The harmonic minor scale is used in jazz, metal and surf rock.
By Ben Nemeroff
The harmonic minor scale’s distinct sound makes it a favorite among players specializing in styles ranging from neo-classical and jazz to metal and surf guitar. Sometimes called the Mohammedan scale because of its Middle-Eastern sound, the harmonic minor scale is an excellent scale to learn if you are interested in adding new sounds to your improvisation tool kit.
If you’re already familiar with playing natural minor scales, you’ll notice that the harmonic minor scale shares all but one note with the natural minor scale. The raised seventh gives the harmonic minor scale its unique flavor.
In this lesson, we’ll study the harmonic minor scale, using the E harmonic minor scale -- one of the most commonly used harmonic scales -- as an example. We’ll learn how to play the E harmonic minor scale in two positions, and practice chords that accompany this scale. Finally, we’ll learn a movable version of the harmonic minor scale, and work on some exercises that will help you master this scale on the guitar. Let’s get started!
There are seven notes in the E harmonic minor scale:
-- E -- F# -- G -- A -- B -- C -- D# -- E
In any key, the harmonic minor scale uses the following intervals: Whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole and a half step, half step. The whole-and-a-half step between the C and the D# in the E harmonic minor scale creates an augmented second between the sixth and seventh notes of this scale.
You can play the E harmonic minor scale in many positions on the neck of your guitar. For this lesson, we’ll focus on two positions and the correct finger placement to play these scales properly.
To play the E harmonic minor scale according to these guitar scale diagrams, remember that O represents an open string, and the numbers on the diagrams represent which finger you will use to play the note.
1 = Index finger
2 = Middle finger
3 = Ring finger
4 = Pinkie
One way to play the E harmonic minor scale is on the low or high E string of your guitar. To play the scale in this way, you’ll need to shift your hand several times as you move up the neck. Practicing this scale will help you build the coordination you need to play solos and improvisations that travel up and down the fretboard.
Start by playing the E string open. Next, use your index finger to play the 2nd fret and your middle finger to play the 3rd. Shift your hand so your index finger can play the 5th fret and your ring finger can play the 7th. Shift again so your index finger can play the 8th fret and your pinkie can play the 11th. Then, slide your pinkie up one fret to hit the note on the 12th fret.
Playing the E Harmonic Minor Scale in Open Position Another way to play the E harmonic minor scale is in the open position. To play the scale in this position, use your index finger to play notes on the 1st fret, your middle finger to play notes on the 2nd, your ring finger to play notes on the 3rd, and your pinkie to play notes on the 4th fret.
ow that you’ve seen guitar scale diagrams showing how to play the E harmonic minor scale in two positions, let’s look at tabs showing how to play this scale, both ascending and descending
Follow the tab below to play the E harmonic minor scale on the high E string. Remember to shift your hand position up when to reach the 5th, 8th, and 12th frets.
Follow this tab to play the E harmonic minor scale in open position on the low E string. Keep your hand in the same position throughout. Use your index finger on the 1st fret, your middle finger on the 2nd, and so on.
There are many chords that sound great paired with the E harmonic minor scale. You can use these chords as a jumping off point to explore the many possibilities for matching this distinctive scale to a chord progression. There are seven notes in the E harmonic minor scale, so we’ll look at seven chords that correspond to each step in the scale.
The E minor chord consists of the root note E, the minor third G, and the perfect fifth B. Learn how to play the E minor chord here.
The A minor chord uses the root note A, the minor third C, and the perfect fifth E. Learn how to play the A minor chord here.
To play the B major chord on your guitar, you’ll need to know how to play barre chords. The B major chord is composed of the root note B, the major third D, and the perfect fifth F#. Learn how to play the B major chord here.
The C major chord consists of the root note C, the major third E, and the perfect fifth G. Learn how to play the C major chord here.
Setting the E harmonic minor scale aside for a moment, let’s take a look at a moveable harmonic minor scale pattern. Because scales and chords are based on intervals, many guitar scales and chords are based on moveable patterns. Learning one of these moveable scale patterns gives you the power to play this scale in any key, anywhere on your fretboard.
For this example, play the guitar scale diagram below starting with your index finger on the 2nd fret, F#, of your low E string. On the E, A, and D strings, you’ll use your index finger on the 2nd fret, your middle finger on the 3rd, your ring finger on the 4th, and your pinkie on the 5th fret.
Once you reach the G string, shift your hand position back one fret so you can play the 1st fret with your index finger, the 2nd with your middle finger, the 3rd with your ring finger, and the 4th with your pinkie. On the high E string, to reach the 6th fret, you’ll need to slide your pinkie up one fret after playing the note on the 5th fret.
The best way to practice playing the harmonic minor scale is to keep playing it over and over. Start by playing the E harmonic minor scale in ascending and descending order up and down on the low E string of your guitar. Next, practice playing the same scale on the high E string, and notice how the same notes sound in a higher register. You might try engaging your picking hand more in this exercise by adding in tremolo picking for a bit of a surf effect.
Next, practice playing the moveable scale in different positions on the neck of your guitar. Start on the 2nd fret of your low E string, F#, and play through the scale in ascending and descending order. Next, move your hand position up one fret to start on the 3rd fret, G. Continue playing the scale in ascending and descending order until you get to the 14th fret, which is F# again.
Practicing the harmonic minor scale in this way will help you train your ear and build dexterity in your fretting and picking hands
If you'd like to learn how to play even more chords, browse Fender Play's chord library, learn about chord types, and find tips on how to master them.
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