Many acoustic guitarists spend the bulk of their time with the major and natural minor scales and their associated chords—the harmonic basis of so many popular styles, from folk to country to rock. For a higher level of sophistication, in this advanced lesson I’ll introduce you to the melodic and harmonic minor scales and the harmonies that can be generated from them. These materials can provide not only interesting fretboard exercises but abundant color for your guitar arsenal. As you work through this lesson, keep in mind that the goal is to get these complex chords in your ears and under your fingers, so that they’ll be available whenever you compose or improvise.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
Week one: Building the scales
To understand how the harmonic and melodic minor scales are constructed, first take the A natural minor scale (A B C D E F G). The A harmonic minor scale (A B C D E F G#) is the same, except the seventh is raised, lending a somewhat mysterious character. Both the sixth and seventh are raised in the ascending form of A melodic minor (A B C D E F# G#), but in the descending form, those two notes are lowered (i.e., identical to the natural minor scale). In this lesson, we’ll be focusing only on the ascending form of the melodic minor scale.
Example 1 shows the A harmonic minor scale played in two octaves, starting on the fifth-fret A. Play this slowly and repeatedly, until you get accustomed to the way it sounds and feels. Use whatever fingerings feel most natural to you. Then, as a precursor to playing chords from within the A harmonic minor scale, try Example 2, in which the scale is harmonized in thirds—again, slowly so that you can really get a feel for things.
Repeat the same ideas with the ascending A melodic minor scale, as shown in Examples 3–4. Though the A harmonic and melodic minor scales share all but one note in common, they impart noticeably different moods. After you’ve worked through this week’s examples, if you have a good knowledge of the fretboard, try playing the scales and harmonized thirds in other positions as well, and feel free to transpose them—for instance, just move everything up two frets to play the B harmonic and melodic minor scales, three frets for C harmonic and melodic minor, and so on.
Beginners’ Tip #1
After you’ve learned the A harmonic and melodic minor scales, try playing them in other keys as well.
Week two: Building triads
This week you’ll start expressing the A harmonic and melodic minor scales in triads, all using closed voicings. You can do this by stacking two thirds from within the scale on top of each note, as shown in Example 5. If you struggle to play these chords—in particular, the Bdim on the “and” of beat one requires a pretty big stretch of the fretting fingers—don’t worry. The point of this exercise is so that you can see how the chords are built and get accustomed to their sounds. Example 6 contains the same triads, but played as eighth-note triplets, for a good fretboard workout.
Now play the A melodic minor scale’s triads, first as block chords (Example 7) and then in arpeggios (Example 8). Note that the A harmonic and melodic minor scales share four of the same triads—Am, Caug, E, and G#dim. Compare the differences in the others: For example, A harmonic minor contains a Bdim chord, while A melodic minor has Bm. Just as you did last week, if you’re up for it, play these arpeggios and chords in other spots on the fretboard, possibly transposed to other root notes as well.
Beginners’ Tip #2
When learning harmonies generated from the harmonic and melodic minor scales, play them both as block chords and arpeggios.
Week three: Adding the 7th
Things gets interesting this week, harmonically speaking, as seventh chords come into play. Example 9 shows all of the seventh chords in root position within the A harmonic minor scale, starting off with the colorful Am(maj7)—an Am triad (A C E) with a major seventh (G#). In Example 10a, these chords are presented in guitar-friendly block chord voicings. After you’ve gotten a feel for these chords, try playing them in different orders and in varied rhythms and grooves—see, for instance, Example 10b, which uses four of the chords in a jazzy vamp.
Now take the same steps, but with the A melodic minor scale, starting with the root-position arpeggios (Example 11), followed by the block chords (Example 12a). Just as you did with the triads in the previous week, notice which chords are shared between the A harmonic and melodic minor scales, and which are different. Both scales include Am(maj7), for example, but while A harmonic minor contains Bm7b5, its melodic minor counterpart includes Bm7. Then, have fun playing around with the chords. Example 12b shows just one possibility—rolling arpeggios between the Am(maj7) and G#m7b5 chords.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Once you’ve learned the chords in this lesson, visualize other voicings on the fretboard and make them a part of your harmonic vocabulary.
Week four: 10-bar blues
This week you’ll be applying this lesson’s concepts to a ten-bar D minor blues (Example 13), with chords drawn from D melodic minor (D E F G A B C#, bar 1, etc.) and D harmonic minor (D E F G A Bb C#, bar 3, etc.), as well as G harmonic minor (G A Bb C D Eb F#, bar 2, etc.) and G melodic minor (G A Bb C D E F#) bars 4–5, etc.).
Play through this example slowly, using as little motion as possible when switching between the chord shapes. Be sure to listen deeply to their unusual sounds, which might take some time for your ears to get accustomed to—this is not your father’s blues! After you’ve worked through the entire lesson, keep playing around with deriving chords from harmonic and melodic minor scales, or any others. Not only is this a good workout for your fingers and ears, it can provide you with fresh chords for spicing up your music.
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Beginners’ Tip #4
Whether you’re composing or improvi-sing, try using the harmonic or melodic minor scale, instead of natural minor or minor pentatonic, for refreshing new sounds and ideas.
Take it to the next level
Try this finger-busting, ear-bending exercise, in which chords are derived from the C melodic minor (C D Eb F G A B), B melodic minor (B C# D E F# G# A# B), and C harmonic minor scales (C D Eb F G Ab B C). For extra credit, see if you can identify the parent scale for each chord; for instance, Ebmaj7#5 comes from C melodic minor.
Ron Jackson is a New York–based master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and others.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.