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Digging Deeper: Inside the Harmonic Minor Scale


Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Discover new and unusual sounds within the harmonic minor scale.
• Learn how to apply modal tonalities to your own songs.
• Understand more about augmented and diminished harmony.

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The harmonic minor scale has been a topic of conversation among guitar players for many years. Most notably the discussion became a primary focus for many shred players after they heard Yngwie Malmsteen’s stunning debut, Rising Force, which features solos and riffs drawn from the harmonic minor scale on nearly every track. But the use of the harmonic minor reaches far beyond the realm of the shred guitarist. The harmonic minor sound can be found in flamenco, East European, Middle Eastern, and Indian music, as well as mainstream rock, jazz, and even bluegrass.

In this lesson, we’ll quickly review the fundamentals of this scale—including all the patterns you’re likely to ever need—and discuss its most common uses.

But even more interesting and less commonly discussed are the modal sounds hidden within the scale. I’ll identify and demonstrate these sounds and provide you with a few of the many chordal possibilities the harmonic minor scale offers. These should help lead you to some fresh, exciting, and exotic territories.

Fig. 1 contains five different patterns for the harmonic minor scale, shown here in the key of A minor. As you might have learned in dealing with the modes of the major scale, starting on a different note—one other than the root—gives you all the different modal flavors of the scale.

Okay, let’s get to some practical applications. Fig. 2 is probably the simplest and most common use of the harmonic minor scale you will hear. But here’s the trick: It’s not only the melody that is fueling the harmonic minor sound, but the chord progression as well. You see, the only difference between the harmonic minor scale and the natural minor—or Aeolian—is the seventh note. That means that A natural minor has a G natural in it, and A harmonic minor has a G#. This seemingly small change radically alters the overall harmony, once you start building chords.