One of the coolest melodic devices to use for your metal solos and riff writing is a scale called the Phrygian dominant (don’t let the name put you off!) This scale has a dark and exotic sound that is perfectly suited to heavy metal. It can be frequently heard in many different styles – from the thrash of Testament, to the death metal of Morbid Angel, progressive metal of Dream Theater, or the neo-classical shredding of Yngwie Malmsteen.


Phrygian dominant is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale (natural minor with a sharp seventh). What this means is you play the exact same notes as harmonic minor but you start and end on the fifth degree.  Exercise 1a is A harmonic minor on one string. If you count up five you’ll see that the fifth note is E. If you play the same notes, but start and end on E you’ll get E Phrygian dominant (Ex 1b). Notice how all the notes have stayed the same, but since the root is now E, it sounds completely different. It’s easiest to think of Phrygian dominant as a natural minor with a b2 and #3, or if you’re familiar with your major modes, a regular Phrygian with a #3. Although dark in sound, Phrygian dominant is actually used against major or dominant seventh chords since it has a major third.

If all that theory seems a bit confusing, don’t worry about it too much! Just practice the one string pattern in exercise 1b starting on different notes and strings across the fretboard to get familiar with the mysterious and Eastern sound of the scale.

Hear Exercise 1


Simple melodic licks using Phrygian dominant can sound great, as in exercise 2. The most common chord progression to use the scale over is I-bII (e.g. E maj- F maj) and this is what’s used here, only with root-fifth ‘power’ chords (E5-F5).

Hear Exercise 2


The scale can also be used as a basis for writing heavy and sinister sounding riffs. This can be done using either single notes, or by playing power chords off different degrees of the scale. This fairly standard thrash riff features galloped triplets interspersed with power chords and octaves where the root notes are all from Phrygian dominant.

Hear Exercise 3


This is a fast ‘shred’ style lick using a three note-per-string fingering. It begins by circling down and up on the first two strings in five note-per-beat groupings before descending through the scale with semi-quavers. Practice this lick slowly at first using alternate picking and your pinky for the wide stretches. The scale ‘shape’ here is a useful one, so practice it ascending/descending and then try to improvise and come up with your own ideas.

Hear Exercise 4


This lick begins with a descending triplet sequence on the first two strings, before moving to the root note on the fifth string. The fingering here avoids the nasty stretches of the previous lick by arranging the scale tones into a simple two string pattern – three notes on one string, and four notes on the next via a first finger slide. This pattern is then repeated on the next group of two strings. As with the previous exercise, you can practice this scale shape separately.

Hear Exercise 5

Try incorporating Phrygian dominant into your solos and riffs - I think you’ll find that it’s pretty cool!