Harmonic Minor and Beyond: Killer Scales for Modern Heavy Metal Guitar

For this column, I've responded to a great question from a reader — Zachary in Houston, Texas.

"Dave: What is your favorite scale to use when playing heavy metal?"

Thanks for the question! 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 impressive 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 also was a big fan.

If you want to hear how I use it, check out my song “Devils Roadmap” below:

Listen to my guitar 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 all across the fretboard.

I also like the pentatonic scale. Pentatonic is huge in metal for a reason: It sounds good in so many situations. Zakk Wylde, Frank Marino and Dave Mustaine are amazing players who have used it to great effect over the decades.

Pentatonic Scale (1, b3, 4, 5, b7). For example, in the key of E, that would be E, G, A, B, D.

My solo on “I Just Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” is a favorite of mine, and I basically stick to straight-up minor pentatonic. The solo is from 3:26 to 4:37:

Even though I'm a trained musician, I'm still very much a self-taught player in my heart and 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. Knowledge is great as a guide, but when I’m writing, I just go for it. Usually, my best stuff happens when I'm 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 that they need to know tons of scales. He goes on to say 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 you like. Practice this approach and 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. Take Marty's playing on Megadeth's Rust In Peace. He is throwing in all kinds of exotic scales and interesting note choices all over the place.

Below, check out some great scales to add into your arsenal when you're trying to write. I’ll put these in the key of E to keep it easy, but you can move these to any key.

Harmonic Minor (1, 2, b3, 4, 5 b6, 7) or (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D#). Like I said, Yngwie Malmsteen and Uli Jon Roth love this scale, but you can hear it from Michael Schenker, 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 “Powerslave” you can hear this scale in action:

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!

Gypsy Scale (1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7) or (E, F, G#, A, B, C, D#). This scale is the same as Phrygian dominant except for the natural 7, which 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 the Phrygian dominant) is a good choice. The Gypsy scale is cool to use when you're going for that whole snake-charming, exotic, "magic carpet ride" sound. Blackmore captured it very well on many tunes. “Gates of Babylon” by the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Rainbow is a good example.

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 well over a minor (major 7) chord. The Hungarian gypsy minor and harmonic minor scales are used on Chris Broderick’s solo on Megadeth's “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” or that Black Sabbath used on one of my all-time favorite songs, “Symptom of the Universe." You can get some crazy-sounding metal riffs out of this scale. It also works well for soloing over a (maj 7 #11) chord.

Japanese Scale (1, b2, 4, 5, b6) or (E, F, A, B, C). Friedman, Jason Becker and so many other greats have used this one. Give it a try in your soloing. It works well in 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#) In the Western world, we know this scale by its other name: major pentatonic. Bands like the Allman Brothers really dig its sound and use it quite a bit, as well as bluesmen like B.B. King.

Don’t forget the different modes of the major scale. These can be very helpful. 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)

Here's a cool trick someone showed me to help remember what order these modes go in: “I Don’t Punch Like Muhammad A Li.”

I= Ionian
Don’t= Dorian
Punch= Phrygian
Like= Lydian
Muhammad= Mixolydian
A= Aeolian
Li= Locrian.

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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