How to Play in Harmonic Minor Mode on the Guitar - dummies

By Desi Serna

Generally speaking, you use only one mode of the harmonic minor scale. In this mode, the 5th degree of the harmonic minor scale functions as the tonic. That’s means that the V chord is the tonic chord. Here is an example of this modal application of the harmonic minor scale — with two major chords a half step apart: E and F.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

In A harmonic minor, E-F is V-VI. The V chord, E, draws on the harmonic minor for its pitches, and you play A harmonic minor over the progression.

You can think of this chord progression as a type of Phrygian mode. That would be the third mode of the C major scale, E Phrygian. Now raise the 3rd of E from G to Gs. This altered Phrygian scale has a strong Spanish flavor to it, but it also appears in Jewish, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian music.

This particular mode goes by many different names, including Spanish Phrygian scale, Spanish Gypsy scale, Phrygian major scale, Phrygian dominant scale, and Freygish scale. Though it can be thought of as a type of Phrygian mode, it’s really drawn from the 5th degree of the harmonic minor scale, in this case, A harmonic minor.

You hear the fifth mode of harmonic minor in the songs “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. “Misirlou” is played along the 6th string centering on E but using notes from A harmonic minor. “White Rabbit” opens with an Fs-G chord progression, V and VI of B harmonic minor.