Introduction to Minor Scales

Minor scales are a truly amazing and versatile component of making music. In this lesson you will be introduced to the concept of the natural minor scale, how to modify it to create the harmonic and melodic minor varieties, and what the implications are for your soloing.

Introduction to Minor Scales
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Minor scales are often misunderstood. They are truly amazing and versatile musical components, and I think it's because of this versatility that people get them mixed up. In this article I'm going to start with the basic, or natural minor scale and introduce you to the kick-a-s variations. You can think of the natural minor scale in two ways. One way is to play a major scale starting in the sixth degree and playing through to the next sixth degree. The corresponding numbers would be:
6-7-1-2-3-4-5-6
In the key of a-minor this would be:
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
Generally I don't like numbering scales this way because you lose the sense of where the tone center is. But, if we used the same numbers we used for the major scale we'd have no way of distinguishing between the two. Another way of looking at a minor scale is a major scale with the 3rd, 6th, and 7th all lowered by a half-step, or one fret. So we could write it this way:
1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8
Off of any open string, you can play this scale using the following frets:
0-2-3-5-7-8-10-12
This is great for writing, but what about ear training? If you've read my other articles on the subject you know that I have you sing the scale degrees in order to develop your relative pitch. Singing "flat-three" takes too long and doesn't distinguish itself well from singing "three." I've developed a system where I've lengthened the vowels of each note that's been lowered. So instead of "three" sing "thray." "Saix" instead of "six" and "saiven" instead of "seven." So to sing the minor scale you would use these sounds: One, two, thray, four, five, saix, saiven, eight Any of the exercises you've done with major scales for building chops and developing your ear will work equally well with the minor scale. Now here's where the fun begins. In music you always need a sense of tonality - where is home base. In the major scale the seventh degree creates a good deal of tension, and just begs to resolve to the 1. The b7 doesn't have the same pull, but we can create the same effect by raising the seventh degree by a half step. The scale now looks like this:
1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7-8
This scale is called the harmonic minor scale. If you play it you'll hear an exotic sound, especially between the b6 and the 7. And you get the nice resolution back to your tone center. Sometimes that sound is too weird for what you're going for, so you can also raise the sixth degree by a half step.
1-2-b3-4-5-6-7-8
This one is called the melodic minor scale. Personally I find it kind of boring because once you're past the b3 it just sounds like a major scale. To play a harmonic minor scale start on any string and play off the following frets:
0-2-3-5-7-8-11-12
For the melodic minor scale play it this way:
0-2-3-5-7-9-11-12
For years and years I thought of these scales as three separate entities. Sometimes I would practice a natural minor, sometimes a melodic minor, sometimes a harmonic - but I never really got anywhere. It wasn't until I spent some time playing J.S. Bach pieces that I realized that these three scales were just variations on the same theme. When Bach would write a piece in G minor, he didn't set the whole thing in natural minor, or melodic, or harmonic, he would weave between the three depending on where he wanted the music to go - often creating amazing results. So let's build some chords and see what happens. Just like the major key the three primary chords are built off of the 1 the 4 and the 5. In the natural minor these three triads are as follow:
i: 1-b3-5    iv: 4-b6-8     v: 5-b7-2
You'll notice that each of these chords makes a minor triad. But what if we use the harmonic or melodic minor scales? The harmonic minor raises the b7 to a 7, making the V chord major. The melodic minor raises both the b6 and the b7 which means both the IV and the V chords become major. This means when you're composing, soloing, etc, you can use either a major or minor chord for the IV or the V. Each of them will resolve to the minor I chord, or as its sometimes notated: I. Kirk Hammett used this trick during his epic "Enter Sandman" guitar solo. The song is in e minor, yet on two occasions he used an A major arpeggio resolving to a screaming high E. I've simplified the example quite a bit but it illustrates the concept nicely.
Minor keys can be a lot of fun because they present more options for expressing yourself. You could stick with natural minor, or add some color with a harmonic or melodic minor scale. If you're soloing over a minor chord, you can create anticipation by arpeggiating iv or IV chord, or a v or V chord, all resolving to the tonic note or chord. Try it out, have fun with it, and bring new expressions to your playing. About The Author: Kevin Armagh has been playing the guitar for over 20 years, and has developed a revolutionary method of learning that combines theory, technique, and ear training in a single approach. Additional lessons and learning material can be found at his website.

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    EsotericSurgery
    One of my favorite variations of the minor scale is the 'Japanese' scale. You just remove the 4th and 7th scale degree of the natural minor; eg: 1-2-b3-5-b6-8 It sounds great when you arpeggiate it in multiple octaves running up the neck
    AlanHB
    Why not just call it the natural minor scale, and not play the notes you don't like?
    daniel.kPL
    why not just call the major scale, and play the 3,6,7 lowered to play the minor?
    AlanHB
    ^ That would be an actual variation of the major scale. It would also function as the minor scale in a minor key, rather than the major scale.
    daniel.kPL
    This is the biggest issue of music theory. Man, maybe even of the whole world... Relativity ...
    SoulGear6
    Well I just now learned that "introduction" does not mean its gonna be made easy. Usually I would read the title, click and think "wow im about to learn something cool". But in this case I was more like "wow idk what any of this means". Even though I know that its probably important, and exactly what im supposed to be learning.
    onkel44
    i love the melodic minor scale. in this case it'd be perfect over a Am to E major/Esus chord progression. i personally think the harmonic minor is over rated and boring, when ever i try to force my self to do something in e.g. A Harmonic Minor i usually end up playing the same notes but over E, meaning Phrygian Dominant. Kick-ass scale. Before we put Kirk Hammett and Bach in the same sentence or salute him as some sort of theory-gury, anyone who knows E Dorian could accidentally use a A Major arpeggio and resolve it on a E, especially whilst playing in E Dorian in a song that's in E Minor.
    AlanHB
    If your chord progression is Am - E, this is an i - V progression in A minor. Nothing you ever could play over this progression (whether it would be the Am or the E) would be E phrygian dominant (or E anything). Try your E phrygian over a vamp that goes E - Fmaj7 and you will be more correct.
    Theophillis
    I think he means that you can play E phrygian dominant over this.... problem is, this is mode 5 of Harmonic minor anyway, and without the E tonal centre, it's not modal, it's still in A minor, where you can use A harmonic minor over the progression.
    CurlOfTheBurl
    You should add how playing with different minor scales means the associated chords change, which can really create some fantastic musical options, especially when modes are also added. For example, play an E minor major 7 chord, and try playing the E harmonic minor scale after it- its relevant chord to that scale (but of course, not restricted to just that combination), as it colours that key sound of the minor 3rd and major 7 of the chord, and sounds fantastic.