Guitar Essentials: Add Intrigue with the Exotic-Sounding Harmonic Minor Scale

If you love soloing in minor keys—and show us a guitarist who doesn’t—you owe it to yourself to discover the intriguing properties of the harmonic minor scale.
Publish date:
Updated on
Image placeholder title

If you love soloing in minor keys—and show us a guitarist who doesn’t—you owe it to yourself to discover the intriguing properties of the harmonic minor scale.

Exotic sounding and rich with modal possibilities, the harmonic minor scale can take you far beyond the realms of the minor pentatonic and natural minor scales. In addition, it’s the diatonic scale of choice for rock, jazz and blues progressions.

The harmonic minor (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7) scale differs from the natural minor scale (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) only in that it contains a major rather than flatted 7th degree. This simple adjustment produces a minor 3rd interval (1-1/2 steps) between the b6th and 7th scale degrees, which lends the scale an exotic vibe and creates a strong sense of anticipation for resolution (return to tonic).

Plus, the major 7th degree yields some unusual chords when the scale is harmonized (stacked in 3rds). For example, if you harmonize the A harmonic minor scale in 7th-chord form, the ii, iv, and bVI chords (Bm7b5, Dm7 and Fmaj7) possess the same quality as their natural-minor counterparts. However, the chords that contain the 7th degree (G#) of the scale are quite different indeed. The i chord becomes Am(maj7) (Am7 in natural minor); the bIII becomes Cmaj7#5 (Cmaj7 in natural minor); the V becomes E7 (Em7 in natural minor); and the vii becomes G#˚7 (G7 [bVII] in natural minor).These altered harmonies are important for understanding harmonic-minor applications.


FIGURES 1A–D show the four harmonic-minor patterns from which all of this lesson’s examples will be drawn. Practice playing through them repeatedly in order to burn the fingerings into your muscle memory.


Image placeholder title

In jazz, harmonic minor is a popular scale choice for minor(maj7) chords. In FIGURE 2A, for example, a C harmonic-minor (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B) phrase (carved from scale pattern 1C) is played over a Cm(maj9) chord. (Note: Harmonic minor is a notoriously difficult scale to map out on the neck; therefore, fret-hand fingerings will be provided in most cases here.) Harmonic minor is also a favorite among classically influenced hard-rock guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen and Tony MacAlpine, who often use it as an alternative to the Aeolian mode. FIGURE 2B contains an A harmonic-minor run (pattern 1B) played over an Am chord.


Image placeholder title

The most common application of harmonic minor involves minor-key progressions in which the V chord is dominant. In these instances, many players will draw from natural minor and/ or minor pentatonic (1-b3-4-5-b7) scales for the diatonic changes and segue to harmonic minor when the V7 chord comes along.

Check out FIGURE 3A, a i-V7-i progression (Dm7-A7-Dm7) in the key of D minor. This example draws from the D natural minor scale (D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C) for the i chord and then shifts to the D harmonic minor scale (D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C#; pattern 1C) for the V7 chord. This process, called the key-center approach, dictates the use of parallel scales (different scales that share the same tonic). This shift could also be classified in modal terms, with the name of the scale being determined by how it corresponds to the root of the chord—this explains the term “A Phrygian dominant” that appears beneath the A7 chord in the music. (Phrygian dominant is the fifth mode of harmonic minor, and A is the fifth scale degree of D harmonic minor, hence A Phrygian dominant [A-Bb-C#-D-E-F-G]). When superimposed over an A7 chord, this scale outlines the root (A), 3rd (C#), 5th (E), and b7th (G) of the chord, plus b9th (Bb) and #5th/ b13th (F) alterations. The D note serves as a passing 4th/11th.

FIGURE 3B isolates the V7-i section (E7-Am) of a 12-bar blues in A minor. Fashioned from the pattern in 1A, the A harmonic-minor phrase features a bluesy half-step grace-note bend from G to G#. (Incidentally, you can get some pretty juicy harmonic-minor material out of minor-pentatonic patterns simply by bending the b7ths up a half step.)


Image placeholder title


Harmonic minor also offers some interesting arpeggios those constructed from the root (m[maj7]; [1-b3-5-7]), b3rd (maj7#5; [1-3-#5-7]), and 7th (˚7; [1-b3-b5-bb7]) degrees. FIGURES 4A-C show these arpeggios in action. FIGURE 4A is a simple lick that extracts an Am(maj7) arpeggio (A-C-E-G#) from pattern 1A. In FIGURE 4B, a Cmaj7#5 (C-E-G#-B) arpeggio colors an Am(maj9) chord. FIGURE 4C, meanwhile, contains an E7 arpeggio (E-G#-B-D) followed by a string of inverted G#˚7 arpeggios (G#-B-D-F). Combined, these patterns produce an E7b9 quality over the V7 chord (E7).


Image placeholder title

In addition to Phrygian dominant, harmonic minor produces other equally interesting modes. For instance, the third and sixth modes—Ionian #5 (1-2-3 4 #5-6-7) and Lydian #2 (1-#2-3-#4-5-6-7)—are exotic alternatives to the major scale, while the fourth mode—Dorian #4 (l-2-b3-#4-5-6-b7)—offers a slightly twisted version of Dorian. Phrygian dominant is a colorful sound when played over static power chords or even major triads. And for the ambitious player, harmonic minor itself can be used as an alternative to natural minor.

Here’s an easy, hands-on procedure for discovering the sound of these modes. Make a recording of a droning open E5 chord, then play it back and experiment with the following harmonic minor scales: B harmonic minor (this produces E Dorian #4 over the E5 drone), C# harmonic minor (E Ionian #5), G# harmonic minor (E Lydian #2), A harmonic minor (E Phrygian dominant), and, of course, E harmonic minor

Our solo [FIGURE 5] is a 23-measure blues-rock/jazz-fusion excursion through modulating E minor (bars 1–7 and 16-23), A minor (8-12) and C major (13-15) progressions. Bursting with functioning altered-V and m(maj7) chord changes, it’s a perfect vehicle for harmonic-minor applications. You can find the TAB for the solo below.

The progression opens with an Em-Em(maj7)-Em7 cadence. The solo cruises over these changes, moving from E minor pentatonic (E-G-A-B-D) to E harmonic minor (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D#; open-position form of pattern 1B) to, finally, E natural minor (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D). A secondary dominant A7 chord substitutes for the “expected” Em6 change in measure 4, where selected notes from A Mixolydian (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G) and a passing C note combine for a logical conclusion to this four-bar passage.

C Lydian (C-D-E-F#-G-A-B) is used on the Cmaj7 chord in measure 5, followed by a B Phrygian-dominant (B-C-D#-E-F#-G-A) phrase (E harmonic minor, from pattern 1C) over the B7#5. (If that 2nd-finger bend is too difficult, try using your 3rd finger.) Measures 7-8 contain a series of rhythmic motifs—two 16ths and a quarter note—fueled by E natural minor and E Phrygian dominant (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D), the latter of which is fashioned from patterns 1A and 1B of A harmonic minor.

The E7 in measure 8 triggers a cycled V7-i (E7-Am) cadence in A minor, over which A minor pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) and A natural minor (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) lines give way to E Phrygian dominant phrases delivered in an extremely bluesy fashion. Watch out for that 1-1/2-step bend from G# to B. Although it’s a 4th-finger bend, the other fingers should help the cause by lining up along the G string and helping push the string to pitch.

The melodic movement in the ii-V-I (Dm7-G7b9—Cmaj7) in measures 13–15 proves that Phrygian dominant can be applied in major as well as minor keys—in this case, G Phrygian dominant (G-Ab-B-C-D-Eb-F; C harmonic minor, from pattern 1C). Also, dig the cool grace-note bend.

A B7#5 chord in measure 16 marks a return to the original E-minor progression at the top of the solo. Similar scale tactics are employed here, except this time they are voiced much higher on the neck. After an exciting B Phrygian-dominant sequence, an ultra-cool free-time phrase from E harmonic minor closes the solo.


Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title