The Hirajoshi Scale

Unleash Your Inner Rock God

Sometimes it’s the notes you leave out of a scale that make it memorable. You can try this with the Major Scale: choose any random note from the scale and make a decision to simply not play it; not in a melody, not in a chord. You’ll find that depending on which note you leave out, you’ll get a very different feel. Skip the third degree of the scale and you’ve removed the ‘major or minor’-defining quality of the scale. Take out the fifth and you’ll find that the leap between the fourth and sixth feels more exotic and abrupt. This is one of the reasons I love the Hirajoshi scale.

Hirajoshi started as a tuning devised by Yatsuhashi Kengy (1614-1685) for the Koto. It has a tranquil peacefulness blended with a more exotic, almost bittersweet or melancholy feel and has been explored by players like Jason Becker and Marty Friedman, both in their duo Cacophony and their respective solo careers. It’s related to the Phrygian mode (the third degree of the major scale) but it’s missing a few notes.

 

Another way to think of it is that it’s simply a five-note scale, which is what the good old Pentatonic is. While the Pentatonic scales work on familiar box patterns and are pretty easy to flail away in with generally good-sounding results (and that’s what makes it fun), Hirajoshi can be a little more tricky to navigate. Depending on how you approach it, you can use it to create licks and riffs that follow a more standard ‘riffy’ outline or you can go all mercurial and stream-of- consciousness with it.

 

The easiest way to approach this scale is to imagine it as a pair of patterns repeating across each new pair of strings. Let’s get a little technical; Figure 1A is the Hirajoshi scale in the key of A, starting on the 5th fret of the low E string. It goes Root, 2nd, minor 3rd on the bottom string, then 5th, minor 6th on the next one. Now all you have to do is leap to the next octave of the root (in this case, the A note at the 7th fret of the D string) and start that pattern again (Figure 1B). Finally, hit that A at the 10th fret of the B string and you’re in place to repeat the pattern again an even higher octave (Figure 1C). And there you go: an exotic-sounding scale, but easy to play and remember (Figure 2). One easy device to use with this scale is to pick a pattern on two adjacent strings then move it up an octave on the next string pair and then the next one. This is a good way to build tension to then release it with a big sustained root note or chord.

 

Figure 4 is the same scale, bit this time it’s laid out in a two-note-per-string manner that totally, utterly breaks us out of the temptation to fall into repetitive box patterns. You’ll go from playing two frets apart to four frets apart to one fret apart, with no particularly identifiable pattern to latch onto. It also leads you towards some of the more unusual, drastic intervallic leaps that are somewhatPage 1/1 masked when you play the scale in the way outlined in Figure 2.

 

A great way to practice this scale is to set up some kind of droning root note loop. Then you can compare each note of the scale against the root and see which ones build tension, which ones release it and which ones are neutral. This will also give you a new chord vocabulary. Here’s a hint: this scale sounds really great when you build chords that are spread out with a low root note then a couple of much higher notes on top, instead of clustering all of your chord tones close to the root. 

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