Composition in the Harmonic Minor Scale

This is going to be a quick and practical guide to how you can start writing some cool riffs in the harmonic minor scale.

Composition in the Harmonic Minor Scale
5
This is going to be a quick and practical guide to how you can start writing some cool riffs in the harmonic minor scale.

We will be using double single stops, so to start off with, let's look at some of the different double stops we can use (note that these can be moved horizontally along the fretboard. We can also move these shapes to the D and A strings).

Don't worry if you don't understand the intervals, all you need to get the hang of is the shape. 


Major double stop. In tab, we would get (examples on E&A, A&D):
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------4---
A|---2----5---
E|---3--------
Gmaj Dmaj
Interval: Major third


Diminished double stop. In tab:
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------6---
A|---4----5---
E|---3--------
Gdim Ddim
Interval: Diminished fifth


Minor double stop. In tab:
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------3---
A|---1----5---
E|---3--------
Gmin Dmin
Interval: Minor third


Power chord. In tab:
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------7---
A|---5----5---
E|---3--------
G5 D5
Interval: Perfect fifth


Augmented double stop. In tab:
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------8---
A|---6----5---
E|---3--------
Gaug Daug
Interval: Augmented fifth

Perfect 4th double stop (also an inverted power chord). In tab:
e|------------
B|------------
G|------------
D|--------5---
A|---3----5---
E|---3--------
G4(C5) D4 (G5)
Interval: Perfect fourth/perfect fifth (inverted)

Hopefully you're already familiar with those shapes, if not, quickly work them out. They should take you too long!

Next, we are going to go off on a slight tangent, but it'll all come together towards the end of this article.

Let's say we are using the harmonic minor in the key of A. Let's write down the notes in A harmonic minor:

A B C D E F G#

Next, we are going to make a "map" of these notes on the neck (if you follow the link at the end of this article you can find some blank diagrams for using in other keys/scales):


We can also map the notes out along the A and D strings:


Hopefully you can already see the shapes we look at towards the start of this article appearing!

Next, we want to disengage our brain a little bit. We don't want to worry about what notes we are playing, we want to start putting shapes and runs together, so lets use these diagrams without the notes marked on them:



So what do you do next? Have fun! Start playing around putting different shapes and runs together. You will find you start getting some very cool ideas coming out very quickly.

I'd love to hear what you come up with - post your riffs on YouTube and send me a link.

About the Author:
Sam Russell is a professional musician based in West London. He has recently published his first book, a tab book of Bach's 1st Cello Suite for electric guitar. You can get the first movement for free on www.samrussell.co.uk and order your copy.

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    JimDawson
    I can tell you put some effort and good intentions into this, so remember I'm not trying to be a total douche here. However, you can learn all of this from a quick Google search. The problem I have is that this article on "how you can start writing some cool riffs in the harmonic minor scale" and all it talks about is shapes and names for things. You never mentioned anything about songwriting, like how the V chord in harmonic minor is a HUGE deal and offers a more complete resolution to the tonic than the v in natural minor. There's also the 3 chord- that unwieldy, gloomy Aug5 chord- and some diminished sounds which deserve further explanation. You talk a lot about shapes and names, but you don't give any tips/ideas for how to use them in a musical context- which is pretty much the whole point of a songwriting lesson. Please understand that I am just giving you some constructive criticism- no offense intended. Maybe we can discuss some of these things in the comments?
    Joeseye
    I'm curious. You say that the V chord in harmonic minor offers a more complete resolution than in natural minor. How so? Is it just because of the V chord being major (in harmonic minor) instead of minor (as in natural minor)? Or is it because the V chord in harmonic minor contains a leading-tone, as opposed to not in natural minor? Or both?
    MaggaraMarine
    Play V-i and v-i and compare the sound. Dominant chord is called dominant for a reason. It has a "dominating" sound - it sounds strong. But if the V chord is not a major chord, it just doesn't sound strong. Actually the minor v chord is one of the weakest chord functions, just like the iii chord in a major key. The V chord adds tension. It has the leading tone in it and that's why it sounds pretty strong. When the leading tone goes a half step up, it just sounds complete. Try playing i-iv-v-i and then i-iv-V-i. You may notice that the first one doesn't have a lot of tension in it, but the second one sounds more dramatic.
    Joeseye
    Right, I think I understand you. I've always thought that scales which have a perfect 5th, perfect 4th and leading tone are the 'strongest' sounding. Would you say there's some truth in this? I don't suppose there's a list of strongest to weakest sounding intervals, tonally?
    ShredderMan1
    there is. Marine is noting that the V-VII (dominant 5 7 chord) is one of the strongest to resolve to the I or tonic. Many outcomes to a good chord progression. Like he stated play them and listen for the resoultion in these voicings. I always the a dominant chord befor the next resolving bar or measure. Here is a good example I use all the time in the harmonic minor context. C5,B5,Ebm,Em or on the a string 3,2,6,7 this would be frets to play. Using power chords in conjunction here.
    TrafficLi9HT
    I think the problem is that he isnt going for the kind of article where he expects the reader to have music theory knowledge (that stuff with the V and the tonic etc.), but neither is he going for a complete beginner tutorial... So yeah I kind of agree
    Eryth
    The article is actually really helpful when starting off with scales. I've gone past the point where I look at fretting shapes and need to start to pay attention to what chords and notes I'm actually playing but starting off a tutorial like this is just perfect. If you take all the suggestions Jim Dawson and write some follow-ups taking the reader a few steps further along the line (constructing chords and whatnot) this is really good, and might really help me personally as well.
    Sam-Russell
    It was designed for people who are only just starting to look at writing their own riffs and don't know where to start. You're right - I totally agree that there is a lot, lot more to songwriting that does incorporate all those elements you talked about, but one step at a time! This is so people who have no idea where to start can make a cool sounding riff and get a little creativity going.
    omgwtfbbqwarftw
    I think it's a great lesson for a beginner, or for someone who doesn't have a great understanding of music theory like me. Thanks for taking your time to do this. The harmonic minor is great for making some heavy stuff
    ShredderMan1
    I think you coulda just put up a video of what you though was hip as a riff. To kind of show us some basic ideas to build from. But other than that I really dig this article man. There is always some criticism that come with posting these. Mine are usually friendly criticisms so dont feel attacked or anything. The way music theory is getting into the minds of the younger guitar slingers is just awesome. I remember the 90's..... Just a stock fender jaguar and a shitty fender amp, barre chords and what everyone says was "great songs" and ill admit there were som great bands, just IMO knowing more about your craft should always be trendy I think. This is a solid way to show that. Plus it was you who posted it! Cheers mate!
    Sam-Russell
    Hey man, thanks for the positive feedback. The reason I didn't post any examples was because I knew most people would do exactly what I would do... and learn the examples! I wanted people to dive right in and start making some ideas of their own, without worrying what others thought, or doing it my way etc.
    jaesonrosa
    will somebody could help me and give me idea how to shred over A harmonic minor...