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Scale Workout: Harmonic Minor

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Do you have a strong inclination that makes you love minor melodies and feel totally bored when hearing major melodies? This article is for you! Today we are going to give a little push to that minor scale. 

1. Harmonic Minor Theory

Harmonic minor is, as the name suggests, a minor scale. It belongs to what I'd call "the minor universe" (as well as Dorian, Phrygian, etc.), but it has a very unique sound. 

To build this scale, just grab a minor scale and raise the 7th degree. Here's the complete formula: 

Pretty straight forward right? Although the result is really dramatic. That major 7th in context with the other minor intervals (b3 and b6) gives a incredibly evil sound to this scale. 

If we harmonize the upper formula (as we would do with a major scale) this is the result we get: 

As you can see, what we have is unlike any modes. In fact, the harmonic minor is not a mode of the major scale. We have an augmented chord (a chord with a #5), and a really strange configuration (two diminished chords) which leads to a different and unstable sound. 

I encourage you to play these chords, but here's an audio sample of them:


If we jack the harmonization up to seventh chords, we have a even more interesting result: 

Now that's what I'm talking about when I think "harmonic minor": a really exotic sound, definitely minor-oriented, with a flavor of evilness. We have a minor major seventh chord as "home", an augmented major seventh chords and a diminished seventh (or full diminished) chord. That's a lot of variation to deal with! 

Here's another audio sample, but why don't try to play these chords everywhere on your instrument? 


2. Fingering Patterns for the Harmonic Minor Scale

Let's get into guitar world and let's take a look on where you can play the harmonic minor scale. Click This PDF will show you five patterns of the scale. 

Sometimes it gets really handy to play this scale on a three-note-per-string structure. This PDF will show you other patterns of the same scale—just different ways to finger it.

3. When and How to Play the Harmonic Minor Scale

Now I know what the harmonic minor scale is, and how to play it on a guitar. How am I supposed to make music out of these charts? Let's analyze when you can and should use this scale. 

V Major on a Minor Key

First of all, let's work with a super common minor progression: 

You may have heard something similar in tons of songs. Is this progression diatonic? Do all the chords belong to the key of C minor? 

Well, no. In the key of C minor, the chord built on the fifth degree is Gm, not G. So where does that G come from? Harmonic minor, sir. 

If you look back to the harmonized scale you can clearly see that, in the harmonic minor universe, you have G major! 

So here's the "rule": 

Every time you have a minor progression and the chord built on the fifth degree is major, you can play the harmonic minor scale over it. 

It's a really basic concept, but an absolutely key element of most of the players out there. Here's an example: 

Starting with the solo at 3:35 the progression is Ebm - Cb (or B) - Bb - Abm which is, in roman numeral, Im - VI - V - IVm. Slash is totally moving from regular minor to harmonic minor over this progression. And also his final run has some harmonic minor in it. 

VII°7 in a Progression

Let's consider again the same progression, but this time we'll make some tweaks: 

We basically jacked every chord up to seventh chord and replace the G major with B°7.

B°7 is the chord built from the seventh degree of C harmonic minor. It's formed by stacking notes a minor third apart: B - D - F - Ab. This feature gives the chord what it's commonly knows as "Diminished Symmetry".

As the previous example, B°7 is the only chord that doesn't belong to the key of C minor. So whenever you'll get to that chord you need to raise the seventh degree in your scale and play C harmonic minor.

The trick you need to know is that B°7, D°7, F°7 and Ab°7 are the same exact chord. They are just inversions of each other, but the rules applies to B as well as its inversion. You can play C harmonic minor over each of these chords. 

Minor Vamp

Last, but not least, you can use harmonic minor on every regular minor chord. Why not? 

What I have noticed with a lot of guitar players is that, when it comes to "strange sounding scales", we all get hesitant about how to use certain device. Strange but true, we forget a really basic, simple but fundamental rule for soloing: 

You can play whichever scale you want on a chord, provided that all the intervals in the chord are the same in the scale. 

So, saying you have a C minor vamp. The only notes in the game are C - Eb - G. You have tons of scales to choose, and one of those is C harmonic minor. 

4. Playing Harmonic Minor Arpeggios

Before getting to the application part of this article, there's another point I'd like to briefly talk about: arpeggios. 

For me, it's essential when learning a scale, to also learn the arpeggios hidden inside of that scale. Arpeggios are perfect to highlight chords, and incredible handy when you don't have time to come up with the best fitting scale choices. 

The arpeggio in the harmonic minor scale is a minor major seventh arpeggio. "Minor" refers to the quality of the arpeggio, while "major" refers just to the type of seventh in the arpeggio. Once you get this concept, it's easy to understand that a minor major seventh arpeggio is just a minor arpeggio with a raised seventh. 

This PDF contains charts of the shapes of the arpeggio.

5. Playing Harmonic Minor Licks

It's always useful, when learning a new scale or arpeggio, to also learn some licks, especially at the beginning. Here are some examples, but I suggest you to create your own and practice them. 

Lick 1


Lick 2


Here's a short solo where I use both licks. The progression is Cm - Fm - Ab - G.


Here's the backing track version with no solo, so that you can use it to practice: 


Conclusion

This article is meant to be a quick way to access to a new scale. I tried to give a 360° point of view on how this scale is build, how to play it, and how to use it. 

Depending on the knowledge you start with, you may have some difficulties with some of the steps. It's crucial that you don't give up, and keep pushing yourself towards learning. Cheers! 

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