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Improvising With Harmonic And Melodic Minor Scales

Improvising With Harmonic And Melodic Minor Scales

If you feel like you’re starting to fall into a rut with your soloing, exploring the harmonic and melodic minor scales can be a great way to pull you out of it. Both scales are similar to the minor scale that you likely already know, but with some essential notes changed, making for a formula that will force you just far enough outside your comfort zone to spark some new creativity. In this piece, we are going to learn the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale, contrast them to the regular minor scale and learn some cool licks using both new scales.

First, let’s make sure that we’re on the same page about we’re playing an ordinary old minor scale. There are many different yet equally correct ways of playing a minor scale, but today we are going to use a pretty typical, movable box-shape approach to the minor scale. On an A-minor, that scale shape that we are going to use will look like this:

A-Minor Scale

Try warming up by running that scale a few times, and maybe even jamming on it a little bit. That scale is going to the foundation of what we’re learning in this lesson, so do whatever you need to make sure that it is fresh in your mind and ready on your fingers. Please note that this a minor scale proper (called a natural minor scale), and is not to be confused with a minor pentatonic scale, which contains some, but not all, of the above notes.


The Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is just like the natural minor scale we just played, except that the seventh degree of the scale (meaning the seventh note we played) is raised by one fret. This is called a sharp 7th. In the case of an A-harmonic minor scale, the new note we’re adding is a G#.

Since the shape we are using for our minor scale spans a little over two octaves, that means that we are repeating every pitch in the scale at least once, so make sure that both of the seventh degrees that happen are raised by one fret. So with all that information in mind, an A-harmonic minor scale will look like this:

A-Harmonic Minor Scale

Try playing that harmonic scale up-and-down a few times, paying special attention to the two notes that we’ve changed. If that 9th fret on the 2nd string feels like an awkward stretch, you can instead play that note on the 4th fret of the 1st string, but neither choice is inherently better than the other. 

As you can probably tell from hearing it played, note one note has a big impact on the overall sound of the scale, making the harmonic minor scale sound pretty distinct from a plain-old minor scale. This distinctive sound has made the harmonic minor scale a staple of both Latin and Middle-Eastern music, as well as a favorite of many hard rock and metal players, including Randy Rhodes, Joe Satriani, and Ritchie Blackmore.

Soloing with a harmonic minor scale is not drastically different than soloing with a natural minor scale, as only one note is different and many of the minor licks you know and love will still work. Because the two scales are so similar, the main thing to watch out for is that you don’t lapse into muscle memory and forget the raise the seventh.

But even with all that being said, when soloing with the harmonic minor scale it’s often best to lean into that raised seventh. The raised seventh is the heart of the harmonic minor scale. That note is what makes the scale distinctive, and using it heavily will help you get the most out of your choice to go harmonic minor. With all that mind, here are a few licks based off the harmonic minor scape above to help you get started:

Harmonic Minor Lick #1:

Harmonic Minor Lick #2:

Harmonic Minor Lick #3:


The Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is just like the harmonic minor scale that we just played, except with another new note in addition to the raised seventh. This new note is a raised sixth. We add it by finding the sixth note we play in the scale, and raising it up by one fret. In the case of an A-melodic minor scale, the new note we’re adding is an F#. Just like with the harmonic minor scale, make sure that you raise that sixth note both times that it occurs in the scale. Also, remember that we’re adding the raised sixth in addition to the raised seventh from the harmonic minor scale!

With all that in mind, an A-melodic minor scale looks like this:

A-Melodic Minor Scale

Like with the harmonic minor, try playing the scale up and down a few times, and maybe even jamming around in the shape. As you can here, the melodic minor scale isn’t quite as dramatic sounds as the harmonic minor. This is because the melodic minor was invented the express purpose as being a subtler-sounding alternative to the harmonic minor, but without sacrificing that sharp seventh that gives the scale its identity. This gives the melodic minor scale a much smoother sound than the harmonic minor, which has made it a favorite of jazz players of all instruments, including Miles Davis and guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Soloing with a melodic minor scale is a bit further of a leap from the natural minor scale than the harmonic minor scale, as there are twice as many notes altered. This means that you’ll have a much harder time using your typical repertoire of licks from your natural minor scale, and will likely have to come up with some new material.

But luckily, new ideas can be plentiful when playing the melodic minor scale. This is largely because while the scale has a typical minor-scale beginning, it has a very major-sounding ending. This kind of dichotomy is rare in a single scale, but it’s the melodic minor scale’s greatest strength. It allows you to pull from two very different musical worlds and put them into one, cohesive solo. A great way to improvise using the harmonic minor scale is to alternate between very minor-sounding phrases utilizing notes that scale has in common with the natural minor, and very major-sounding phrases using the notes that we altered.

Here are some example-licks that illustrate the concept:

Melodic Minor Lick #1

Melodic Minor Lick #2

I hope that you learned something from this, and that you were able to get some new ideas for your improvising! Remember that both the harmonic and melodic minor scale shapes that we went over are entirely movable. So once you get used to playing them an A, trying moving them around to other parts of the fretboard and playing in other keys. But more than anything else, remember to have fun with it!

Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.


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