwards and backward. The two bracketed notes on the first string indicate usable scale notes that go beyond the two-octave scale pattern. Play the notes on the last string using your first, second, and fourth (pinky) fingers (the last note will require a pinky stretch).​

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How to Use the Phrygian Dominant Scale

phrygian dominant scale chords

The graphic to the left illustrates the diatonic chords for the D Phrygian dominant scale. Playing through these chords will probably be less than inspirational for songwriting purposes -- the Phrygian dominant scale doesn't provide a set of chords nearly as nice and tidy as the major scale. Songwriters generally stick to writing songs that only include the root major chord (and sometimes also using the bII major chord). Experimentation is the key here. Try putting your guitar into open D tuning (DADF#AD) and playing up the phrygian dominant scale on the first string, while strumming all six strings. Now, try to create a riff using the scale. Try it a few times, and you'll get the hang of it.

The Phrygian dominant scale is actually a mode -- the fifth mode of the Harmonic Minor scale. So, the D Phrygian dominant scale actually has the same notes as a G harmonic minor scale.​

When used for soloing purposes (in a pop/rock context), the Phrygian Dominant scale also usually works best in situations where a chord progression lingers on a single major chord for a long period of time. It is a very distinct and strong sounding scale, so it will sound very out of place in many situations.

In a jazz context, the Phrygian dominant scale gets used in a much different situation; generally on a V7 chord, to create an "altered dominant" sound. For example, on the chord progression G7 to Cmaj, the G Phrygian dominant scale would be played on the G7 chord, to create a G7b9 sound, which resolves nicely to the Cmaj. The Phrygian dominant scale is also used on V7 chords in minor keys (G7 to Cmin).

Practicing, experimentation, and jamming the Phrygian Dominant scale will eventually yield some very interesting and exciting results for the experimental guitarist.