Harmonic Minor and Beyond: Great Scales for Heavy Metal Guitar Playing
For this column, I have a great reader question from Zachary in Houston, Texas.
Question: "Hey Dave, what is your favorite scale to use when playing metal?"
Thanks for the question, Zachary. Harmonic minor is always a very cool choice and a favorite of mine. It’s great to use when you’re improvising or coming up with song ideas and lead parts. So many awesome players have made great use of it in their songs -- guys like Uli Jon Roth, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Vai and many others. Mozart was also a big fan of it.
If you want to hear how I use it, check out my song “Devils Roadmap.”
Listen to my solo from 3:22 to 3:40 to hear the scale in action. It’s a fun scale you can map out crazy three note per string runs with all across the fretboard.
I also like the pentatonic scale a lot. Pentatonic is a huge scale used in metal for a reason. It just sounds good in so many situations. Zakk Wylde, Frank Marino, Dave Mustaine and Ted Nugent are all amazing players that have used it to great effect over the years.
- Pentatonic Scale (1, b3, 4, 5, b7). For example, in the key of E that would be E, G, A, B, D -- for those of you who may not know already.
My solo on “I Just Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” is a favorite of mine and my fans, and I basically just stick to straight-up minor pentatonic on that one. The solo is from 3:26 to 4:37:
Even though I am a trained musician and graduated from the Berklee College of Music, I am still very much a self-taught player in my heart and in my mind and in the way I think and approach things. I use the approach of just going for it and seeing what happens when I play leads and improvise over a track. I feel like knowledge is great as a guide, but when I’m writing I just go for it, and usually my best stuff happens when I am not over thinking it.
I come from the Marty Friedman school of thought when it comes to scales. Marty had a great instructional DVD out where he talked about how players can get caught up thinking they need to know tons of scales, and Marty goes on to say that you can just make up your own scales.
I teach my students to think in this freethinking style. For example, take the simple pentatonic scale and improvise over a riff or chord progression and throw in any chromatic passing tones that you like.
Practice this approach and just see what sounds cool to your ears.
The so-called “wrong notes” people might tell you to not play are sometimes the ones that sound amazing against the riff and really make your playing stand out. Like Marty on the Megadeth album Rust In Peace, that’s what makes his lead playing so cool on that one is he is throwing in all kinds of exotic scales and interesting note choices all over the place.
I hope this helps!
Also, here are some great scales to add into your arsenal when you are trying to write some new ideas.
I’ll put these in the key of E for you just to keep it easy, but you can move these around to any key you’d like.
- Harmonic Minor (1, 2, b3, 4, 5 b6, 7) or (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D#). Like I said before, Yngwie Malmsteen and Uli Jon Roth love this scale, but you can also hear it from Michael Shenker, Ritchie Blackmore and many others.
- Phrygian Dominant (1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7) or (E, F, G#, A, B, C, D). This scale is simply the 5th mode of the Harmonic minor scale. If you listen to Iron Maiden’s song “Powerslave” you can hear this scale in action in a cool way.
Al Di Meola’s “ Egyptian Danza” is another great example of this scale in action. Notice a theme? This scale gets a very Egyptian type sound, that’s why so many people love it.
- Gypsy Scale (1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7) or (E, F, G#, A, B, C, D#). This scale is exactly the same as Phrygian Dominant except for the natural 7 that this scale has. Any time you are improvising over a chord progression that has major chords that are a half step apart this scale as well as Phrygian Dominant are great to use for your soloing ideas. This Gypsy scale is very cool to use when you are going for that whole snake charming, exotic, magic carpet ride kind of sound. Ritchie Blackmore captured that very well on many tunes. “Gates of Babylon” by the Ronnie James Dio fronted Rainbow is a great example and one of my all time favorite songs ever.
- Hungarian Minor (1, 2, b3, #4, 5, b6, 7) or (E, F#, G, A#, B, C, D#). This is a cool-sounding scale. This works really well over a minor (major 7) chord. Hungarian gypsy minor and harmonic minor are scales that are both used on Chris Broderick’s solo on the Megadeth song “Head Crusher” from 2:58 to 3:24.
- Persian (1, b2, 3, 4, b5, b6, 7) or (E, F, G#, A, Bb, C, D#). This scale is cool and has that whole dark Middle Eastern feel to it. It’s got the flat 5 or “tri-tone” in there which is always great for Metal. That’s the interval that Marilyn Manson used on “The Beautiful People” to great effect or that Black Sabbath used on one of my all time favorite songs “Symptom Of The Universe”. You can get some pretty crazy sounding Metal riffs using this scale. It also works really well for soloing over a (maj 7 #11) chord.
- Japanese Scale (1, b2, 4, 5, b6) or (E, F, A, B, C). This is a great scale. Marty Friedman, Jason Becker and so many other greats have used it. Give it a try it in your soloing. It works well in both minor and major key progressions. Also with the b2 in there it makes for a good choice when working in a Phrygian style situation.
- Chinese Scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 6) or (E, F#, G#, B, C#) To the Western World we know this scale by its other name; Major Pentatonic. You can hear its use all over. Bands like the Allman Brothers really dig its sound and use it quite a bit as well as great bluesmen like BB King.
Also don’t forget the different modes of the major scale. These can be very helpful for your playing. Learn them and practice how to apply them all over your fretboard. I will put these in C to keep things easy.
- Ionian (Major Scale) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) or (C, D, E, F, G, A, B)
- Dorian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7) or (D, E, F, G, A, B, C)
- Phrygian (1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) or (E, F, G, A, B, C, D)
- Lydian (1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7) or (F, G, A, B, C, D, E)
- Mixolydian (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7) or (G, A, B, C, D, E, F)
- Aeolian (Minor Scale) (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) or (A, B, C, D, E, F, G)
- Locrian (1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7) or (B, C, D, E, F, G, A)
A cool little saying that someone once showed me to help remember what order these modes go in is “I Don’t Punch Like Muhammad A Li”
Thanks again, Zachary. Keep rocking, bro; hope to hear this stuff in your music sometime. Rock on!
Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.
Dave Reffett headshot photo by Yolanda Sutherland
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