For this column, I’d like to go back to the basics and talk about two scales that are frequently used in heavy metal riffs and solos – Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant. The defining note for both of these modes is the dissonant b2 degree. This minor 2nd interval creates a darker and heavier sound compared to the major 2nd used in other minor scales such as Natural minor (Aeolian) or Dorian. When the b3 of Phrygian is raised to become a major 3rd, we get Phrygian Dominant – a scale that sounds even more eerie and sinister.


There are many famous metal songs that incorporate riffs based on the Phrygian mode. Some examples include Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam”, Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction”, and Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”. Phrygian is the third mode of the Major scale – you play the same notes of a Major scale but make the third degree the root note. This changes the pattern of tones and semi-tones (in relation to the root note), and the resulting scale formula for Phrygian is: 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7. While this may seem complicated, as long as you know a basic Natural minor (Aeolian) scale, you can just think of Phrygian as Natural minor with a lowered (flattened) 2nd. Exercise 1 shows Phrygian (in the common metal key of E) on one string, as well as a basic closed position ‘Box’ pattern.  Make sure to practice these (as well as the following exercises) in different keys.

Hear Exercise 1


Here are two shred-friendly three note-per-string fingerings for E Phrygian with the root note on the sixth and fifth strings.

Hear Exercise 2


Phrygian Dominant is the fifth mode of the Harmonic minor scale – you play Harmonic minor but start and end on the fifth note. The formula for Phrygian dominant (in relation to the Major scale) is: 1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7. However, now that you’re familiar with the regular Phrygian mode, an easy way to think of it is as Phrygian with a raised (sharp) 3rd. As with Phrygian, there are many metal songs that exploit the mysterious and Eastern sound of Phrygian Dominant. Some examples that come to mind are the main riff in Testament’s “Burnt Offerings”, and the half-time section of Morbid Angel’s “Dawn of the Angry”. As with Exercise 1, I’ve notated the one string and ‘Box’ patterns of Phrygian Dominant for you to practice.

Hear Exercise 3


Here are the root 6th and root 5th three note-per-string fingerings for E Phrygian Dominant.

Hear Exercise 4

I hope this column has shed some light on two of the more frequently used scales in heavy metal and I encourage you to explore them further yourself – either for writing riffs using Phrygian/Phrygian Dominant, or for soloing over riffs that use these two scales.