The Phrygian mode is the third mode of the Major scale and is a great way to add some exotic sounds to your guitar playing.
Before you learn the Phrygian mode, I recommend first learning the Ionian mode.
This guide will look at:
- What the Phrygian mode is
- How the Phrygian mode compares to other modes
- Basic Music Theory and Mode Formula
- Fretboard Diagrams for Every Phrygian Mode on Guitar
- How to Use the Phygrian Mode
- Songs Using the Phygrian Mode
After reading this guide, read this guide to learn how to practice modes and scales.
What is the Phrygian Mode
The Phrygian mode is the third mode of the Major scale. This means the Phrygian mode can be built by looking at the third note of any Major scale.
Many guitarists use the Phrygian mode to add some exotic or dark moods to their playing.
Phrygian is often thought of as having a Flamenco sound, while others consider it Middle-eastern influenced. The sounds and exotic colors you can get out of Phrygian depends on how you use it.
If you want to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to modes, Phrygian is a great example of how modes can add something completely different to your playing.
Metal guitarists often use Phrygian in their riffs to get a darker sound. Check out the songs that use the Phrygian mode later in this guide for examples.
Phrygian Mode Formula
The Phrygian mode can be understood with a formula that compares it against the Major scale. Understanding mode formulas will help you understand the difference between each mode.
The formula for the Phrygian mode is: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
If you compare this to the formula for the Major Scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7), you will see there are four notes that are altered.
The second, third, sixth, and seventh notes are lowered by one semitone to create the Phrygian mode. This is what gives Phrygian such a dark and exotic sound.
Only three notes from the Major scale remain (1, 4, 5). These three notes give Phrygian some stability (the Locrian mode has a b5 and sounds very unstable).
The Phrygian mode can be thought of as a minor scale due to the minor intervals used. It works extremely well over minor chords when you want a dark sound.
How to Find The Notes in Phrygian
There are three different methods you can use to find the notes in any mode.
Modes are often confusing at first because different books and videos will use different methods to explain modes, so you end up with a confusing blur of explanations.
I’ll go through the three easiest ways to find the notes in the Phrygian mode and you can decide which method makes the most sense to you to use.
Method 1: Use the Mode Formula
The first method to figure out the notes in any mode is to use the mode formula as mentioned earlier.
The formula for Phrygian is: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
To use this formula, pick a root note for the mode you want to figure out.
Here are the steps to using the mode formula to find the notes in any mode:
- Choose a mode to learn
- Find the Major Scale that starts on the same note
- Use the mode formula to change that scale into the mode
Let’s go through these steps with a couple of examples to show how you can use the formula to figure out any Phrygian mode. But the same above steps apply when learning other modes.
Example 1: C Phrygian
Let’s say you want to figure out the notes for C Phrygian.
The root note (the first note) for C Phrygian is C. This means to use the mode formula, we need to start with the notes in the C Major Scale. You simply find the scale that matches the starting note C.
Here are the notes of the C Major Scale:
Now we can use the Phrygian formula (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7) to change the C Major scale into the C Phrygian mode.
The ‘b’ before the number tells us that the note needs to be lowered by one semitone or a half-step (one fret on guitar). We say we ‘flat’ the note when there is a ‘b’ (eg: ‘b3’ is called a ‘flat third’ and ‘b7’ is called a ‘flat seventh’).
The second note in the C Major scale is D, so to create a flat second, we lower it by one semitone or fret down to D flat (Db).
The third note in the C Major scale is E, so to create a flat third, we lower it by one semitone down to E flat (Eb).
The fourth and fifth notes stay the same in the Phrygian mode, so they stay as F and G.
The sixth note in the C Major scale is A, so to create a flat sixth, we lower it down to A flat (Ab).
The seventh note in the C Major scale is B, to create a flat seventh, we lower it down to B flat (Bb).
This might seem like a lot of work, but with practice you’ll eventually be able to instantly do this with any mode you want.
Here’s a chart comparing the C Major scale to the notes in the C Phrygian mode:
By changing the second, third, sixth, and seventh notes in the C Major scale, we end up with all the notes in the C Phrygian mode.
The notes in C Phrygian are: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb
Example 2: E Phrygian
The root note (the first note) for E Phrygian is E. This means to use the mode formula, we need to start with the notes in the E Major Scale.
Here are the notes of the E Major Scale:
Don’t let the sharp notes confuse you, it doesn’t make any difference in how we figure out what the notes are in a mode.
The formula for Phrygian is 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 so we need to lower the second, third, sixth, and seventh notes in the E Major scale down by one fret to find the notes for E Phrygian.
The second note in the E Major scale is F# (F sharp), so to create a flat second, we lower it by one semitone or fret down to F.
The third note in the E Major scale is G# (G sharp), so to create a flat third, we lower it by one semitone to G.
The fourth and fifth notes stay the same (A & B).
The sixth note in the E Major scale is C#, so to create a flat sixth, we lower it down to get C.
The seventh note in the E Major scale is D#, to create a flat seventh, we lower it down to get D.
Here’s a chart comparing the E Major scale to the E Phrygian mode:
So the notes in E Phrygian are: E F G A B C D.
The sharps and flats may be confusing if you are new to music theory, so think of them as shifting up or down a fret at a time. If you see ‘b3’, it just means take the ‘3’ note and move it down one fret. The starting note could be anything (eg: C#, Eb, F) and it doesn’t make any difference – just move it down one fret to find the new note.
Practice taking other Major scales and turning them into the Phrygian mode using the above formula and steps.
Method 2: Match the Major Scale
The second method is to figure out which Major scale matches the mode you want to find.
There are seven modes of the Major scale – one built from every note in the scale.
Phrygian is the third mode of the Major scale, so Phrygian is built using the third note of the Major scale.
Example 1: E Phrygian
We want to find a Major scale that uses the note ‘E’ as the third note in the scale.
An easy way to do this is to look up a chart of Major scales to find the one that uses E in the third position.
The other way is to look at the note four frets down from your chosen Phrygian mode root.
Four frets down from E is C, so the matching Major scale for E Phrygian is the C Major scale (C D E F G A B).
This means the C Major scale and the E Phrygian mode use the same notes. The only difference is E Phrygian starts on E and C Major starts on C.
So the notes in E Phrygian are: E F G A B C D.
Example 2: A Phrygian
We want to find a Major scale that uses the note ‘A’ as the third note in the scale.
You can look up a chart of Major scales to find the one that uses A in the third position.
The other way is to look at the note four frets down from your chosen Phrygian mode root.
Four frets down from A is F, so the matching Major scale is the F Major scale (F G A Bb C D E).
This means the F Major scale and the A Phrygian mode use the same notes. The only difference is A Phrygian starts on A and F Major starts on F.
So the notes in A Phrygian are: A Bb C D E F G.
Method 3: Build Using Intervals
The third method is to build the mode using intervals and an interval formula.
Intervals are the building blocks of scales as explained in detail in this lesson.
Learning how to build a scale or mode using intervals will help you understand what makes each mode or scale different.
The way you build the Phrygian mode using intervals is similar to how we built the mode using the formula covered earlier.
The interval formula for the Phrygian mode is: H W W W H W W
W = whole-tone (two frets on guitar)
H = half-tone or semitone (one fret on guitar)
To use this formula, you pick the mode you want to build (eg: C Phrygian), then follow the formula to figure out the rest of the notes.
Once you learn how to do this, you’ll see that you can easily build any Phrygian mode you want without having to know any Major scales.
Example: E Phrygian
Here’s a fretboard diagram showing how simple this method is to work out the E Phrygian mode:
Here are the steps explained:
- Start on the root note for the mode (eg: E for E Phrygian)
- Move up two frets to find the next note for any W in the formula
- Move up one fret to find the next note for any H in the formula
- By the end of the formula, you should end up on the same note as the root one octave higher (eg: E for E Phrygian)
Once you memorize the formulas for all seven modes, you can easily find all the notes to any mode without having to look up any scale.
This method might seem like a lot of work at first, but if you have memorized the notes on the fretboard, you’ll find that this is an incredibly quick and easy method to use.
Phrygian Mode Reference Chart
Here is a handy reference chart showing all possible Phrygian Modes:
Look through the above chart and see if you can find any Major scales you already know. Spending time looking for patterns in scales and modes is a great way to build a stronger understanding of how they’re built and how to use them.
Every Phrygian Mode Fretboard Diagram
There are 12 possible Phrygian modes to match the 12 notes we can play on guitar.
Before we look at how to use the Phrygian mode as well as songs that use Phrygian, here is a fretboard diagram for every Phrygian mode you can play on guitar.
A Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in A Phrygian mode are: A Bb C D E F G
A# Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in A# Phrygian mode are: A# B C# D# E# F# G#
B Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in B Phrygian mode are: B C D E F# G A
C Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in C Phrygian mode are: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb
C# Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in C# Phrygian mode are: C# D E F# G# A B
D Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in D Phrygian mode are: D Eb F G A Bb C
D# Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in D# Phrygian mode are: D# E F# G# A# B C#
E Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in E Phrygian mode are: E F G A B C D
F Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in F Phrygian mode are: F Gb Ab Bb C Db Eb
F# Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in F# Phrygian mode are: F# G A B C# D E
G Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in G Phrygian mode are: G Ab Bb C D Eb F
G# Phrygian Fretboard Diagram
The notes in G# Phrygian mode are: G# A B C# D# E F#
How to Use the Phrygian Mode
The best way to learn how to use the Phrygian mode is to spend time jamming with it over the top of a minor chord.
For example, use a looper pedal to record yourself strumming a E minor chord.
Now you can jam over the top of that chord using the E Phrygian mode. Try coming up with licks and melodies and listen to how the mode sounds over the top of the chord.
Make sure you match the minor chord to the root note of the mode you’re using. So if you want to jam in A Phrygian, play over an A minor chord.
The Phrygian Sound
When you play through the notes in the Phrygian mode, you may notice that some of the notes sound odd or unexpected.
Compared to the Major scale, the Phrygian mode has a very dark and exotic sound. Some of the notes may stand out as almost wrong to your ears (until you learn how to use them).
Play through the notes in the Phrygian mode over a background minor chord and listen carefully to each note.
For example, try playing the below notes (E Phrygian) over the top of an E minor chord:
The above Guitar TAB starts on E and ends on E after going through all the notes in E Phrygian.
The note that stands out to most guitarists is the second note in Phrygian. This note (b2) gives Phrygian its distinctive exotic sound.
The other notes all contribute to the Phrygian sound in some way, but the b2 is distinctly Phrygian because no other modes use it (apart from Locrian).
This means if you want to emphasize the Phrygian sound in your playing, it’s a good idea to heavily focus on and play with the b2 note.
When you look at the riffs used in the Phrygian songs covered later, you’ll notice that a lot of songs write riffs that heavily use the b2 note.
Comparing Phrygian to Other Modes
The best way to truly understand the sound of Phrygian is to directly compare it against other modes.
Start by improvising using E Phrygian over your low E string droning in the background.
Then switch to another mode based on E such as E Dorian or E Ionian and think about how each mode sounds different.
Some of the notes may stay the same between modes (eg: the fifth note is the same in every mode except Locrian), while other notes will change (eg: b3, #4, b7).
Phrygian is very similar to the Aeolian mode with the b2 in Phrygian being the only difference. Play back and forth between them to get used to the difference in the two modes.
The more modes you learn, the easier it will be for you to learn the sound and feel of each mode and when to use them.
Songs Using the Phrygian Mode
Phrygian is a popular mode to use whenever you want a dark or exotic sound. It can be used to add some Flamenco or Middle-Eastern influence to your music, or you can use it for dark metal riffs.
Have a listen to the following songs and see if you can get a feel for the Phrygian sound. With enough practice, you’ll start to recognize all the different modes in music by ear.
See if you can pick out the b2 note in each song – the note that separates Phrygian from Aeolian or the minor scale.
Here are some songs that are great examples of the Phrygian mode:
- Wherever I May Roam by Metallica
- As I Am by Dream Theater
- Would by Alice in Chains
- Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth
- Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun by Pink Floyd
- War by Joe Satriani
Some of these songs heavily lean into Phrygian’s distinctive exotic sound (eg: Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun by Pink Floyd) while others don’t exaggerate the exotic quality of the mode.
It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of songs use Phrygian Dominant, which is a mode of the Harmonic Minor scale. So a lot of songs that sound like they’re using Phrygian may be using the Phrygian Dominant mode instead.
Look up the Guitar TAB for these songs and see if you can figure out exactly what Phrygian mode is used in each one. Compare the notes used in the song against the fretboard diagrams from earlier and you can figure out each mode.
Phrygian Mode FAQs
Here are some common questions you might have about the Phrygian mode.
What is the Phrygian Mode Used for?
The Phrygian mode is used to create dark or exotic sounds in music. Some guitarists use Phrygian mode to add Flamenco or Middle-Eastern inspired sounds to their playing, while others use it to create dark-sounding riffs and licks.
Is Phrygian Mode Major or Minor?
Phrygian is a minor mode that works very well over minor chords. Phrygian mode is very similar to the minor scale as it has a minor third, minor sixth, and minor seventh. Phrygian also has a minor second, which adds to the dark and exotic sound.
Is Phrygian Mode and Phrygian Dominant the Same?
Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant are not the same. Phrygian is the third mode of the Major Scale, while Phrygian Dominant is the fifth mode of the Harmonic minor scale.
Both Phrygian and Phrygian dominant are modes and have a similar sound, but they are built from different scales. The only difference between Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant is Phrygian Dominant has a Major third, while Phrygian has a minor third.
How Can You Tell if a Song is in Phrygian?
You can tell if a song is in Phrygian if the notes match the Phrygian mode compared to the underlying chord root note. So if the background chord is E minor and the notes in the riffs or lead match the E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C D), then that suggests the Phrygian mode.
Look for the b2 for the biggest clue that the song may be using the Phrygian mode.
When Should I Play Phrygian Mode?
You can play the Phrygian mode whenever there is a minor chord in the background and you want to create a dark or exotic sound in your playing. Depending on which notes you focus on, you can create Middle-Eastern sounding riffs or you can create dark and heavy riffs.
Here are more useful guides on the modes and practicing them:
- Guide to Ionian Mode
- Guide to Dorian Mode
- Guide to Lydian Mode
- Guide to Mixolydian Mode
- Guide to Aeolian Mode
- How to Practice Guitar Scales and Modes
- How to Memorize the Fretboard
- More guides on modes coming soon