At some point, most guitarists will tire of major and minor scales and start looking for something more “exotic”. After exploring the “church” modes, which can be committed to memory using the mnemonic, “I Don’t Play Loud Marshalls Any Longer” (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian), one begins to wonder if there are any other “darker”, “weirder” scales out there. After all, the modes are all constructed using the same intervals as the major and natural minor scales (Ionian and Aeolian, respectively), but in different sequences. You can hear them by omitting all the black keys and traveling from C to C, D to D, E to E , etc. on the piano. The modes are a feature of the Western 7-note scale paradigm in which consecutive intervals greater than a whole step are avoided. Once you start exploring 7-note scales with 1 & v½ steps between some of the notes, things really start getting interesting. The intensity of these wide leaps is palpable.
My favorite is the Double Harmonic Major. In the West, it is also referred to as the Gypsy Major, Byzantine, or Arabic scale. It’s more accurate names are Hijaz Kar, Bhairav, and Mayamalavagowla. No matter what you call it, it’s pretty clear that this scale got around in the ancient world. In South Indian Carnatic music, this is the first scale you learn. In popular culture, it can be heard in Dick Dale’s Surf classic “Miserlou”, which was featured in the film Pulp Fiction. Dale’s father was from Lebanon and his uncle played the Oud. The folk song “Misirlou” is very old, and popular within Greek, Arabic, and Jewish circles.
The intervals of the Double Harmonic Minor are H-WH-H-W-H-WH-H, which is palindromic: H-WH-H. . .W. . .H-WH-H. When these intervals are arranged in a circle, as in a clock face, their center of mass is the center of the circle. This is a unique characteristic among 7-note scales. At first, improvising can feel like balancing between stones in a river of fire. After a while, it will reveal its natural symmetry. Another feature that contributes to this scale’s symmetry are the half-steps surrounding the tonic. The I, tonic, root, whatever you want to call it, is home base, and by emphasizing the notes immediately around it, you create a sense of tension and longing. This centripetal, pulling quality are characteristic of Arabic and Indian classical music. But why does it sound so “dark” to western ears? Unlike the minor scale, it has both a major 3rd and major 7th, which are characteristic of “bright”, “happy” scales. The answer lies in the Minor 2nd (also used in the Phrygian mode) and those 1 ½ step jumps. Such intervals were intentionally avoided in Medieval European due to their supposed “instability”, but mostly their exclusion had to due with the cultural division and religious warfare of the era. They sounded too “Moorish”. After all, western monks developed staff notation in the 11th century, around the same time as the first crusade.
Putting all this into context on the fretboard, let’s use that guitar-friendly key which is E. If an E major scale is E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E, then you create the Double-Harmonic Major by simply flattening the 2nd and 6th scale degrees, giving you E, F, G#, A, B, C, D#, E. You can play it starting on the low sixth string, E (assuming standard tuning), followed by the 1st, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12th frets:
Notice how if you were to draw a line right down the middle of the 6th fret, you’d have two equal pieces.
Constructing chords can be tricky in the Double Harmonic Major because of its wide intervals (another reason that it was eschewed in western classical music, which prioritized harmony). However, the II, Major second triad, should sound familiar to most guitarists. Ever take an Open E chord and slide it up a half step and back? Kinda’ “Spanish” sounding? Incidentally, the guitar comes from Spain, which was occupied by the Moors between 711 and 788. Here are some other ideas for chords in E:
Of course, one needn’t use corresponding chords to enjoy the scale. I love throwing a few bars of it over a major pentatonic blues. It instantly adds a powerful jolt of flavor, like hot sauce on eggs .
The Double Harmonic Major scale is especially popular amongst shredders and was partially introduced via Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow. Check out Rainbow’s epic “Gates of Babylon” off of their 1978 release Long Live Rock & Roll to experience the kind of drama these intervals can create in a heavy context.