Full disclosure – we’re not language historians, but we’re pretty sure that a ‘Phrygian’ is what the ancient Greeks kept their food in.
Much like the inside of a fridge, this mode is cool, dark, and mysterious. Today, we’ll open the Phrygian door, and light up all the tasty treats inside. 💡
This article will include:
- Some basic theory
- Scale diagrams
- Useful chord shapes
- Phrygian exercises
Let’s get into it!
What’s the Phrygian mode?
Phrygian is the third diatonic mode of the major scale. It’s less common in Western pop music, but its exotic sound is utilized in genres like flamenco, folk, hip hop, and metal.
It’s useful to relate Phrygian to the minor scale (AKA Aeolian mode) as they are only different by one note.
Let’s look at the scale degrees to compare:
- It’s only the second note in the scale that sets them apart.
- If you know your minor scale, all you need to do is flatten the 2nd degree by a half step (one fret).
- Ta-da! Instant Phrygian.
If scale degrees are a little confusing – don’t worry. We’ve got the fretboard diagrams for all you visual learners.
Minor scale fretboard diagram
Here’s the minor scale, which is the most commonly used scale after major. It’s worth knowing this before studying more esoteric scales/modes.
Phrygian fretboard diagram
Now, here’s Phrygian. Almost identical, but that one note makes a world of difference.
What does Phrygian sound like?
There are many uses for this mode, here are two examples with very different vibes:
Best chords for Phrygian
Minor 7th chords are a great canvas to paint a Phrygian picture.
The b2 is the pivotal note in this mode, but can sometimes clash when sat next to the root note – the solution is to create some space.
When thinking about chords, our scale degrees can extend beyond one octave – these are called chord extensions.
- When we go past the octave (8ve) we continue to count upwards.
- For example, a b2 is the same note as a b9 except they’re an octave apart.
Adding a b9 to a Cmin7 chord can still be pretty dissonant, so try using the b9 in your runs instead. Don’t linger there too long unless you want to create some serious tension.
When to use Phrygian
It’s not the easiest mode to work with, but there are some exciting qualities there if you take the time to explore.
- It works well over the iii chord in a major key.
- Use the minor pentatonic as a safe zone and throw in a dash of Phrygian flavor when you see fit.
- Certain chord changes like Em to Fmaj are perfect for this mode as they have that classic flamenco sound.
When not to use Phrygian
In most cases, Phrygian isn’t really suitable for pop music. It’s quite an unusual sound and can be difficult to make palatable in certain musical contexts.
Stick to outlining chords with arpeggios for a surefire way to match the tone of the song. This will also help you learn which notes highlight the melody best.
Phrygian exercises for guitar
Internalize the mode
One of the most important things to do when learning a new mode or scale is to really absorb the relationship between each scale degree.
- Play over a drone note of the tonic (1st scale degree).
- This gives you a stable reference point.
- Slowly move up the scale and pay attention to how each degree feels.
- Focus on how certain notes have tension, almost like they are pulling towards another note.
Sing the mode
Even though we’re learning guitar, singing can help us absorb musical information through our ears – not only our fingers!
- You don’t need to sound great, we just want to remember scales without relying on the frets.
- First, strum a I chord, e.g. Cm7.
- Now try to sing the C Phrygian mode over that chord.
- Say the numbers of each degree as you sing 1, b2, b3, etc.
Phrygian jam tracks
Nothing beats using your newfound knowledge in a musical context.
Jam tracks are a great way to explore new theory ideas in a fun and practical way. Keep your attention on what you hear – it’s important not to switch off and just start running patterns aimlessly.
You can even try humming a phrase first, then trying to play it on the guitar. This strengthens your ear and keeps your playing intentional.
It may not be the most famous or popular mode, but there are situations where you’ll be glad you know it. The next time a flamenco player shows up at rehearsal and wants to jam, you’ll be all over it!
We’re covering all seven diatonic modes this month, so keep your eyes peeled for the other articles in this series. If you’re ready to take your theory and improvisation skills to the next level – we’ve got just the thing for you.
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