The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists – Tabs, Patterns & Theory

The modes are always a recurring topic when discussing music theory, especially in a jazz and improvisation context, since they’re one of the most popular tools among guitarists.

This KillerGuitarRigs guide will show you all the important aspects of the Phrygian mode. It is not the most commonly used scale, but it has a lot of underlying potential to compose and improvise with.

The Phrygian mode can be easily distinguished by its minor second interval, which gives it a “Spanish” kind of sound since this mode is often used in flamenco music and other similar genres. Many musicians like to take advantage of its darker, more mysterious sound.

You can hear it in songs such as “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” by Pink Floyd, “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica and Porcupine Tree’s “The Sound of Muzak”.

Phrygian Mode – Overview and Scale Formula

The Phrygian mode is one of the seven modes that come from the Major Scale.

It is its third mode, which means that we obtain it by reading the Major scale starting on the 3rd note instead of the first. Changing this affects all of the intervals within the scale, which is what gives each mode its distinctive color.

Let’s use C Major as our example for this guide to make things more clear.

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists -  Major scale

Let’s now see what kind of scale we get by reading it starting on the 3rd scale degree (E) instead of C.

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists -  Major scale

We call C Major the “parent scale” of E Phrygian, because they use the same notes, and it is where this mode comes from.

Now that you know that Phrygian is the third mode of the Major scale, you can find the parent scale of any Phrygian scale by finding out what is its corresponding I (one) scale degree. You can do this by moving back 2 whole tones (4 semitones) back from your Phrygian scale.

You can use the following table to figure this out if you are ever having doubts about a specific scale.

Parent Scale (Major)Phrygian (III Degree)
CE
DbF
DF#
EbG
EG#
FA
F#A#
GB
AbC
AC#
BbD
BD#

You can describe the Phrygian mode numerically by its formula: “1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7”.

You can also see it as a natural minor scale that has a flat second instead of being natural. That is the most defining interval of the Phrygian mode – if you don’t play it, you could interpret the sound as natural minor, for example.

The examples shown later in this guide will be in the key of E, since most people get started with the modes that come from the C Major scale. In any case, you can shift every scale pattern to play in other keys.


Phrygian Mode – Scale Notes in E Phrygian, When to Play

The notes in the E Phrygian scale are the following:

  • E (Root)
  • F (Minor Second)
  • G (Minor Third)
  • A (Perfect Fourth)
  • B (Perfect Fifth)
  • C (Minor Sixth)
  • D (Minor Seventh)

Since it has a minor third interval, this scale is considered minor. The minor second interval, however, is responsible for the “Phrygian” color, as it is what sets it apart the most from other scales such as the natural minor and melodic minor scales.


Notes

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

Scale Degrees
1Rootb2Minor Secondb3Minor Third4Perfect Fourth5Perfect Fifthb6Minor Sixthb7Minor Seventh

Interval

H

W

W

W

H

W

W

The Phrygian mode sounds good over some minor chords, depending on their harmonic function in the chord progression (context is everything in harmony), and over sus4(b9) chords, for example.

You could play A Phrygian over an Asus4(b9).


The Main Scale Patterns for the Phrygian Mode – Fretboard Diagrams, Tabs and Notation

Let’s get into the main scale patterns that you should be able to find if you want to incorporate the Phrygian mode into your playing.

If you memorize these patterns and the most important notes to use as your reference, you’ll be able to use this mode much more effectively.

There is one key detail: since E Phrygian uses the same set of notes as C Major, you probably already know where to find them.

The trick is to associate the shapes that you know from studying the Major scale to the mode you’re learning. This will save you a huge amount of time, and you’ll find every shape much quicker on the guitar while playing.

The diagram below represents where every note in the E Phrygian mode is located on the guitar’s fretboard. The root note is shown in red and the rest of them are black.

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Fretboard Diagram

Once again, you may have noticed that these are the same notes that exist in the C Major scale. Knowing that allows you to at least be able to play without accidentally stepping on a note that is outside of the scale.

In any case, you should focus your efforts on memorizing shapes that already use E as the tonic, so that your ideas inspired by the Phrygian mode make more sense and convey the mode’s color more efficiently.

Check the diagrams below to learn some of the main E Phrygian scale patterns across the neck. Memorizing this is an excellent first step to mastering this mode.

Each diagram is also accompanied by its corresponding guitar tab.

Root on the 6th String (Open String or 12th Fret) and 4th String (2nd or 14th Fret)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Root on the 6th String

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on the 5th String (7th Fret) and 3rd String (9th Fret)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Root on the 5th String

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on the 4th String (2nd Fret) and 2nd String (5th fret)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Root on the 4th String

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Root on the 3rd String (7th Fret) and 1st String (12th fret)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Root on the 3rd String

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

While it is essential to know where you can play the scale from root to root (in this case, from E to E), it is also very important to have a wide sense of awareness in regards to the other notes of the scale.

With this in mind, it is great to practice 2 octave shapes, taking into account every note of the Phrygian scale that can be found within a specific fretboard region.

Here are two of these shapes for you to practice, with their corresponding tabs.

E Phrygian 2 Octave Pattern #1 (Root 6th String)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - E Phrygian 2 Octave Pattern #1

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

E Phrygian 2 Octave Pattern #2 (Root 5th String)

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - E Phrygian 2 Octave Pattern #2

Tab:

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Tab

Practice all of the previous patterns slowly with a metronome. Speed is not important, you should focus on memorizing all of these shapes, as well as quickly finding the root note of any Phrygian scale you may come across in the future.

All of these examples were in E Phrygian, but by moving the pattern across the neck, you can play any Phrygian scale you’d like.


3 Notes per String Method Applied to E Phrygian

There are 7 different scale patterns that allow you to play Phrygian scales all across the fretboard – one starting on each scale degree (root, major second, minor third, etc.).

These shapes are useful to know since they allow you to play comfortably in every neck region, and keeping a steady pace of playing 3 notes on every string can improve your speed.

Check below for fretboard diagrams representing each of these shapes in the key of E. You can move every shape around the neck to play any other Phrygian scale you’d like.

First Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - First Pattern

Second Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Second Pattern

Third Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Third Pattern

Fourth Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Fourth Pattern

Fifth Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Fifth Pattern

Sixth Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Sixth Pattern

Seventh Pattern

The Phrygian Mode for Guitarists - Seventh Pattern

Final Thoughts about the Phrygian Mode

Even though Phrygian isn’t a mode as popular as Dorian or Mixolydian, it still has a lot of unique character and color that you can use in many contexts. The minor second interval in the scale instantly affects the melody or solo that you are playing.

One of the most important parts of studying this mode is memorizing its single and double octave shapes throughout the fretboard, so that you can easily use your Phrygian vocabulary anywhere with ease.

Gustavo Pereira

Gustavo is a Portuguese musician based in Barcelona, where he’s studying jazz & modern music interpretation on the electric guitar. Favorite genre: blues, jazz, funk, soul

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