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Home > Scales > Phrygian Dominant

Phrygian Dominant Scale

The Phrygian dominant scale (also commonly referred to as the Spanish Phrygian scale) is heard as a more exotic scale by many "western" ears. It's a natural mode of the harmonic minor scale, and is a staple scale in many musical traditions.

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As soon as you hear it (you can hear it being played in the second run in this clip), you get that distinctive flamenco flavour. It's also a large part of Arab and Jewish musical tradition.

In modern times, rock and heavy metal have borrowed it for its tense, dark sound.

Harmonically, this scale has qualities that can be applied in any style of music. You'll learn exactly what those qualities are as you experiment with the scale.

We'll start with the basics and theory behind the phrygian dominant scale (important!) before moving on to expand across the guitar neck to free up our finger movements. You'll then be free to use the scale more fluidly across the fretboard.

Phrygian dominant scale basics & theory

You may already know about the minor Phrygian mode. Phrygian dominant is like a major version of this mode.

Phrygian dominant is exactly the same as minor Phrygian, except for one tone - the 3rd. Whereas Phrygian has a minor 3rd  interval (making it a minor scale), Phrygian dominant has a major 3rd (making it a major scale).

Let's compare the two on the fretboard using their 1st position patterns:

Phrygian Minor (b3 = flat/minor 3rd)

Minor Phrygian scale pattern

Phrygian Dominant (3 = major 3rd)

phrygian dominant pattern

This means that phrygian dominant will work over major chords (although not in every circumstance. More on this later).

numbered fret hand fingers 1 (index) to 4 (pinky)If you're struggling with the fingering for that boxed pattern above, this diagram may help:

fingering for first position phrygian dominant scale pattern

Phrygian dominant over chords

Musicians tend to hear Phrygian dominant as carrying more harmonic tension than minor Phrygian, so musicians may replace instances of a minor chord with major, in order to emphasise the use of Phrygian dominant in place of its minor equivalent.

Let's listen to a couple of simple chord progressions to see how using major instead of minor makes the Spanish scale a more natural harmonic tension to use. The below relationship is between what is known as the tonic chord and the V or 5 chord.

Am / Em / Am  Hear example

Am / E / Am  Hear example

The first progression used E minor before returning back to the A minor tonic chord, so we'd typically use minor Phrygian over E minor. This is a typical natural minor key relationship.

The second progression used E major before the same return back to A minor, so we'd typically use major/dominant Phrygian over E major. A common way to alter the minor v chord.

Transposed to other keys, that same minor tonic - dominant V relationship would be as follows (the V chord being where you play the Spanish scale)...

Tonic (i) chord Cm Dm Em Fm Gm Am
Dominant (V) chord G A B C D E

Now, I'm not saying we'd never want to use the minor phrygian example, but it's generally considered that the use of E major and, therefore, dominant Phrygian with the major 3rd has a more effective tension before resolving to the minor home chord. It's less ambiguous and holds more harmonic weight than minor phrygian.

If in doubt, let your ears be the judge!

Of course, the phrygian dominant scale doesn't have to be applied in the context of the example above. It's simply just another major scale that can be played over major chords. However, you must use your best judgement when deciding which major scale to play over which major chord. Don't just use it because it's an interesting new scale you've learned - think about context.

The Guitar Scale Mastery Course will really help you with this important aspect of learning scales.

The big phrygian dominant scale picture

Just like in the other guitar scales lessons, let's expand that basic boxed pattern to cover more of the fretboard. This helps to free up our movements around the scale so we can apply techniques such as slides and wider hammer-ons/pull-offs fluidly.

Phrygian dominant is great for runs, and being able to play 3 or more notes per string will really loosen up your fingers for more elaborate phrases/sequences.

First, let's expand the boxed pattern either side for more coverage.

extended phrygian dominant scale pattern with root, 3rd and 5th intervals highlighted

That low E string root note marks the 1st note of the boxed pattern from earlier. The major 3rd and 5th tones have also been highlighted for reference as these, along with the root note, are considered "safe" resting points within your Spanish scale phrases. To begin with at least.

See, because the root, 3rd and 5th are the essential tones that make up a basic major triad, the other notes of the Spanish scale (in yellow) can be seen as "colouring", or passing tones, to give more flavour to that major sound.

By widening our pattern, we can now use techniques such as slides, wider hammer-ons and pull-offs or tapping etc. In other words, you're free to move around more intuitively and find those hooks without being physically restricted to that rather cramped box pattern.

You can learn more about mapping this scale out across the entire fretboard in the phrygian dominant positions lesson.

Scale exercises using the extended pattern

Below are a couple of exercises that make use of this wider pattern. We're going to play in the same key as the diagram above. The root note tells us the key, and the root notes in the above pattern are positioned on the note B:

B phrygian dominant tab exercise

Note, that  \  slash symbol in the tab means "slide down". So whatever finger is on fret 9, slide it down to fret 7. This is a form of note slurring that gives your picked solos some texture variation. It also helps to you move through these larger patterns more efficiently.

Try also playing two strings at a time (known as double stops) from the scale to create harmonised lead phrases:

As you move up the fretboard, the fret spacings get narrower, which allows you to span much wider intervals per string. More on this kind of playing in a separate lesson!

Many guitarists find it most convenient to play scale phrases around chord shapes. This means that you play the scale around the same root note string as you would for the chord you're playing over.

For example, many chord shapes use the A string as the bass root note, so it's good to learn a basic pattern around that same root note position. It's effectively like superimposing the scale over the chord shape...

B7 chord

B7 chord with A string root

B Spanish Scale

scale pattern with A string low root note

Let's finally add that A string root pattern to the wider pattern from above:

phrygian dominant scale pattern across the entire fretboard

Now we have something we can really work with! For example, if the backing chord was C# major, and you know your barre chord shapes, you'll know that we can form a C# major chord with an A string root note.

Therefore, if you know the pattern above, you can simply start your solo by playing the scale around that same root/chord shape position, and work out from there into something more elaborate.

That's just one way to do it. Experiment.

Phrygian dominant backing track

I mentioned earlier that not every instance of a major chord will be appropriate for using phrygian. There are certain chord progressions you will begin to hear as being naturally compatible with this scale.

First, explore the scale over a single major chord. The below "drone track" uses the Bb7 (B flat dominant 7th) chord. This means the root of your phrygian dominant scale needs to be Bb.

Pay special attention to the minor 2nd (b2) and minor 6th (b6) of the scale, as these will add a lot of tension to the major chord. The longer you hold these notes, the more dissonance and tension you'll create. Pass over them quickly for a more subtle effect.

Download the track here (right click and "save as")

The next backing track was written for using both Phrygian minor and Phrygian dominant and includes chord changes.

Jam using the video presentation below, which includes the scale patterns and guides for when to use which scale. You can also download the track here.

Into heavy metal? The below track is the perfect accompaniment for a phrygian solo, using a root of D.

Download the track here

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Phrygian Dominant Scale Patterns

Phrygian Dominant and Harmonic Minor

Guitar Scale Exercises

More Guitar Scales

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