HARMONIC MINOR MAYHEM
In this issue, we’re taking a look at the harmonic minor scale. The harmonic minor contains all of the notes in the natural minor, otherwise known as Aeolian mode. The difference between the natural minor and the harmonic minor is that the seventh note or degree of the scale is raised by a semitone: if we take the notes of the A natural minor – A B C D E F G – and we raise the seventh note, we end up with the A harmonic minor scale – A B C D E F G#. This changes the sound of the scale, with the seventh degree (or G#) having a very strong pull towards the tonic, similar to the leading tone resolution of the major scale.
It was for this reason that many composers used the harmonic minor scale to write melodies, as the stronger resolution of the raised seventh made for a stronger resolution of the melody. The sound of the harmonic minor is often described as Middle Eastern; the jump of an augmented second between the sixth and seventh scale degrees sounds very similar to some Turkish, Arabic and Indian scales. Play through bar #1 of exercise #1, and you will hear that something as small as changing the seventh degree of the scale will have a dramatic effect on the sound or tonality.
Exercise #1 outlines a one-octave pattern ascending and descending through the harmonic minor scale. Starting on A harmonic minor, it then rises chromatically with each bar. I have written out four bars using key signatures. This is a great exercise that can be continued all the way up to the A on the 15th fret of the E string. Practising this one-octave pattern chromatically is also a quick and easy way to get this pattern under your fingers. I have added the ninth on top of the scale so it can ascend and descend neatly as 16th notes and fit within a bar. Use a metronome and see how fast you can get it. I set up an iTunes playlist with one minute worth of metronome clicks that increase by 10bpm with each new track. Start slow at 60bpm, and see if you can get up to 180bpm. Do this for a few days, and you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.
Exercise #2 outlines A harmonic minor over two octaves. I have tried to keep it as close to the Aeolian or natural minor scale pattern we already use, using three notes per string. There are many different ways to play this two-octave pattern, but keeping it close to what we already know should be a quicker process to get it under your fingers. It will also help us to see and hear the raised seventh, remembering that the harmonic minor is built by raising one note of the natural minor. The method we went through in exercise #1 will work just as well here to help the technique become muscle memory. Play it chromatically up and down the neck, and increase the speed slowly.
Don’t forget about the sweep picking technique when playing an uneven number of notes per string. When ascending through the scale, start with a stroke down, then up, then down. When crossing to the next string, play in the same pattern – down, up, down. When you descend through the scale, start with an upstroke. The descending pattern on each string will be up, down, then up. It might seem unnatural at first, but if you start slowly, you’ll eventually be able to play much faster.
Exercise #3 outlines a chord progression and rhythmic pattern in A harmonic minor. When we build chords from the harmonic minor scale, we end up altering the harmony. The V chord in harmonic minor changes from a minor chord to a major chord. If we use A minor as an example, the V chord in A minor is E minor; E minor contains the notes E G B D. The A harmonic minor scale raises the G note to a G#. This changes the E chord from minor to a major chord – the notes in the chord become E G# B D.
If possible, record this chord progression and play exercise #2 over the top of it. Try to make up melodies and riffs that build and release tension. The augmented second between the F and G# is great for writing riffs. Once you get sick of A harmonic minor, try transposing this to other keys and see if you can’t make use of different open string drones.