For years, guitarists of a questing nature have exploited the dark and mysterious qualities of the Phrygian mode, with its ability to give licks and solos an “outside” sound that is both jazzy and ultra-cool.
Whether you realize it or not, the Phyrgian mode has been part of the rock, metal and jazz lexicons for years and can be heard in many of the passages that are now in the pantheon of great guitar performance. Psychedelic bands like Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service often used it in their Middle Eastern–flavored jams. Jazz-fusion groundbreakers like Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin mapped out the mode for the legions of virtuoso players who followed their lead, and many of the ultra-heavy riffs of bands such as Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer and Sepultura are Phyrgian based.
In the following musical examples, we’ll examine this exotic sound in a variety of styles. Then we'll top it off with a burning, fusion steel-string solo suitable for acoustic or electric.
THE BASIC CONSTRUCTION
Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale. So if, for example, you play the notes of the C major scale starting from the third scale degree, E, and ascend an octave, you’ve got the E Phyrgian mode: E F G A B C D. The intervallic structure is 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7. This is, essentially, the natural minor scale (or Aeolian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7) without a b2nd.
Confused? Don’t be. Here’s a cool hands-on example.
The open-position C major scale (or relative A minor scale) pattern makes an excellent stand-in for E Phyrgian. The descending run in FIGURE 1 provides a basic example of this idea. Play an Em chord just before you perform the run, and you’ll hear the distinctive sound of Phrygian.
FIGURE 2, meanwhile, is a sizzling F# Phrygian (F# G A B C# D E) lick in the style of Al Di Meola. Use alternate picking, dig in hard, and don’t forget to palm-mute your strings near the bridge.
ALTERED AND MODAL APPLICATIONS
Phrygian finds its diatonic home over the iii chord in major keys—for example A Phrygian over the Am7 chord in the key of F major—and the v chord in minor keys—such as G Phrygian over the Gm chord in the key of Cm.
In these setting, the mode presents little, if any, melodic surprises. But drape Phrygian over the V chord in a major key, and you’l get exciting altered results—b9, #9 and #5—as seen in FIGURE 3, where G Phrygian (G Ab Bb C D Eb F) colors the V chord (G7b9) in the key of C major.
Like a dog anticipating a walk around the block, the Phrygian mode lives for i-bII progressions. FIGURE 4 straps the leash on A Phrygian (A Bb C D E F G) for a legato-fueled cruise around the Am7–Bbmaj7 changes (7th chord harmony of the 1st and 2nd degrees of A Phrygian).
MODEL METAL MADNESS
Though the metal-approved FIGURE 5 starts on a D5 chord, the progression clearly revolves around E5, with the F5 chord suggesting E Phrygian (E F G A B C D).
The legato-enhanced phrases snake back and forth between 12th-position E minor pentatonic (E G A B D) and 10th-position D minor pentatonic (D E F G C) boxes. (Interestingly, when combined, these two scales spell out the entire E Phrygian mode.) This passage may look daunting at first, but it’s very pattern-oriented. Work through it slowly, using the suggested fingerings, and you should be able to get it up to speed in no time.
The 24-bar solo shown in FIGURE 6 is an uptempo rock samba inspired by the acoustic stylings of Al Di Meola. It’s based on a colorful chord cycle harmonized from the E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C D). Em11 and Dm11 chords bridge the sections in every seventh and eighth measure. The entire solo is based on E Phrygian concepts.
The solo opens with a simple motif of four Es played in a row. The reason for this approach is twofold. First, it establishes the key center (E), and second, it introduces an easy-to-navigate melodic idea that you can return to during the frenzy of things that follow.
The second measure features a flamenco-style double pull-off (F-E-D) that nails the b2nd (F). Use a 4-3-1 fret-hand fingering for these pull-offs. The next two measures (3–4) respond with a variation on the opening motif (three Bs played in a row) as well as another double pull-off (C-B-A), to bring out the b6th ( C ).
Quarter-note triplets add rhythmic interest to measures 5–6, where an Em arpeggio (E-G-B) segues to a backward/forward line that toys with the lower regions of E Phrygian. A rapid-fire legato lick on the 6th string (start the sequence with your 2nd finger) sets off a series of ascending scale passages in measures 8–13. The second passage (measures 10–11) is triggered by another double pull-off (G-F-E), this time on the A string. Use a 4-2-1 finger pattern here.
Another double pull-off (F-E-D) activates the third ascending passage (measures 12–13), which culminates on strings 3–1 in a rhythmic dance along the notes of an Em7 arpeggio (E-G-B-D). The Em7 theme continues in measures 14–15, where it is enhanced with additional color notes (C and A). This section is all playable in 7th position; just slide up momentarily with your 4th finger to hit the initial high E.
The solo now builds to a frenzy. Here are some tips to get you through the hot spots. Perform both of the hammer-ons in measure 16 with your 1st and 4th fingers. This will ease the necessary shift from 9th to 8th position. Measures 17–20 feature some speedy legato passages, but they all sit comfortably within 12th position. Things get pretty scary, though, in measures 21-22, where a slippery Em7 shape is cycled on the top two strings. Follow the suggested fret-hand fingerings carefully, and it should all work out well. Picking direction is a matter of personal preference here, but you might want to use downstrokes for the notes B and D, and upstroke for the Gs.
The solo goes out in a blaze of pull-off glory: an Fmaj7 (F-A-C-E) arpeggio spread out on the top two strings. be careful here—especially if you’re attempting this on an acoustic guitar—or you may send your 4th finger into spasms. Go slowly. If your hand isn’t used to such a wide spread, it may take a little time to get your muscles in condition. Try downstrokes to initiate the pull-offs and upstrokes to cover the isolated Fs.