Lesson 15: Minor Scales - Part 1
( W A R N I N G : This is a long lesson. Be sure to take your time. )

Lesson Contents:


There are 3 standard minor scales in Western music. They are:

1.  Natural Minor  (R, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, R)
2.  Harmonic Minor  (R, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7, R)
3.  Melodic Minor  (R, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7, R)

In this lesson I will be exploring the natural minor scale, however, in later lessons I'll talk about the Harmonic and Melodic minor scales.

The C Natural Minor Scale

The Natural Minor scale is also sometimes referred to as "Aeolian Mode." They are the same thing - a kind of enharmonic spelling if you will. If we compare a C natural minor scale to a C major scale, we see the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees have each been lowered by a half step. Check out the following tables.

Note Function: R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 R
C Natural Minor Scale: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

Note Function: R 2 3 4 5 6 7 R
C Major Scale: C D E F G A B C

What follows here are three common fingerings (or what I call "foundational patterns" ) for the natural minor scale. Each pattern starts and ends on a C note. As stated previously, use the low E and A strings of the guitar as a "frame of reference" to lock into these patterns.

C Natural Minor - Patterns 1 and 2

C Natural Minor - Pattern 3

Pattern 1 follows strict 8th position fingerings. It is the same pattern that was presented in Lesson 13 for the Aeolian scale. Pattern 2 is very similar to the first, but it has some slight alterations. It violates strick position playing to accommodate a more "natural" or intuitive fingering.

Pattern 3 starts in 3rd position but then jumps to 5th position to finish off the second octave with a high C.

Obviously, all three of these patterns are very important. They are analogous to the patterns shown in Lesson 4 except that these are the "natural minor" version. With both the minor and major foundational patterns, you can almost cover the entire fretbroad for a particular major/minor key. In short, they form a very powerful combination.

A Side Note: At this point, if you've read my previous lessons, it should be painfully obvious to you that I use the 5th and 6th strings on the guitar to help me navigate the instrument. They act as a kind of mental anchor to keep me rooted. (No pun intended.) After all, if you know the natural notes on the 2 lowest strings of the guitar, then you can "lock and load" into scale and chord patterns very easily. This is a nice little "guitarism" that many guitarists eventually pick up on. The sooner you do, the less you have to think when you play and the more you can focus on making music.

Relative Major/Minor Keys

This brings me to the subject of relative major/minor keys. If you understand modes or the ideas presented in Lesson 13, then this concept will be a cinch. I will be expressing those same ideas, but with a different vocabulary.

Recall that Aeolian mode can be "derived" by starting a major scale at the 6th degree. In terms of relative major/minor keys, Aeolian is Ionian's relative minor key. That is, the 6th note of a major scale is the root of that major key's relative minor key. Furthermore, the relative minor key for each major key has the same exact notes and the same exact key signature as that major key. Again, it's the context in which these notes are played that determines whether they are heard as a major tonality or a minor tonality.

Important: Since relative major and minor keys share the same notes, this implies that minor scale patterns can be used as major scale fingerings and vice versa.

Let' look at an example: E minor is the relative minor key/scale to G major. Both of these keys/scales have the same notes, but these notes function differently in each major/minor context. Remember, if something "sounds" differently, chances are it "functions" differently which means it will have a different theoretical analysis. Check it out:

Note Function: R 2 3 4 5 6 7 R
G Major Scale: G A B C D E F# G

Note Function: R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 R
E Natural Minor Scale: E F# G A B C D E

Be sure this concept makes sense to you before proceeding. If it doesn't, review Lesson 13.

In short, you should know the relative minor keys for all major keys. This knowledge will help form a nice abstraction when it comes to improvisation. That is, this concept can be used in creative ways to simplify the relationships between notes and keys, etc.

Playing Exercises:

  1. Run all the major scales (and their relative minor scales) using the 3 foundational patterns shown here and the 2 patterns shown in Lesson 4. After playing in a few keys you should hopefully see how these patterns are intimately connected to each other. This exercise will show you how to cover most of the guitar neck with just 4 patterns.

  2. Ascend a natural minor scale using Pattern 3, then descend the scale using Pattern 1 or 2. Now, switch it around. Ascend using Pattern 1 or 2, then descend using Pattern 3. Do the same thing using the foundational patterns for a major scale. This is a kind of visual treat because you are playing the same notes yet you are using different fingerings. If you really get this down and show your friends, they'll think your a mad genius.

    NOTE: You may have to add one or two notes to connect the patterns in some cases, but it should be pretty straight-forward as to which notes are needed to connect the patterns. Just keep in mind that any note in a pattern on the low E string can also be played on the high E string and vice versa.

    I don't always show these "extra" or "connective tissue" notes on the high E string in my drawings. I wanted to simplify things. I found that this simplification helps lessen any possible confusion for beginning guitar students. It also helps students hear the tonal center for a scale because they start and end the scale on root notes. This also has some positive visual reinforcement benefits when learning scale patterns.

The Circle of 5ths Revisted...

Remember the Circle of 5ths presented in Lesson 6? Let's update it to include relative minor keys. Check it out:

The Circle of 5ths

As the circle depicts, the Major keys lie on the outside of the circle while the Minor keys lie on the inside. This is a great way to see the relative major and minor key relationships for all of the 30 theoretical keys in music. Study this drawing well and be sure it makes sense before proceeding.

Diatonic Harmony for the C Natural Minor Scale

Just like we have diatonic harmonic analysis for all major keys, we have it for all natural minor keys as well. Here are the chords (triads and 7th chords) for the key of C Natural Minor:

Diatonic Harmony for C Natural Minor

Hopefully you will see that these are the same exact chords contained in the key of Eb major. Afterall, Eb major is the "relative major key to C minor." If you've mastered the chord shapes from Lesson 11 and Lesson 14, then playing these chords should present no problems whatsoever. (Hint! Hint!)

(Hint, hint means... play the above chords!)

In terms of diatonic harmony we get some new chords compared to the major scale. For instance:


Take a break! Do some more yoga or take another bath.


Harmonic Analysis - Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb

Hopefully, you've had some time to practice the above exercises and have taken the time to play with the foundational patterns for both major and natural minor scales. If not, please do so before proceeding with this lesson. It's really important that you have a solid understanding of the material presented up to this point before proceeding. I'll warn you now, the next part gets a little "heady". If you're weak in any of the concepts presented thus far, you may not get much out of the rest of this lesson.

Comfortably Numb is a great example of a minor key tune with a few twists thrown in the middle. Here's a chord chart with a harmonic analysis of the tune. Also, I've provided the lyrics for the hell of it so you can sing along.

Lead Sheet for Comfortably Numb

Lyrics for Comfortably Numb

A Few Points Worth Mentioning About Harmonic Analysis:

Comfortably Numb Harmonic Analysis:

A picture is worth a thousand words, so be sure to study the chart above. In short, the verses are in B natural minor (or B Aeolian mode) and contains diatonic chords exclusively. (Remember, the word "diatonic" means "in the key of.") It's pretty straight-forward actually.

Now the chorus gets a little more interesting. To me it sounds like the tune modulates (changes key) to the relative major key of D major and then makes use of a modal interchange chord (the C major chord). The "C, G, C, G" measures could be analyzed as being in the key of G major, but to my ear, they sound more like modal interchange at work. That is, in these bars, the tonal center doesn't really rest in the key of G, but rather, this key is "hinted" at. It's not a full-fledged modulation. However, when playing (soloing) over these measures, one should play notes from a G major scale (g, a, b, c, d, e, f#, g).

Chorus - Part 1 (Measures 7 - 10): Notice the little up-arrow followed by a "-3 D" in the beginning of measure 7. This indicates that a modulation has occurred and that the tonal center (or key) has shifted up a minor 3rd to the key of D major. In measure 7, the D major chord acts as a pivot chord. A pivot chord is a chord that is common to both keys - the key you are in, and the key you are modulating to. You can think of this chord as acting as a liason (or link) between the two keys. In this case, D major is the "one" chord in the key of D major, but it is also bIII (flat-three major) in the key of B natural minor. In measures 8 and 10, the A major chord is simply a good old "five" chord in the key of D major.

Chorus - Part 2 (Measures 11 - 14): In the second part of the chorus we see the use of a modal interchange chord, a C major chord, at measures 11 & 13. This chord is analyzed as bVII (flat-seven-major) and can be considered to be borrowed from one of the parallel modes, maybe D minor or D Mixolydian. It really doesn't matter which mode you choose in your analysis. Maybe D mixolydian makes more sense since we are temporarily in the key of G major and D mixolydian is the relative mixolydian mode to G major. The important thing to understand here is that you do not, I repeat, do not want to play any C# notes over this chord, the C major, as it will sound too "weird" or just plain "wrong." C# over a C chord is a "flat 9". Unless, you're Bill Frisell, I'd stay away from it.

Now when you get to the G major chords (measures 12 & 14) to be on the safe side, be wary of playing any C notes and avoid playing any C# notes. Gilmour is conscious of these "avoid notes" and I suggest we take the same approach. The reason being is that a C note (which is analyzed as a "4th" or an "11th") could potentially sound a little weird in this context. If you do play it, resolve it down a half-step to a "B". In fact, that is what Dave does in his solo. To make any "C" notes "work" over this chord, it really depends on your phrasing, so be careful.

Note: An avoid note doesn't mean that you shouldn't play that note at all, it means that it is recommended that you don't play that note. If you do play it, however, be sure to exercise extreme caution or taste. For instance, it's good practice not to start a solo on an avoid note. And traditionally, a "4th" or "11th" is considered an avoid note over a major chord functioning as a "one" chord.

And hopefully your ear tells you to avoid playing a C# (a "#4" or "#11") over the G major chord. It will sound especially "weird" or "wrong" since the previous chord was C major and because the G major chord is kind of acting or sounding like a "one" chord even though we have analyzed it as a "four" chord. (Hey, I told you this stuff was going to get "heady.")

And yes, some would argue that this is the reason why this section of the tune is just a straight modulation to the key of G major. And they would have some very strong evidence for saying so. It doesn't really matter which way you go in your analysis. The important thing to understand is that you want to avoid playing any "C#" notes over the "C, G, C, G" measures. I guess the main reason why I prefer the modal interchange interpretation is that the tune doesn't stay in G major for very long - it never settles down in my mind and keeps moving forward.

And it goes without saying that you should be able to understand both kinds of analyses. That is, you should understand the "modal interchange" approach as well as a "G major" modulation interpretation. Remember, theory is sometimes open to interpretation. Nothing is set in stone.

Chorus - Part 3 (Measures 15 - 17): We start with a nice dominant 7 sus 4 chord, and work our way to the root - D major in measure 17. A domimant 7 sus 4 chord is almost the same thing as a regular dominant 7th chord, the only difference is that the sus 4 chord has a suspended 4th with no 3rd. For instance, A7 contains the following notes: A, C#, E, G, while A7 sus4 contains the following notes: A, D, E, G. The D-note replaces the C#. Also note that wherever you can play a V7 chord in a major context (key), you can also play a V7 sus4 chord. It's a nice sound and Pink Floyd takes advantage of this substitution.

In measure 16 we briefly play the "bVII" chord for two beats, then the "IV" chord and then back to the "I" chord in measure 17 before modulating back to the key of B minor. Measure 16 is most certainly a modal interchange section and not a G major modulation because we spend very little time here.

And that's it in terms of analysis.

Some Final Thoughts

Here's a quick recap:

Play a B minor pentatonic scale or a B natural minor scale over the verses (and the final jam). Then, play Dave's sweet guitar solo over the choruses. Afterall, you can't improve on perfection, but if you want to try to play over the chorus, watch out for the modal interchange chord, the C major. Play "C" notes, not "C#" notes over this chord (Play C Lydian or the notes from a G major scale over this chord.) Also, in the chorus, be very wary of playing "C" notes over the G major chord - if you do play them, be sure to resolve them down a half-step to a "B".

Also, avoid playing any "C#" notes over G major - they'll burn you if you do. In every other part of the tune, however, some variation of B, C#, D, E, F#, G, and A notes will work just fine.

Dave plays a lot of diatonic arpeggios (chord tones) in his first solo and then blows on a B minor pentatonic scale during his second solo. (And the same thing can be said about his general approach to playing the guitar - he's an arpeggio and pentatonic man.) For Comfortably Numb you can always throw in the "blue note," the flat 5 (an F note in this case) instead of a straight B minor pentatonic for a nastier, and blusier sound, but be tastey. Let your ear be your guide. And that's basically it!

One last note: Dave is pretty much a modal player - he loves Dorian mode and he's a master at playing pentatonic scales. He tends to emphasize the minor pentatonic scale and that's because Roger is such a sad bastard and can't write anything in a major key. In this tune, however, Dave is playing in Aeolian mode throughout the verses and during his final solo. He is not playing Dorian, so don't play any G# notes.

And of course with that said I will add that you can experiment a little bit with B Dorian over the Bm chord by playing Dave's signature D major and E major triadic groove chords while soloing, but pay close attention to how it sounds. You're better off sticking with B "blues" and a straight B minor pentatonic scale. Good luck and make some damn music!

Go to the next lesson, Lesson 16, or go back to the main menu.