Why Does A Scale Sound Exotic?

Welcome fellow guitarists!

I'd like to introduce one of my favorite Exotic scales, which I use very often: the Algerian scale. To become familiar with that scale, listen to a theme using the Algerian scale (note: all audio samples in this article are taken from my Exotic metal album "Electric Storm").

MP3 - Algerian scale theme

Let's see why the Algerian scale is my preferred scale.

Why or when does a specific scale sound Exotic?

Exotic or Oriental sounding scales often use a lot of small intervals. (An "interval" is the distance between two notes.) So if you want to play a scale with an Exotic touch, you can pick a scale with many halftones.

So far so good - now let's have a look at some more (or lesser) known scales!

The intervallic structure of scales can be described with numbers, which represent the intervals of that specific scale. Example: b3 means minor third, 5 means fifth, etc.

A Aeolian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 8)


The Aeolian scale consists of two halftones (encircled in red). This scale sounds very natural ("Natural Minor") to those ears which are used to listening to western music.

MP3 - Example: A Aeolian

A Harmonic Minor (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7, 8)


The Harmonic Minor scale has a major seventh, so it has three halftones. That's why that scale sounds more Exotic than the Aeolian scale. The Harmonic Minor scale is used very often in classical music. In addition, many guitarists, who play in a neo-classical style, use the Harmonic Minor scale (Yngwie Malmsteen and Tony MacAlpine, just to name a few).

MP3 - Example: A Harmonic Minor

Now play the A Harmonic Minor scale over an E7 chord. You'll notice that your melodies sound even more Exotic!

Why over an E7 chord?

E7 is the 5th chord (mode) of A Harmonic Minor (E is the 5th note of the A Harmonic Minor scale). So, when you play A Harmonic Minor over an E7 chord, the first two intervals are halftones (E-F and G#-A). This way the Exotic "power of halftones" is reinforced!

MP3 - Example: A Harmonic Minor over E7

So far so good. Nothing new for many of you I guess? Now, let's discover one of my favored Exotic scales: the Algerian scale.

A Algerian (1, 2, b3, #4, 5, b6, 7, 8)


The Algerian scale goes one step further by adding one additional halftone, so that this scale has four halftones.

MP3 - Example: A Algerian

MP3 - Example: A Algerian (long)

Play the A Algerian scale over an Am chord. Hear how that scale gives you more possibilities to produce Exotic melodies. Play your licks with that scale instead of a normal scale such as Aeolian and listen at how your licks become Exotic!

Now play an A Algerian melody over an E5 power chord (consisting of just the two notes E and B) and you'll really experience an Exotic mood!

But what is exactly happening here?

Well, if you play the A Algerian scale over an E5 chord, your ear perceives the 5th mode of the A Algerian scale (E is the 5th note of the A Algerian scale). It sounds similar to the Phrygian Dominant scale, but with a major seventh instead of a seventh.

MP3 - Theme in the 5th mode of the Algerian scale

To play my guitar melodies, you often will need the Algerian scale. Here are some typical melodies using the Algerian scale, taken from my Exotic metal album "Electric Storm". Listen and feel what I feel when I play these melodies!

MP3 - Sweeping with Algerian scale elements

Authentic Exotic or Oriental music often uses intervals smaller than a halftone! That's one reason why it's difficult to play that kind of music authentically with common instruments, where the smallest interval is a halftone.

As an example: Indian music uses small intervals called "sruti". The term "sruti" refers to the displacement of a note by an interval smaller than a halftone.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me.

Dan Keller, Switzerland's Sultan of String, is a guitarist whose original compositions showcase his exotic metal fretwork.

His debut CD is entitled "Electric Storm".

Dan Keller