Phrygian Mode on Guitar: Learning and Examples

Updated August 15th, 2023 . 

Published Categorized as Scales

Ah, yes, another of the modes, at whose feet even the mightiest of guitarists have fallen trying and failing to best you. It must seem, to some, as though you are simply ineffable, beyond understanding and yet simultaneously beyond reproach. And yet, at your very core is the core of most western classical thought and musical theory, as founded by such revered mathematical thinkers as Pythagoras himself. Logic reigns supreme, so surely if we approach the Phrygian mode and all other modes with this logical viewpoint, we will be able to conquer them duly.

What makes the modes worthy of your fight and study is their multivalent ability to relate to one another and to other people, to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, meaning they are especially perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling, and most of all storytelling through composition. If we think of scales as ordered sequences of notes that can feel rigid in their ability to express, the modes are, by contrast, permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour and way of expressing.

The Ionian Mode, for example, is the major scale, pure and simple. The Dorian mode, by contrast, is one of the first permutations of this root mode. It is the chosen major scale with two of its intervals diminished (flattened), where the Ionian has no flats whatsoever. The Phrygian mode, contrasted with both of these, is comparatively later in the permutations, with several of its scale degrees diminished or flattened in this regard.

Table of Contents

What Exactly is a Mode?

Many often confuse modes for scales and vice versa, and while they are theoretically very similar if not the same, it is when you get down to it that you realise that they are in fact very different, and that the former is wholly indebted to the latter. A mode, instead of being a scale in its own right, is, instead, a permutation of a scale.

More often than not, the modes are worked out in relation to the major scale, this is really where all western classical notions of harmony and what sounds right to our ears comes from after all. The Ionian mode is, in fact, this very same major scale. So, if we were to say that something is in D Ionian, we would be saying that it simply uses the D major scale throughout, without any variation.

Each mode is a separate permutation of this foundational scale. The Lydian mode, for example, is the next stage in this process of metamorphosis. Almost exactly the same as the Ionian bar one interval, the sharpened (augmented) 4th, it is easy to see how this mode has metamorphosed from one stage to the next. All of the modes are like this, all the way from our home scale Ionian, all the way to the Locrian.

Some modes lend themselves better to certain tonalities and harmonic centres. The Lydian and the Ionian are by their very nature rather major tonalities, whereas the Dorian or the Phrygian mode we have before us today, for example, are inherently minor, owing to the minor 3rd and minor 7th at play in conjunction with the perfect 4th and perfect 5th, all ingredients for your average everyday minor triad.

What is the Phrygian Mode?

Where the Ionian mode, being the first degree / mode of the major scale, is simply a carbon copy of said major scale, the Phrygian mode is the third of these permutations.

The Ionian has the first scale degree functioning as the tonic, hence why to our ears and minds it is no different than its major scale counterpart. The Phrygian, on the other hand, places the third scale degree as the tonic root.

We would consider this a bass mode, and to be precise – a minor mode, one of three of them, because it features a flattened 3rd, characteristic of a minor chordal centre, and centres on the third degree of the harmonic progression of its key.

If we take the example of F major, birthing as it does the corresponding A Phrygian, we might be better able to see just what these theoretical terms mean in action:

Scale Degree1b2 (b9)b34 (11)5b6 (b13)b7
Interval (from previous)WholeHalfWholeWholeWholeHalfWhole

With a keen eye, we can easily see that the intervals between the notes, the major scale formula if you will, is identical to that of the F major scale, simply shuffled along a few steps: F – Whole – G – Whole – A – Half – Bb – Whole – C – Whole – D – Whole – E – Half – F (again).

It is in this way, I hope, that the relationship between the major scale of the given key and the Phrygian of this same key has been made lucid:

  • F Major
  • 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
  • F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E
  • I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viib5
  • F – Gm – Am – Bb – C – Dm – Em7b5
  • A Phrygian
  • 1 – b2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 – b7
  • A – Bb – C – D – E – F – G
  • i – bII – bIII – iv – vb5 – bVI – bvii
  • Am – Bb – C – Dm – Em7b5 – F – Gm

Why Learn Modes in the First Place?

While I would be the first to rush to the support of the idea that all music and musical theory and thought should be democratised, the modes are somewhat of an exception, and each individual fan, learner, scholar, or otherwise avid enthusiast of the guitar can choose for themselves whether they wish to pursue this line of thought.

What really sets the modes apart from the scales is the way that each offers, within the parameters of a tonal centre, specific harmonic, melodic, and tonal properties. These very properties are often what are called upon when people seek a specific mode from their toolbox. The Lydian mode, for example, has oft been noted for its more mystical, airy, and magical qualities, which have found apposite use in film soundtracks and even in the suggestive compositional harmonic and melodic writing of more adept film composers.

This is not just some intangible, ethereal aspect of music either. Despite music being so abstract an art form, there are certain scientific and theoretical reasons why these modes make us feel a certain way when they are used in certain contexts, and in this way they have become vital tools of suggestion and evocation in the realms of composition and improvisation.

This Lydian mode, for all its airy mysticism, can’t escape the very reason for its being such a magical sounding mode; some of its mystical aspects are lost in this explanation of the illusion, so to speak, but it is hoped that also one can appreciate anew the magic of what is created from so few elements. In the inherent tension between the sharpened (augmented) 4th and the perfect 5th in the Lydian mode, there is something unexplainable that seems to evoke within a large majority of us feelings of unease. But it is an unease more potent as a tool of magic and deception than it is an exercise in the heightening of intensity.

What Exactly Does this Mean for the Guitar?

Because of the structure of the guitar fretboard, its relative sameness in comparison to the changing notes and note shapes on a keyboard for example, it is conversely much easier to map out where a Phrygian mode might be in relation to its root note counterpart.

On a guitar, the third degree of the scale in relation to this counterpart, is almost always the major 3rd on the string below. From the E or A string, for example, the third is simply on the string below on the fret below. The only string this doesn’t work for is the G to B string, as this string is tuned slightly flatter than it would were it to follow the formula of ascending perfect 4ths otherwise present in the guitar strings.

Incidentally, no one knows for certain why this is, though some purport that it occurred as the instrument was evolving, fulfilling as it does the practical purpose of preventing somewhat the overstretching of the guitarist’s fingers all across the fretboard, in forming chord shapes or otherwise. In this instance, simply bearing in mind that the relationship is different will slowly cement itself into your subconscious and muscle memory.

Open Chord Shape Phrygian Mode

Below, following on from the example above, is the A Phrygian mode ascending and descending by one octave:

This more open positioning, with almost half of the notes in the Phrygian mode able to sound from open strings, will be familiar to those more accustomed to playing with basic, open chords. After repeated practise of this shape, ascending and descending, try to use the formula above to suss out where this mode might progress were we to use more of the neck.

Keep using this shape, however, and try not to let the fingers of your fretting hand wander too far up the fretboard. Eventually, they will be able to roam as free as they like, though being fairly strict with yourself in learning and absorbing notes and their values at this stage will save you acres of time in future.

This extended, two octave A Phrygian is detailed below, but do attempt to work it out for yourself first, for it is in precisely these moments of intuition and reflection under your own behest that your mind is most engaged and is likely also at its least self aware. Do get stuck in!

If you find yourself struggling initially, I recommend recording yourself playing the mode, either by video or audio, and see if you can intelligently assess yourself where you are going wrong, thus training your ear and your mind.

Good practise anyhow would be to play along to a drone and/or metronome, to best ensure that you are playing in key and in time respectively. So, whether you are struggling or whether you are comfortable with the exercise, it would be fruitful for you to engage with one and/or the other.

Barre Chord Shape Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode can be played all over the guitar fretboard, though the two positions I’m prescribing are so aligned with the typical chord shapes found throughout the Western musical tradition that if you were to have to choose only two representations of this mode to help you through your musical journey, these would be the ones to go for!

This position is a little more advanced, only in that, unlike the open chord shape, it doesn’t utilise any open strings and is centred on the barre chord shapes whose root more often than not finds its home on the E and A strings. However, as there are so many songs that utilise these kinds of chords, those that lie in between the natural notes and must be playing with barre chords, this is vital knowledge for any guitarist seeking to spread their wings in this way, even if this is somewhat out of your comfort zone.

First, we will begin with the shape travelling up and down one octave:

As with the exercise above, practise intelligently and attempt to iron the mistakes that arise in your study while they first surface, as this will save you immense amounts of time in the long run, making sure to use such techniques as detailed above for swift and merciless development of your abilities.

Also as above, before you move onto the two octave extended version of this barre chord shape, use your ears, eyes, mind, and fingers, all in conjunction with one another, to suss out the rest of the mode further up in pitch, further down the neck as it were.

Real World Examples of the Phrygian Mode

It is all well and good talking about the Phrygian mode in the abstract like this, and it is even better to learn it yourself and implement it into your own performances, compositions and improvisations, but it is still useful to hear some real world examples of the mode at work. I would be the first to rush to the defence of anyone wanting to work under their own behest, away from the influence of the world, but learning a thing or two about how others use this mode could be just the inspiration you need!

‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ by Pink Floyd

Appearing on their sophomore album in 1968, A Saucerful of Secrets, this spacious and expansive track was written by Roger Waters who took lyrical inspiration from a Chinese poetry book. The song also notably features a drum part by Nick Mason played with timpani mallets. It is the only song recorded by Pink Floyd to feature material from all five band members, as there are several different guitar parts recorded by both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett, the latter of whom would not feature on any future Pink Floyd releases owing to issues with his own mental health and psychedelic drug abuse.

The song is also notable for using the oft neglected Phrgian mode, written in the Key of E phrygian. The bassline, at least, was written in that key, though the vocals are in E locrian. When using the IV chord of the original home key, Gilmour sings a B flat rather than a B to give a distinct Locrian feeling, when using the flattened fifth scale degree. Despite this, the bass is still in Phrygian. Thus, the tension and interplay between these two modes informs the ethereal and otherworldly feeling of much of the track.

‘Things We Said Today’ by the Beatles

This example is a song by none other than the English rock band the Beatles, written by Paul McCartney and credited to the power house songwriting duo Lennon-McCartney. It was released in July 1964 as the B-side to the single ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and on their album of the same name.

McCartney wrote the song while holidaying in the Virgin Islands with his then girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. The lyrics address a common love trope, the singer’s love for a girl despite the distance between them. McCartney later described the song as exhibiting ‘future nostalgia’, of being ‘nostalgic about the moment we’re living in now.’ The music is melodically complex and linear, using chords more typical of classical music and jazz than pop music. Between verses, it changes between major and minor keys, while the lyrics shift between the first and third person, and between the future and present tense, far more literary storytelling devices.

The track is mostly in the natural minor key of A and is in 4/4, playing on alternating major and minor chords, with A minor playing in the verses before the release changes to A major. The transitions are marked by a change in harmony and an acoustic guitar flourish. The song is melodically horizontal, using chord changes typical in both classical music and jazz. It consistently uses a B♭ chord, which musicologist Alan W. Pollack believes ‘adds even more spice to both the melody and harmony’, and is suggestive of the ‘exotic Phrygian mode’, all of which can be said to be representative of the temporal displacement of the song’s content. In this way, we can easily see the power of the Phrygian mode, and all of the other modes for that matter, in evoking a certain feeling and painting a compositional picture.

‘Wherever I May Roam’ by Metallica

This example is, by contrast, heavier in timbre and tone, a song by American heavy metal band Metallica, released in October 1992 as the fourth single from their eponymous fifth album, Metallica, oft colloquially referred to as The Black Album.

All stringed instruments featured in this song, both guitars and basses, use standard tuning. The original recording of the song is notable for its unusual instrumentation for the band: Asian instruments such as a gong and a guitar mimicking a sitar are featured, along with an overdubbed twelve string bass. This twelve string bass was, however, only used for effect during the intro to emphasize several accented notes, with a standard tuned four string bass used as the main bass instrument throughout the remainder of the recording.

The uncharacteristic use of Eastern instrumentation, or at the very least instrumentation that is attempting to mimic Eastern instruments, as well the notable use of the Phrygian mode at several points, has led many commentators to refer to this as ‘raga rock’. This perhaps speaks to the globe trotting element of the song’s overall theme and content, informing where the speaker truly feels at home etc.

Final Tones

The beauty here with this mode, as with so many of these theoretical quandaries when translated to guitar, is that it can be transposed as easily as moving the shape up and down the fretboard. So long as you, to begin with, start on the root note, you are transposing this Phrygian mode shape wherever you so please.

Have a go – pick a key at random or perhaps one of your favourites, then work out the 3rd, then from there you will be able to work out its Phrygian too! I would strongly encourage anyone to feel comfortable with both the open chord shape and barre chord shape of Phrygian in most of the essential keys before moving onto learning another of the modes, as they can become rather jumbled in one’s mind if attempting to learn more than one or two of them at once.

FAQs Phrygian Mode

Which mode is Phrygian?

The Phrygian mode is the third mode of the corresponding major scale, the third permutation of this major scale. This Phrygian mode is calculated using the third scale degree of the corresponding major scale. So, if we were to begin with the C major scale, being that it is oft considered the veritable centre of western tonality, then to calculate its Phrygian mode we would go up to the third scale degree, that being E, and use this as the new root. In this way, we can essentially think of a mode as a major scale moved along by however many scale degrees is apt for the mode. For the Phrygian mode, the shift is by three scale degrees, though this of course varies from no shifts (Ionian) right up to seven shifts (Locrian).

What notes are in Phrygian mode?

Beginning with the root of the mode, which is itself the 3rd of its corresponding major scale, we ascend by the following formula, whole translating to the guitar as two frets and half as one fret: Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole. There are seemingly endless ways to translate this to the guitar, all the better if found under your own behest. This is a handy formula for calculating the mode for oneself, which is all the more important for those wanting to ingrain this knowledge within themselves long term. It is all well and good simply looking up the notes for a particular Phrygian when you need them, but to be able to work them out yourself on the fly without needing to refer to an online resource is all the better.

What is Phrygian mode used for?

Like all of the modes, the Phrygian offers a specific permutation of its major or minor scale counterpart. These often are called upon to conjure specific moods and feelings, so they are perfect for melodic and harmonic composition as well as improvisational colouring and storytelling. The Phrygian specifically finds itself used often by Jazz musicians, the abundance of flattening scale degrees within suiting the oft extended harmonic language of Jazz music.

How do you do Phrygian mode?

Beginning with the root of the mode, which is itself the 3rd of its corresponding major scale, we ascend by the following formula, whole translating to the guitar as two frets and half as one fret: Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole. There are seemingly endless ways to translate this to the guitar, all the better if found under your own behest. This is a handy formula for calculating the mode for oneself, which is all the more important for those wanting to ingrain this knowledge within themselves long term. It is all well and good simply looking up the notes for a particular Phrygian when you need them, but to be able to work them out yourself on the fly without needing to refer to an online resource is all the better.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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