The Harmonic Minor Scale Explored

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Using the Harmonic Minor to Add New Sounds to Your Solos

If you're a guitarist who doesn't shy away from improvising, you know the feeling... the frustration of thinking your solos all sound the same. That everything you play, you've played before. While much of this anxiety is caused by our natural tendencies to be overly critical of ourselves, there is usually a grain of truth somewhere within our frustration.

One of the best ways to "break out of a slump", with regards to soloing, is to introduce yourself to a new sounding scale. Although in the pop, rock, country, blues, etc. genres, guitar solos are usually based entirely on blues and pentatonic scales, there are times when different, more exotic sounds, fit in quite nicely. One of these more unusual sounding scales, the harmonic minor, can add an altogether different sound to your solos, and might just provide you with the inspiration you're looking for.

The following lesson should give you the ability to learn to use the harmonic minor scale in various settings.

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First Position of the Harmonic Minor

harmonic minor scale position one
Learning the fingering to the basic harmonic minor shape might be tricky at first, if you're used to the simpler shape of the blues scale. The key is to use your pinky finger extensively, and to handle the notes on the fourth string correctly. When playing the notes on the fourth string, start with your 2nd finger, followed by your 3rd, then stretch your pinky to play the last note on the string.

The notes in the above scale highlighted in red are the roots of the harmonic minor scale. If you play the above scale starting on the note A, on the fifth fret of the sixth string, you're playing an "A harmonic minor scale".

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Second Position of the Harmonic Minor

After you've become comfortable with the first scale position, it is important to learn a different place to play the same scale on the neck. This second diagram illustrates the harmonic minor scale, with the root on the fifth (or third) string. So, if we wanted to play an A harmonic minor scale using this position, we'd find the note A on the fifth string (12th fret), and line that note up with the root of this scale position (highlighted in red). We could then start playing the scale on the 12th fret of the 6th string. This might take a bit of practice to find quickly, since our starting note in this position isn't the root of the scale.

You'll want to start this scale with your 2nd finger. When playing the notes on the fifth string, start with your first finger, then slide your first finger up a fret to play the second note on the string as well. Stay in this position for the remainder of the scale.

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Theory Behind the Harmonic Minor Scale

harmonic minor scale theory
Although learning this theory isn't essential in knowing how to use the harmonic minor scale, it can help broaden your understanding of how and when to use the scale.

The illustration above displays a C harmonic minor scale, constrasted against both the major and natural minor scales. Notice the harmonic minor scale differs from the natural minor scale in just one note; the raised seventh. This note contains the strongest color in the scale, in that it carries a certain degree of tension, and should be used with this knowledge in mind. Hanging onto the seventh degree of the scale, then resolving it up a semi-tone to the root is a nice way to create a tension-release scenario when improvising over a minor chord.

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Harmonic Minor Scale Over the Guitar Fretboard

harmonic minor scale all over the fretboard

Here is an example of the harmonic minor scale played all over the fretboard. This may probably seem overwhelming at first, but if you take your time, and let your ear be your guide, you'll soon be able to move into different positions of the scale with ease. Try playing the scale up and down one string, and then try playing the scale on two strings. This will not only allow your fingers to become accustomed to the new scale, but will allow your ear to become more and more familiar with the sound of the scale.

Ideally, you'd like the scale to become "invisible" - meaning that you can start moving your hands freely about the fretboard, playing notes from the harmonic minor scale without actually concentrating on the various scale shapes. This will take time, however, so you'll have to have a great deal of patience when trying to learn this scale all over the fretboard. Relax, and let your ears be your guide as to whether you're playing everything correctly.

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Diatonic Chords of the Harmonic Minor

diatonic chords of the harmonic minor scale
Like the major scale, we can derive a series of chords out of each of the seven notes in the harmonic minor scale, by stacking each note with notes from the scale a diatonic third and fifth above it. Although the end process may not yield a set of chords as user-friendly as those derived from the major scale, they are nonetheless important to understand. Using the above illustration, for example, we can see if a progression moves from Vmaj to Imin, the harmonic minor scale would be an appropriate choice.

If you're just getting started with learning the harmonic minor, don't spend a lot of time worrying about the diatonic chords above - instead concentrate on getting the scale under your fingers, and in your ears.

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Using the Harmonic Minor Scale Over Minor Chords

harmonic minor scale
The sound of the harmonic minor scale generally makes people think of "Indian music" - although in truth, the scale isn't used much in that genre. Others might label it as a sound they hear in music by bands like The Doors, which is much closer to the truth.

Now that you've become comfortable with the basic shape and sound of the harmonic minor scale, you'll want to begin experimenting with it in your own solos. The trick is deciding when it's appropriate to use the scale. As the name of the scale suggests, the harmonic minor scale works best in minor keys... for example playing an E harmonic minor scale over a song in the key of E minor. In pop and rock music, the harmonic scale often gets played over minor chord vamps (one minor chord repeated for a long period of time).

It is important to recognize exactly which notes in the harmonic minor scale sound exotic, and which others are more "normal" sounding. Examine the diagram above - the notes highlighted in blue (the b6th and 7th degrees of the scale) are the notes which give the scale it's unusual sound. Be careful when you use these notes extensively - feel free to use them, but be aware that they will provide your solos with more tension than the other notes in the scale (especially when you hang on them!)

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Listening to and Practicing Harmonic Minor Solos

The following audio examples will allow you to hear what the harmonic minor scale sounds like in a soloing situation, and will also provide you with a backing track, which will allow you to try out your own solos using the harmonic minor. There is only one chord being played here, an A minor chord. So, the A harmonic scale can be used for soloing in this situation.

A minor vamp with solo
Real Audio | MP3
listen to the sound of the harmonic minor

Aminor vamp without solo
Real Audio | MP3
solo along using A harmonic minor scale

You'll want to spend a lot of time with the above audio clips (especially the one that lets you solo) to get a feel for the harmonic minor scale, and to help figure out some riffs that sound good to you. If you have a friend that plays guitar... even better! Get him/her to strum an A minor chord, while you experiment with the new scale, then allow him/her a chance to solo. Don't be afraid to move back and forth between the new scale and ones you're more comfortable with (blues scale, etc.) in your solo, and contrast the difference in sound.

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Using the Harmonic Minor Scale Over Dominant 7th Chords

Although the harmonic minor scale over a single minor chord is a sound you hear occasionally in pop and rock music, truthfully, it's not too common. The reason probably being the harmonic minor is such a strong sound, that using it for extended periods of time can sound almost cliche. This isn't to say it doesn't get used... it certainly does, but good guitarists will pick their spots carefully.

The most common use for the harmonic minor scale is over the V dominant 7th chord (referred to as V7) in a minor key. For those of you who aren't familiar with chord theory, the V7 chord in a minor key is seven frets up from the first chord in the key. For example, in the key of Aminor, the V7 chord is E7 (the note E is seven frets up from A). In the key of Eminor, the V7 chord would be B7.

Technical Note For Theory Geeks Only:

Playing a harmonic minor scale over the V7 chord outlines a V7(b9,b13) chord. This scale will NOT work over an unaltered 9th chord.

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Using the Harmonic Minor Scale in the Real World

Let's use the progression Amin to E7 to illustrate good use of the harmonic minor scale. Over the Amin chord, a guitarist could play minor pentatonic licks, blues licks, ideas from aeolian or dorian modes, etc. But, when the progression moves to E7, the guitarist would play notes from the A harmonic minor scale (you do NOT play the E harmonic minor scale over the E7 chord).

Guitarists will find this tricky for several reasons:

  • You have to switch scales over different chords. If you've never tried switching scales mid-solo, it's a technique you'll want to get accustomed to. Switching from a blues scale to a harmonic minor is relatively simple, since both scales have many notes in common. Examine both scales, and look for these common notes. Then learn to exploit the differences between the two scales. You'll also want to try and get a feel for how a note in one scale naturally wants to move when you switch to the other scale.
  • The scale you play over the V7 chord doesn't have the same root as the chord itself. This is tough at first... especially when playing songs that aren't as simple as the example we're discussing. There aren't a whole lot of easy answers, but you might find playing the second shape of the harmonic minor scale we learned helpful. Remember, this second shape doesn't start on the root of the scale - it actually happens to start on the same note as the root of the V7 chord. So, if you wanted to play the A harmonic minor scale over an E7 chord, you could play this second shape starting on the note E on the sixth string (12th fret). Now, re-read this last paragraph until everything sinks in.

This is where the scope of this article ends. The rest is up to you... experiment with the exotic sounds of the harmonic minor scale, and see if you can't come up with some great ideas for solos, or even entire songs, based on it. Best of luck!