What Guitar Scales I Need To Know In Order to Play Metal

by Tommaso Zillio

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Have you ever wondered how to get the sound of metal guitar players such as Marty Friedman (Megadeth), Kirk Hamett (Metallica), or Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne)? If you ever got a look at the solos that these and other players perform, you will have noticed that these people use more than the blues/pentatonic scale. You may have wondered what scales these guitarists are using. If so, keep reading.

I have seen many players who try to style themselves as metal players, but the only thing that they can play are sped-up blues licks. While these licks may sound good every now and then, they grow old pretty fast and certainly do not make you sound original. If your approach to a metal solo is to use the pentatonic/blues scale, after a while all your solos will start to sound alike.

The solution to this problem is quite simple, after all. You just need to learn some scales. In this article I am going to guide you through some of the most used exotic scales used by metal players.

The first time you are introduced to new scales, it may feel scary or discouraging to have to learn them. After all, you might either be familiar with the blues/pentatonic scale, or just playing by ear, and new patterns to learn seem a lot of work. I felt the same way when I was first exposed to new scales, and I can give you the good news: it is nowhere as difficult to learn new scales as it seems to you right now. Let me show you how to learn a new scale in an easy, fun, and effective way.

First of all, for every scale there are easy patterns and difficult patterns. Here the terms “easy” and “difficult” refer to both the technical difficulty of playing the pattern and to the effort needed to remember them. The trick to learn exotic scales (or new scales in general) is to start from the easy patterns, and use them until they become familiar, and only then move to the difficult ones. “Oh, thanks”, you will say “how do I know beforehand which ones are the easy ones?”. You have two possible solutions:

  1. You tab down all the possible patterns for a specific scale, and then you try to determine which ones look easier, or
  2. You ask somebody who knows!

Here we will go by option 2: I am going to give you the easiest patterns, so you can start play right now.

The Second step of learning the scale is: as soon as you have the pattern under your fingers (i.e. as soon as you can play the scale up and down, even if you are playing it slowly) start to improvise with it. Yes, the best way to learn a scale is NOT to play it up and down, but to improvise with it. This means: get a backing track that would fit the scale, and try to play a melody with the scale you just learned. Hear the sound of the scale. For the moment, forget about playing fast licks, just get familiar with the melodic possibilities of the scale

The problem you might find at this step is that there are far less available backing tracks for exotic scales than for the usual standard scales. We are going to solve this problem at the end of this article. Let’s now see some of these exotic metal scales. All the scales are tabbed in the key of A.

Phrygian Dominant Scale

The most famous exotic scale, and one of the best sounds of metal. It is a very dramatic scale. The A Phrygian Dominant scale has the following notes into it: A Bb C# D E F G. Note how the scale contains the note of the A major chord (A C# E) indicating that you can play this scale on any major chord with the same root.

This pattern repeats every two strings. I have indicated the left hand fingers to use above the score (1-index, 2-middle, 3-ring, 4-pinky). On the 5th string, you slide up with your index finger to play the scale.

And here you can hear a clip of the Phrygian Dominant scale in action.

Lydian Scale

A favorite of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci (Dream Theater). The A Lydian scale, that we see here, is made by the notes: A B C# D# E F# G#. As the Phrygian Dominant scale, the Lydian scale contains an A major chord, but their sound is completely different.

This is a short solo section so you can hear how the Lydian scale sounds.

Hungarian Minor Scale

Less used than the previous ones, it’s still a favorite of many players for its exotic oriental sound. The A Hungarian Minor scale is made by the notes A B C D# E F G#. Contrary to the previous two scales, the Hungarian Minor contains an A minor chord (A C E) rather than an A major chord.

The pattern shown here requires a bit of stretch to be played, but it’s very easy to remember and to speed it up.

At this you can hear what you can do with the Hungarian Minor scale.

Diminished Scale

The diminished scale is different from the other scales presented here in that it has 8 notes rather than 7. The A diminished scale is: A Bb C C# Eb E F# G. The Diminished scale, quite uniquely, contains all of the following: an A major chord (A C# E), an A minor chord (A C E), and an A diminished chord (A C Eb). This means that a diminished scale can potentially fit both a major and a minor chord with the same root.

And as usual, here you can hear a sample solo with the Diminished scale.

And the Backing Tracks?

What you need to do right now is to start using these scales and make some music with them. The best way of doing it, is to try these scales on a backing track, and then try to improvise some melodies on these patterns. The problem you can find is that there are very few backing tracks that will allow you to play these scales. For this reason I created a set of backing tracks complete with instructions for each scale, and the harmonization for each scale in case you want to try and create your own backing tracks too! You can get the full set by clicking on the button below:

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