In this new guitar tutorial, we're going to learn the Harmonic Minor Scale, in the key of E. It's a type of guitar scale that you will not often see in pop music, while it is mostly used in classical, jazz, gypsy, and metal shredding music. It is commonly used in solos when musicians want to spice things up and add a little tension.
E Harmonic Minor Scale - 1 octave fingering
Let's start to see how Harmonic Minor Scales are constructed. In music theory the natural minor scale can be notated as:
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
So, if we start with a simple C major scale and apply this formula we get;
C Major Scale
C Minor Scale
And of course, the same formula applies to all keys, take the key of E major and E minor;
E Major Scale
E Minor Scale
Popular songs that are upbeat and rocking will often have major chords and scales, while sad and slow songs will often be in minor chords and scales. Now clearly that is not a perfect rule, but that is the norm. Try playing both scales on your guitar to get an idea of their sound difference.
The basic minor scale is also known as the "natural" minor. Now if we take that minor scale and raise the 7th degree we will get a harmonic minor scale;
E Natural Minor Scale
E Harmonic Minor Scale
That is the only difference between the Natural and Harmonic Minor, literally a half step on the 7th note of the scale, D to D#. As always with music theory we can dive pretty deep down the rabbit hole, but the main reason for the raised 7th in the harmonic minor is to create more tension in music leading to a better resolution.
To get a better feel of the scale structure, play the E Harmonic Scale horizontally on the E low string:
By raising the 7th degree (D) 1 half-step up (D#) we get the Harmonic Minor Scale
First play the natural minor on your guitar, and then play the harmonic minor, you will see how that raised 7th sounds much more like it needs to be resolved to its tonic E. That right there is the most important aspect to realize when knowing the difference between these minor scales.
The harmonic minor is also known as the "Mohammedan" scale as it has a very middle eastern sound. There a few variants of the harmonic minor scale and they are often given names like "gypsy" scale or Hungarian minor, or Egyptian minor; because they all sound like traditional music born out of a specific geographic region.
Minor key songs will often use the harmonic minor when they reach the V chord of the progression The Dire Straits song "Sultans of Swing" is played in the key of Dm. Normally the 5th chord of Dm is Am, with the notes A C E. But when we want to use a harmonic minor that 7th degree of the Dm scale becomes C#, so Dire Straits plays an A major A C# E instead of the normal minor. The verse is;
You get a Dm shiver in the dark, CIt's raining Bb in the park, but A meantime A7
The song just doesn't sound the same if we play the Am, that raised 7th degree really give the song just a slight bit more tension.
Here below you find a video that shows you two different fingerings for the E harmonic minor scale, one covering 1 single octave and one that goes all along the fretboard.
If you need help reading this diagrams, check the guitar tab tutorial
The more you play music in the harmonic minor, the more you will learn to train your ear for picking it up. If you compose and write your own tunes you will always know a great way to give your minor songs a little more tension. The most likely students out there who will be studying the E harmonic minor scale will be fans of the virtuoso guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. He is one of the best examples for learning your harmonic scales.
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