SMG Guitar Lesson #14: Phrygian Mode


This week we’ll continue our study of modes with Phrygian mode, based on the third degree of the major scale. The Phrygian scale is named after the ancient Kingdom of Phrygia in what is now part of modern day Turkey. Phrygian mode tends to sound somewhat exotic due to it’s unique scale structure. Let’s say we’re in the key of G Major, which contains the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#, and let’s build a scale using these notes but starting on B, the third degree of the key…
Using our handy-dandy musical compass and turning the dial to B shows us that the intervals in the B Phrygian scale (and therefore any Phrygian scale) are 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, and b7. So you can think of a Phrygian scale as being like a minor scale, only with a flatted second interval… and it’s this flatted second interval that gives Phrygian mode it’s exotic sound.

Here’s the scale pattern most closely associated with Phrygian mode, as the lowest note in the pattern is the third degree of the major scale. It’s important to remember that you can use this pattern to improvise in any mode, it’s just that this one is a more common starting place for Phrygian mode. Notice how the root note of the parent key is found embedded within the scale pattern in the third octave position. As we are in the key of G, the root note G will be located on the second string on the eighth fret and the fifth string on the tenth fret, and that means the pattern starts on the sixth string on the seventh fret.

Here’s how to play the b Phrygian scale pattern:



Watch the video to make sure your using the right fingering:

GUITAR TIP ALERT: When learning scales, it’s important to learn them not just straight up and down, but also in a way that is musical. This gives you more ideas to build on when you’re improvising and makes you all-around a better guitarist.



Scale patterns and modes, while being slightly related, are none-the-less different by definition. Actual modes are best defined by how a chord progression interacts with a certain degree of the key. For example, a mode based on a particular degree of the major key will have one or more of the following happening in the chord progression:

  • Start on the chord of the degree it’s based on.
  • Move to that chord more frequently.
  • Hold the chord out longer than any other.
  • End on or resolve to that chord.

So what I’m getting at is that you don’t have to be limited to a certain pattern to play in a particular mode.
Here is a rhythm exercise giving you an example of what b Phrygian mode sounds like. Notice how this exercise is simply interpreted using the Cowboy Chords that most everybody knows down at the end of the neck.



Stay tuned as next week we’ll tackle Lydian mode, based on the fourth degree of a major key. And remember, there is no quick fix, no silver bullet, and absolutely no substitute for getting to know your modes as well as possible.


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