What scale should you improvise on if you’re playing in the key of C major?
The C major scale, right? Or else the C major pentatonic scale, which doesn’t have any different notes, only less.
What scale should you improvise on if the music is in the key of A minor?
A minor of course.
Except that there is more than one kind of scale that has the name “A minor” in it.
Should you improvise on the A minor pentatonic, the A minor natural, the A minor harmonic or the A minor melodic?
The short answer to this question would be that you can improvise on any of them if the music is in a minor key; you can even switch from one to another during the same solo.
The complete answer would be: As long as you know what you’re doing, especially if you’re playing with others.
While one can write whole books about improvising in minor keys, this lesson should give you a general idea of the minor scales you can choose from, and get you started on using them.
- The Minor Pentatonic Scale:
The minor pentatonic is the first minor scale you should ever learn, because it’s very easy to use in practice.
Unlike the other three minor scales, which have seven notes, the minor pentatonic has only five.
Though this limits the amount of notes you can choose from, it makes the minor pentatonic the easiest minor scale to improvise on, since the two missing notes, form an interval that’s quite dissonant with the root note. (An interval refers to the distance between two notes)
What does this mean?
For a whole lesson on the concept of consonance and dissonance in music read this article.
For the purposes of this lesson, you need to understand that, some intervals sound very consonant to the ear when played either together (harmonic intervals) or following each other (melodic intervals). Other intervals sound less stable, while some are downright dissonant and the ear would need to hear some kind of resolution (to a more consonant interval) after listening to them.
Now, when you’re improvising in any minor or major key, even if you’re playing notes that are in the key, there are some notes you should emphasize and rest on more than others, because they form a consonant interval with the root note. These are the notes you should end your phrases as well as your songs on. Consonant notes can be final because they don’t leave the ear desiring resolution
These “important notes” would be the notes of the arpeggio, which are the first, third and fifth note of the scale. Thus, the A minor arpeggio is made of the notes A, C and E.
What makes the minor pentatonic easy to use is that it is made of those three notes of the arpeggio – and just another two.
This means that if you’re using the minor pentatonic, you don’t need to worry about accenting or ending on certain notes, because you’re already likely to be on the right notes, and if not, that note can be resolved to the previous or following note of the scale
Though the ease of use of the minor pentatonic has surely helped make it popular, it also ended up being associated with a flavor of its own and is used extensively in Rock, Blues and Country music for reasons that go beyond the fact that it’s easy to use.
Thus, if you only know the minor pentatonic scale pattern above, you can already start improvising and actually make good stuff if you have the other things you need to improvise on guitar in place.
The following lick is made up entirely of notes from the A minor pentatonic scale.
As you can see, there are many of things you can do with the minor pentatonic scale even though it has less notes.
Yet, you may want to add more variety to your solos. In the next three types of minor scales, we have seven notes in each scale, instead of five.
2. The Minor Natural Scale:
Just because the minor natural scale has two quite dissonant notes the minor pentatonic doesn’t have, it isn’t any scary to use.
It only means that you need to know your arpeggios better as well as let your ear and experience guide you towards which notes you should accent and end your phrases on.
In this example I am using three note per string patterns, as I do in all other scales in this lesson except for the pentatonic scale which has two notes per string.
The notes of the A minor natural scale would thus be A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
The minor natural scale can be used with any kind of backing music in the minor key with ease if you use the dissonance created by the notes that are missing in the pentatonic correctly and resolve it melodically.
The following is a sample lick in the A minor natural scale. It makes use of the two notes that are missing in the minor pentatonic (B and F) which find themselves on the weak parts of the beat.
The next two scales involve small, but very significant alterations to the natural minor scale.
3. The Harmonic Minor Scale
The harmonic minor scale is an alteration of the natural minor where the 7th note of the scale is “sharpened”, that is, played a note/fret higher
Thus, if we’re in the key of A minor, the notes A,B,C,D,E and F are the same whether we’re using the A minor natural or the A minor harmonic. The 7th note though, which would be G in the minor natural scale, is raised into a G# in the minor harmonic scale
This single alteration gives the harmonic minor scale has it’s exotic, even Arabic sound.
With the harmonic minor scale, you can play around creatively with dissonance since the sharpened 7th of the scale, also called the leading note, always wants to go to the next note, which is the root of the scale.
The following is an example lick using the A harmonic minor scale. Notice how the lick ends, the last two notes being a G# resolving into the root note A.
The harmonic minor scale is used in various genres of music, from neo-classical heavy metal to gypsy jazz, and has also made inroads in more mainstream Rock and Pop music.
It is definitely one of the options you should consider when playing in minor keys.
4. The Melodic Minor scale:
The melodic minor scale involves another alteration to the natural minor scale and apart from the seventh note, the sixth note is also sharpened.
Thus the notes of A melodic minor are A, B, C, D, E, F#, G# and A.
While the minor pentatonic is the scale you’re likely to use frequently, you probably won’t be using the melodic minor a lot unless you play Jazz.
In fact, the melodic minor scale is also nicknamed as “The Jazz scale”.
Though other options such as modes exist, these four different minor scales give you an incredible amount of possibilities to choose from when creating your own guitar licks and solos in minor keys.
In this lesson I gave you an overview on how each minor scale can be used to create solos and in what context. I didn’t give you an example lick in the melodic minor scale since I never use it myself and I believe I wouldn’t have done justice to the scale if I did!
The next step is to choose one of the minor scales above and create your own guitar licks with it.
Unless you’re already experienced in improvisation, I always recommend you start from the pentatonic scales for the reasons mentioned above.
Because what does get you experienced in guitar improvisation is actually doing loads of it.
If you still don’t know how to start to improvise on guitar read this article.
The aim of this lesson is to get you started improvising in minor keys. If you want to learn more about minor scale theory read this guide to minor keys
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