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
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.
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!
A 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 C 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.
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?