How to Use the Phrygian Mode on Guitar

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Scales

Making the way up the ranks as a guitarist, one could be forgiven early on for feeling as though the modes were another language altogether, one that would evade understanding, like audio-linguistic eels. However, like much of Western music theory, they have much more to do with mathematics and formulas (cue the Pythagorean mode!), so with some dedication in a logical mindset they can be mastered with ease.

What makes modes unique is their ability to relate to one another, and to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling. Where scales are ordered sequences of notes that can feel rigid in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.

Table of Contents

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 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 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:

NoteABbCDEFG
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

What 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 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

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 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

This 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.

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 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.

FAQ’s Phrygian Scale Guitar

What is the 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 play the Phrygian mode on guitar?

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.

Is Phrygian a scale or a mode?

The Phrygian is a mode of the major scale, one of seven, each of which is a different and unique permutation, mirroring its corresponding scale in many ways, while differing in just as many ways depending on just how mutated. The Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale, so there is still something recognisable about it, though it is inherently minor because of its flattened 3rd.

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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