It's one thing knowing how to play the harmonic minor scale (e.g. its
patterns), but knowing when
to use it is where a lot of guitarists struggle. It can be an awkward
In this lesson I'll reveal five situations in which harmonic minor can
play an effective role in your solos, in both minor and major
keys. The focus here will be on training your ear to identify the chord
changes that imply harmonic minor. That way, you'll know exactly when
to make the "scale switch", simply by hearing the chord progression.
Start by watching the presentation below and then use the supplemental
content on this page to help fully internalize this valuable
Harmonic Minor "Switch" Ear Training
Knowing when to change scales is a hell of a lot easier when you know
what to listen out for. In terms of soloing and creating a melody over
a sequence of chords, that's where ear training can be hugely rewarding.
In fact, it can get to the stage where you hear a song for the very
first time and can actually predict which chords (and therefore scales)
will come next, based
on the implied harmony. As you can imagine, this does wonders for your
Harmonic minor's dominant function in minor keys
As mentioned in the video, the most common application of harmonic
minor in minor keys
is over the major V
Use the table below to study this i - V relationship in several common
keys. We basically switch from natural minor to
harmonic minor over the V chord, using the same root.
Use the following patterns as a guide (as you can see, there's only one
note difference between the two scales - the 7th)...
Over the V
chord, the emphasis is on harmonic minor's major 7th tone (7), because this
the major 3rd of the V
chord - a strong target note for harmonization. This is the defining note in the
switch from natural to harmonic minor.
If the chord progression only moves back and forth between the i
like this (as some songs do), you can technically use any minor scale
(e.g. Dorian, natural/harmonic/melodic minor) over
the tonic chord.
However, we're specifically looking at the most
commonly used minor key
centre - natural minor. So if any other chords are used away
from that V
will be your safest bet.
in A minor
Here, I play natural minor over the opening three chords - i
VII VI - and then switch to harmonic
minor over the V7
Click the tabs in this lesson to hear examples.
Dominant function in major keys
Using harmonic minor over the V
chord in major keys makes a nice change
from the more natural sounding major scale. In fact, this application
goes back to the baroque, classical and romantic periods.
You won't always want the tense sound it
offers, but keep it in mind for when you want to add some variation to
your major key solos.
There are two approaches for this function...
The first is to play harmonic minor on the same root
as the major scale. So this is exactly the same approach as
minor key V,
just resolving to major intead of minor...
Just like with the minor key V
chord, the emphasis is on harmonic minor's major 7th tone (7), because
this becomes the major 3rd of of the V
in C major
Playing C major over a I
IV ii V progression, with C
harmonic minor played over the V
The second option is to play harmonic minor in the relative minor
position of the major scale over that V
chord. All this means is we play our harmonic minor scale 3 frets down from
our major scale root when the progression changes to V...
in C major
Exactly the same C major progression as before, but this time playing A harmonic minor
over the V
chord (as A minor is the relative minor of C major). A rather strange
Mediant function in major keys
Harmonic minor can work nicely over the major III
(mediant) chord in major key progressions.
You could use the same "relative root" method as before if you like -
for example if the progression moved from Cmaj to E7 (I
you might play C major over Cmaj and then A harmonic minor (A being
relative to C) over E7.
However, as covered in the video, if you
want to keep the same root as the major scale, use harmonic
minor's 3rd mode - major/Ionian
This might seem confusing to you, but all you really need to know is
that using this major #5 scale over the III
chord will ensure you don't hit a bum note (since the major III
technically moves us outside the major scale).
that this won't
work over a natural iii
(minor) chord in major keys. You need to train your ear to hear this
major/minor mediant distinction. That's what the audio below
try targeting (or emphasising) the #5
of major #5 over the III
chord, as this corresponds to the chord's major 3rd - a strong note for
in C major
Towards the end of the example I use a major pentatonic pattern
straight C major) which would, as it happens, overlap with the relative
harmonic minor pattern. Always be looking for these convenient
positions when switching scales.
Pure harmonic minor
Of course, you can also use harmonic minor to colour minor chords on
their own. However, most commonly it works best over the tonic (i)
chord in minor key progressions, as a spicier alternative to natural
minor. Use the i
tracks from earlier to experiment with this.
Using the major 7th of the scale over a minor chord will give
a very tense sound, and sometimes this is desirable. Just be aware of
the colour it adds to your minor chords and use it appropriately, based
on the sound you
in A minor
Hopefully, after going through this lesson, you'll see (well, hear!)
just how valuable ear training is. If you want to take this to
next level, I highly recommend the free
10 day course from Easy Ear Training. These guys will show
you how simple ear training exercises can make you a better musician,
which translates into better guitar playing!