Harmonic minor is an essential scale that is used to outline minor chords in your solos when you want to bring a m7b6 or mMaj7 sound to your playing.
One of the three big scales in modern music, alongside major and melodic minor, harmonic minor is heard in jazz, fusion, metal, and other musical genres.
Though you’ll use it less than Dorian, Aeolian, or melodic minor, harmonic minor is a cool color that spices up your minor key guitar solos.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to build harmonic minor, play it on guitar, build your chops with patterns, and learn licks to work into your soloing practice.
Harmonic Minor Scale Construction
To begin your study of the harmonic minor scale, you’re going to learn two ways to build this scale.
The first way is using an interval pattern, the distance between each note of the scale.
Harmonic minor is built with the following interval pattern:
In the key of A, these notes are:
Here’s how those intervals look on the fretboard, which you can play through to hear how this scale sounds on guitar.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 1
Now that you know how to build harmonic minor with intervals, you can transform Aeolian into harmonic minor fingering on guitar.
Because there’s only one note difference between these two scales, you can take any Aeolian shape, raise the 7th by one fret, and you’ve got harmonic minor.
Here’s how that looks with 6th-string root Aeolian and harmonic minor scale shapes for comparison.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 2
You don’t have to use Aeolian to play harmonic minor, but it’s quicker and easier to get these new scale shapes onto the fretboard.
Adapting previous knowledge, such as Aeolian, to form new knowledge, such as harmonic minor, is always quicker than starting from scratch.
Harmonic Minor Scale Application
As you just learned, you use this scale to solo over m7 chords when you want to highlight b6 and natural 7 intervals.
Beyond that m7 chord, you can also apply this scale to a number of other guitar chords in your solos.
Here are three commonly used harmonic minor chord fingerings derived from the first position two-octave scale shape.
Though not as popular as m7 chords, these shapes get to the heart of the harmonic minor sound.
Play through the scale, then these chords to hear how they bring the harmonic minor sound to a harmonic situation.
Harmonic Minor Chords
To expand your harmonic minor chord knowledge, here are 8 shapes that you can explore in your studies.
Start by working these four shapes that have their root on the 6th string, before moving on to the next 4 chords from there.
You can also learn m7b6 and mMaj7 based chords on the 5th string root, all of which are derived from harmonic minor.
Harmonic Minor Scale Shapes
Now you’re ready to learn how to play this scale on the guitar.
To help you take any of these scale shapes to your solos, here’s an Am7 backing track that you can us with any of the scale shapes in this lesson.
Click to jam on Am7 Am7 Backing Track
To begin, here are one-octave scale shapes that you can learn to play in different keys across the neck.
One-octave scales are excellent for soloing over fast moving chord progressions, such as one chord per bar at a fast tempo, or two chords per bar.
Here are four one-octave scale shapes with your index finger playing the first note of each shape.
Moving on, you can learn one-octave scales with your middle finger playing the first note of each shape.
After you can play these first 8 scales, begin to mix them together as you apply them to backing tracks in your soloing practice routine.
The last four one-octave shapes are played with your pinky finger on the first note, with the exception of the last shape, which uses your ring finger.
You could use your pinky finger on that shape, but the ring finger tends to be easier to play with that shape.
Give both a try and see how they fit your hands and comfort level with this shape.
You can also learn to play two-octave scale shapes, as in the four examples below.
These shapes help learn the fretboard, as well as for solo over chords that have longer harmonic rhythms, such as one chord or two bars per chord.
Harmonic Minor Scale Patterns
After you’ve learned one and two-octave shapes, you can use these scale patterns to help you build your guitar chops with these scales.
The first guitar scale pattern features ascending 3rds through the scale, both up and down the shapes.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 3
The second scale pattern is based on descending 3rds through the scale, in both directions.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 4
After you’ve worked these patterns using the fingering above, take it to other fingerings to expand your application of this scale pattern across the fretboard.
Harmonic Minor Licks
Here are three guitar licks that you can learn and apply to your guitar solos.
After you’ve learned any of these licks, play them in a few keys around the fretboard with a metronome.
Then, put on a backing track and solo over those chord changes with any of these licks mixed into your lines.
The first lick uses A harmonic minor over the iim7 chord in a ii V I progression in G major.
This isn’t the most common use of this scale, but it’s an effective way to create unexpected sounds in your m7 soloing lines.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 5
In this harmonic minor lick, you’ll apply that scale to the Im7 chord in a ii V I progression in A minor.
Notice how the G#, the raised 7th, is used as a lower neighbor tone, A-G#-A.
This allows you to play that tense note over Am7, while not holding it too long that it sounds out of place in the line.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 6
The final lick uses the C and F harmonic minor scales over the first four bars to Blue Bossa.
Again, you can create interesting sounds with this scale over minor chord progressions such as this one.
Click to hear harmonic minor scale 7