Recently, I wrote a piece about the Ionian and Dorian modes, the first 2 modes of the major scale. Please check out that article as the theory in this article builds on what was explained there.
Let’s dive right in by explaining the next mode: the exotic–sounding Phrygian. Remember, modes are the same scale, just starting on a progressively higher note. Why they sound different is in their setting, and the harmony behind the mode or solo using the mode. We will start with the first mode (Ionian) again. We know these notes as the white keys on the piano. Below are the notes of the first mode, with the order of whole and half steps between the notes:
C D E F G A B C
\/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/
W W H W W W H
Now to get to the 3rd mode, we will start on the letter E:
E F G A B C D E
\/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/
H W W W H W W
This mode is cool, because it features only a half step between the first 2 notes, E & F. Also, notice that if we add up the 1st 2 spaces (in this case, H & W) it adds up to 1 ½ steps. That’s right, this is a minor sounding mode as well. In other words, the distance between the E note and the G note is 1 ½ steps, or 3 frets. When this happens, these 2 notes are said to be a minor 3rd apart.
When this is played over the right harmony (chords), you get a very cool, almost Spanish sound to the notes. Remember, it is the same as C major, but it sounds very different than that happy major sound because of the setting the notes are in. This is an easy way to play this mode:
So, what chords do we use?
Remember, basic triads in the key of C are:
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
Since we are trying the phrygian mode, we may want to re-order these, so we start with an Em:
Em F G Am Bdim C Dm
One way to use the E phrygian mode is to build a chord progression starting on Em (so we hear Em as our tonic, or what we resolve to), and choose chords from the key of C major to fill out the rest of the progression. So, a good Phrygian progression might be:
Em F G F …I played it like this:
A solo over a chord progression might sound like this:
This sounds nothing like a major scale, right? What is happening is I am essentially using notes of the C major scale, but starting (or resolving to E).
Now most guitarists would go right for the Em pentatonic scale, but we now know better. Besides, E pentatonic sounds pretty weird over the F major chord. Using the phrygian mode though, we make sure that every note we hit will sound perfect with a chord progression like this.
Let’s try another chord progression. This one will sound a little more exotic. I am going to take the tonic, the E, and use it as a bass note for 3 chords:
Em F/E G/E Em - I played the chords like this:
The E bass note really keeps our ear ‘grounded’ to E… and provides interesting harmony with the chords on top.
Using the same fingering for the mode above, here is a solo:
A little jazzier, but you still hear this exotic sound using what once was a very happy sounding major scale.
Again, this is a minor sounding mode: the key of C (the parent key of E Phrygian) includes an E minor chord, and the notes in an E minor chord are E, G & B.
E Phrygian can be used when the rhythm stays on an Em, or when the chords all come from the key of C but keep E as the tonic. Remember, if the progression has a chord outside the key of C, you may have to change scales in the middle of the solo to accommodate the changing harmony. Common users of the phrygian mode are Al DiMeola and Santana.
So, does anyone have any favorite chord progressions to practice the phrygian mode over? Make your own progressions and solos, or download my backing tracks. Post a link in the comments section so we can hear what you have come up with. Don’t forget to let me know what gear you used.