Titans of the guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen swear by the sound of the harmonic minor scale. Its characteristic major seventh interval against the otherwise-traditional natural-minor tonality supplies its character, but I believe the harmonic minor sound makes you play in a more expressive way.
Even a guitarist with no knowledge of music theory can tap into this flavor with more authenticity than with other exotic scales. This can be explained in different ways, but I think it comes down to the vibes you feel when you play it. Harmonic minor has a sinister disposition, oozing with attitude and an edge that pushes the listener into a state of satisfied rage.
Am I being too dramatic? Well, that’s the essence of harmonic minor: drama. Again, it all comes back to the scale formula. Everything is simple and sweet with the first six intervals of the natural minor scale, but we pivot into a new realm when we reach that dark major seventh note.
Ironically, a major interval is what makes this minor scale truly stand out. There are countless songs based on the harmonic minor scale.
While some will mistakenly limit the use of this sound to heavier tunes like "Black Star" by Malmsteen and "Master’s Apprentices" by Opeth, the truth is you can use it in a host of genres. "Santeria" by Sublime, "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits and "Stash" by Phish all blend the harmonic minor tonality in with the standard natural minor tang, producing seriously awesome results.
That’s the key (pun intended) to really taking advantage of harmonic minor: blending it with sounds you already know and love. If you want to learn this scale and all its modes, as well as four other game-changing scales, check out my course called Five Exotic Guitar Scales and How to Use Them Effectively (opens in new tab).
Tyler Larson is the founder of the guitar-centric brand Music is Win (opens in new tab). His insightful, uncomplicated guitar lessons and gear demonstrations along with entertaining, satirical content about life as a musician receive tens of millions of video views per month across social media. Tyler is also the creator of the extremely popular online guitar learning platform, Guitar Super System. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Tyler has been teaching guitar for over a decade and operates a production studio in Nashville, TN.