Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

In the last music theory blog article, I introduced you to the odd and sometimes dissonant chords derived from the melodic minor scale. This time we’ll look at the prettier-but-slightly-aloof older sisters of the melodic minor chords: Chords of the Harmonic Minor scale. This article will explain how to derive the chords from this dramatic scale, and provide some ideas for chord progressions using those chords.

Before We Start

Come on, tell me what his favorite scale is....
Come on, tell me what his favorite scale is….

While this is a common scale used in Baroque-inspired rock, and progressive metal, most of those styles are played with power chords*. We should remember that power chords do not contain major or minor 3rds, much less major/minor/diminished 7ths: They contain a root and the 5th note of the scale, and…they rock.
*Power chords are not considered ‘chords’ in the classical theory-sense of the word. To make a chord, you technically need three unique notes. Guitarists don’t care for such stuffiness.
Blues sometimes uses this scale too, particularly if that blues starts out with a minor chord. In fact, you can read about the use of the harmonic minor scale’s use in blues in a previous article. 
Instead of using one of the above styles to use this scale, we will derive the chords used from the scale itself.

It Starts with the Notes

We are going to start on the letter A. Why? Because it is the first letter of the alphabet and the 5th fret on the low E string. Knowing this, we can derive the A natural minor scale:
A Natural Minor: A B C D E F G

Now, if you know where an A is on a keyboard, you just play the white keys until you get to another A.
To figure out the harmonic minor scale, just take the 7th note and sharp it:
A Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G# 

On a keyboard, we would replace the 7th note (G) with a black key to the right (G#).
When you play this scale, notice the exotic sound of that G# going to the A. When you hit that G#, all of a sudden, you have tension, which resolves when you get to the A.

The Triads

Now we will derive the seven triads of this scale. We do this by by first taking the first, third, and fifth notes and combining them:
A B C D E F G#: Am
Now we’ll go through the others. I wrote the scale in two octaves, so you can see the ‘every other note’ formula we use to derive chords. By the way, you can derive the chords from any scale by using this formula. Even scales you might make up. To the chords!
B C D E F G# A B C D E F G#: Bdim
A B C D E F G# A B C D E F G#: C+ (augmented)
A B C D E F G# A B C D E F G#: Dm
A B C D E F G# A B C D E F G#: E
A B C D E F G# A B D E F G#: F
A B C D E F G# A B C D E F G#: G#dim
You probably know most or all of these chords, but if not, here is one way to play them:

If I want to improvise over chords using this scale, I can pick any of these chords in any order. Here is one way to do it:

And a solo over the top using the scale:

These triads sound pretty ordinary, and some of those chords are some of the first ones we learned on guitar. Sometimes I like to hear chords with a little more color in them. So, I will extend these chords to…

4 Note Chords

Using the same ‘every other note’ formula, we get:
A B C D E F G#: Am/maj7 (this is an Am chord with a major 7)
Well, by now, you get the idea of how we get these chords. Here is one way to play them all:

We can then pick any of the chords, in any order, to make a chord progression. Here is one:

Now, here is a short solo over these chords.

A note about tone: Unlike our power chords, these particular chords have a more ‘complex’ or ‘complicated’ sound to them. Using distortion will create too many overtones and make these chords sound pretty dissonant and muddy. I’d recommend starting with a clean sound first: I used the split sound of my Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz (neck), for my examples. For the solos, feel free to pile on distortion. I used a Custom 5 for mine. 

The Jazz is a great neck pickup, especially in mid-heavy poplar-bodied guitars.
The Jazz is a great neck pickup, especially in mid-heavy poplar bodied guitars.

As we can see, this sounds pretty different than using the harmonic minor scale over power chords: The scale is the same, but we have a more complex harmonic setting to put them in. Increase your chord vocabulary by learning different positions for these chords, and in no time you will find out that being the ‘rhythm guitar player’ can be as fun and dynamic as the one playing the solos. If you write songs, unusual chords can help us jump out of ruts caused by using the same shapes and harmonies we always go back to.
Do you ever write songs using unusual chords? Who are some of your favorite players that use the harmonic minor scale?

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  1. I use this scale to play some Santana inspired licks, with that major 7th note in the scale, it’s sounds awesome. Another cool idea is to play a minor triad with the root note on the G string for the minor, then play that same chord shape on the D string for the 5 chord, then slide it up a half step for the 6 chord. I arpeggiate the notes of the triad in a descending manner. So, for Eminor, that’s the root on the 9th fret of the G string, the G on the B string at the 8th fret, and the B on the the high E string at the 7th fret. Move that shape up a string to the D string, with the root on the 9th fret for the B maj, then slide it up a half step for the C major with the root on the 10th fret on the D string. I accent the 5th note of the scale a little when playing it chord triad descending ( E min would be (B, G, E) starting on the 7th fret on the high E. Sounds killer over those chords barred at 7th fret for E minor, etc.

  2. Hi
    I had trouble with finding names for this chords:
    c,e,g#,b,d,f,a – ?
    d,f,a,c,e,g#,b – ?
    e,g#,b,d,f,a,c – ?
    f,a,c,e,g#,b,d – ?
    g#,b,d,f,a,c,e – ?
    a,c,e,g#,b,d,f – ?
    b,d,f,a,c,e,g# – ?
    c,e,g#,b,d,f#,a – ?
    d,f#,a,c,e,g#,b – ?
    e,g#,b,d,f#,a,c – ?
    f#,a,c,e,g#,b,d – ?
    g#,b,d,f#,a,c,e – ?
    a,c,e,g#,b,d,f# – ?
    b,d,f#,a,c,e,g# – ?
    and I found an answer but I do not understand it
    First line –
    Am maj11+5
    Bm 13-9
    Second line-
    D13 add9+11
    Am Maj11/f#
    Am Maj13
    Bm7 add11add13-9
    What is wrong with g# and f# chords?
    And why chord [c,e,g#,b,d,f#,a] is Cmaj13-5?
    I think chord [c,e,g#,b,d,f#,a] is Cmaj13/+11/+5 not Cmaj13-5
    5 is g# not gb,11(or 4) is also sharp …help
    For example
    c,d,e,f,g,a,b – ionian scale
    c,e,g,b,d,f,a – “ionian chord” Cmaj9/11/13
    d,e,f,g,a,b,c – dorian scale
    d,f,a,c,e,g,b – “dorian chord” Dm13
    e,f,g,a,b,c,d – phrygian scale
    e,g,b,d,f,a,c – “phrygian chord” Em713-/9
    Each scale has own tonic/root chord
    and if we fully expand tonic chord it will still be tonic chord,right??
    I dont need all possible names,just one
    if we take f#,a,c,e,g#,b,d = F# what
    g#,b,d,f#,a,c,e = G# what etc

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