Minor Scales (Part 2) - Melodic Minor

In Lesson 15 I introduced you to the Melodic Minor scale, but in this lesson we're going to explore this scale in much more detail.

Let's review, the melodic minor scale formula is written as:

A real easy way to remember this formula is to think "a major scale with a flatted 3rd." Consult the following two tables:

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

Note Function: R 2 b3 4 5 6 7 R
C Melodic Minor Scale: C D Eb F G A B C


The only difference between the two scales is the third scale degree, but as we'll see shortly, this actually makes a big difference.

If you recall, we saw how easy it was to alter the major scale to create new modes just by changing one note of the scale using what Mick Goodrick calls the "parallel approach." For instance, take a major scale, flat the 7th scale degree and you have Mixolydian mode, or raise the 4th scale degree instead and you have Lydian, and so on.

The same principle applies here - we change the major scale by altering only one note - flatting the 3rd, but with one important distinction... the melodic minor scale is a "parent scale" unto itself. That is, like the major scale, melodic minor has 6 other corresponding, or derivative, modes "hiding out" inside of it.

Interestingly, if you look closely you'll see that the melodic minor scale has 4 consecutive whole steps in its formula starting at the 3rd scale degree: W H W W W W H. That's why it sounds kind of "undecided" or like a "hybrid" scale - a cross between a natural minor scale (the first 4 or 5 notes of a natural minor scale) and a major scale (the top part of the scale or the last 4 notes of a major scale).

Now before we get into melodic minor's derivative modes, let's first harmonize a G melodic minor scale to help us better understand the kinds of harmonies which can be derived from this "new" parent scale.

Diatonic Harmony for a Melodic Minor Scale:

Triads in G Melodic Minor

Triads:   i-     ii-     bIII+     IV     V     vi°     vii°

7th Chords in G Melodic Minor

7th Chords:   i- (maj.7)     ii-7     bIII maj.7 (#5)     IV7     V7     vi-7 (b5)     vii-7 (b5)


As you can see, we get three new chord types compared to major scale harmony. They are:

  1. an augmented triad
  2. a minor major 7th chord
  3. and an augmented major 7th chord
We also see a mix of sharps and flats in the scale's key signature. Remember how sharps and flats didn't mix for the major keys? This is not the case with the melodic minor scale.

Interestingly, by changing only one note of the major scale (flatting the 3rd), we drastically change how the overall harmonies function (or sound) for the key. Study the differences in the charts below:

Major Scale
I ii- iii- IV V vi- vii°
Mel. Min. Scale
i- ii- bIII+ IV V vi° vii°

Major Scale
7th Chords:
I maj.7 ii-7 iii-7 IV maj.7 V7 vi-7 vii-7(b5)
Mel. Min. Scale
7th Chords:
i- (maj.7) ii-7 bIII maj.7 (#5) IV7 V7 vi-7 (b5) vii-7(b5)

Even more interesting is that we don't ever really play melodic minor's vii-7(b5) chord. Instead we play a VII7 altered chord. Why? Check it out:

For the key of G melodic minor, instead of playing an F#-7(b5) chord, we play F#7 alt:

Melodic Minor's Altered 7th Chord

"Bb" above "F#" is a "diminished 4th", which is an enharmonic spelling for a "major 3rd". The "A" above "F#" is a "minor 3rd", but it also can function as a raised 9th. Cool, no?

And as mentioned in Lesson 24, an altered dominant 7th chord is a dominant 7th chord with any combination of the following tensions: b9, #9, b5, #5. So, we actually get 5 different 7th chords compared to major scale harmony just by changing only one note of the major scale!

Simply amazing.

Major Scale
7th Chords:
I maj.7 ii-7 iii-7 IV maj.7 V7 vi-7 vii-7(b5)
Mel. Min. Scale
7th Chords:
i- (maj.7) ii-7 bIII maj.7 (#5) IV7 V7 vi-7 (b5) VII7 alt

And check this out: an altered dominant 7th chord yields numerous dominant 7th chord structures. It's almost like anything goes in a way:

Crazy, no? But, as the great British guitar player John McLaughlin says, "This is just a huge scale." And we can see why. So much stuff is "hiding out" inside of it just dying to come out. All we have to do is find it.

One more thing... Melodic minor works nicely over i-6 and iv-6 chords. Here's a nice little vamp if C major:

||:  Cmaj.7  |   F-6   |  Cmaj.7  |   F-6   :||

Simply play a C major scale over the Cmaj.7 chords and an F melodic minor over the F-6 chords.

A Slight Diversion: Line Clichés

Now if you play a minor major 7th chord "out of the blue" or "right off the bat" (see below for a voicing), it might sound somewhat "dissonant" or "strange" but that's because it is almost always played in conjuction with other chords in a sequence or spruced up a bit with tensions.

For instance, the minor major 7th chord is usually preceded by a minor triad (with the same root), and followed by a minor 7th triad (also with the same root). A piece of music might look something this: each chord getting two beats, play it slowly ala Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond...

|   Gm   G-(maj.7)   |   G-7   G-6   |   . . .

This chord sequence is very common in music and is referred to as a line chiché. A line cliché is nothing more than a single line which moves through a single chord. You can think of it as a kind of "melodic thread" weaving its way through a particular chord. The line cliché always moves chromatically (by half-step). In the example above, the melodic line moving through the G minor chord is: g ==> f# ==> f ==> e.

There are other kinds of minor line clichés. For instance, the following example is used all the time in James Bond movies. It's like his theme song, especially when a chase scene starts. Check it out:

The James Bond Theme - an E minor Line Cliché
The James Bond Theme - an E minor Line Cliché

The tread (or line) in this case is: b ==> c ==> c# ==> c. The line doesn't always have to move in the same direction. It can rise and fall - sort of move around, but it always moves chromatically.

The next diagram depicts the voicings above for the "James Bond" theme. Be sure to pay close attention to the "muted" strings. They are not played. Only 3 strings are involved.


Voicings for the Cliché
Voicings for the Cliché

And I would be remiss if I did not turn you on to the "James Bond" chord (which is just a fancy minor major 7th chord). The cool way to play this puppy is to first play the open low E string. Pause for a moment letting the low E ring out, then strum the remaining 4 notes in the chord starting with the "G" at the 10th fret, and finishing with the "F#" at the 7th fret. Be sure not to play the high E string - you want the "F#" to be the lead or highest note of the chord.

Sounds kind of familiar, no? Play the E minor line cliché above a few times, then end with the "James Bond" chord. Too cool.


The James Bond Chord
The James Bond Chord

Oh... one more thing. You can also have a major line cliché too. Check this out:

|   D   D+   |   D maj.6   D+   |   . . .

This progression is used quite often in music. Again, a melodic line weaves its way through a chord. In this case the line is: a ==> a# ==> b ==> a# and the chord is a D major.

Consult the following tab for chord fingerings:

D Major Line Cliché
D Major Line Cliché

Melodic Minor Chord Voicings:

Now, using drop-3's (and some other voicings), we get some basic patterns for these chords. Pay close attention to the fingerings. That is, make note of the use of the letter T in the diagrams below. It simply means to use your thumb to grab notes on the low E string. Personally, I find these "thumbed" fingerings somewhat easier to play than fingerings that don't incorporate the use of the thumb, but you decide. Experiment and find out what feels right for you. As Robben Ford said to me once (in a guitar clinic), "Don't take anyone's technique too seriously. Just do whatever it takes to get the job done."

Play the following voicings for the key of G melodic minor:

G Melodic Minor Voicings, Part 1

G Melodic Minor Voicings, Part 2

Melodic Minor Voicings, Part 3

A couple of things worth mentioning...

Bb maj.7 (#5) looks suspiciously like a D major triad with a Bb in the bass and in fact, that's exactly what it is. Make note of this kind of analysis as I will come back to this powerful idea in a later lesson.

Also, notice how F#7 (b9/b5) is really just a C triad with F# in the bass? Cool.

In short, finding these kinds of abstractions is a nice way to make a "complicated" chord more "simple" or palatable.

The C Melodic Minor Modes:

As I stated earlier, just like the major scale, the melodic minor scale is a parent scale. What this means is that other useful modes are "hiding out" inside of it. Check it out...

C Melodic Minor Modes, Part 1

C Melodic Minor Modes, Part 2

Now here are some things that you can do to get the melodic minor scale (and its derivative modes) into your ears and into your finger tips:

  1. Figure out the 7 patterns for C melodic minor using strict position playing. (Consult Lesson 13 if you forgot these rules). Be sure to diagram these patterns. After you've finished, check your work against mine, but only after you made an effort to diagram the fingerings yourself.

  2. After you've played the 7 patterns for a bit, see which ones you can alter such that they become easier to play. You decide which ones feel difficult or awkward - which ones need altering.

  3. Make a practice tape: make 7 little recordings, each one lasting about 4 minutes and consisting of you playing one of the diatonic chords from C Melodic Minor. For instance, play a Cm and/or a C-(maj.7) chord for 4 minutes, then play a Dm and/or a D-7 chord for 4 minutes and so on until you play all seven chords in the key. (Be sure to play the altered dom.7th chord when playing the "seven" chord and NOT the min.7(b5) chord.) When you're finished recording, your tape should be about 28 minutes long.

    This may seem a bit boring or somewhat tedious, but it serves the very important purpose of getting these sounds (and tonal centers) into your brain. And it can be interesting if you strive for musicality. Try to find cool voicings for these chords. Explore the fingerboard and see what you come up with. Can you use any open strings? Can you use some of the drop 2 or drop 3 voicings presented in the previous lessons? Can you add any tensions? Remember the "tension rules"? Can you apply them here?

  4. Now using your practice tape, practice soloing up and down on one string at a time using the notes from a C melodic minor scale and only notes from a C melodic minor scale. Remember, to stay on the high e-string for the full duration of the tape - a full 28 minutes or so. Why? Because you'll really learn the notes for C melodic minor on that string. When we limit ourselves using these kinds of exercises, we simplify our problem domain, thus making it easier to conquer and understand. (Can I sound like a crazy intellectual or what?)

  5. Now rewind the tape and repeat the whole process over again but this time play on the b-string. Then do the same thing again but with the g-string and continue until you've played on all 6 strings of the guitar. Three hours later, take a big yoga/bath break or smoke if you got 'em. (Actually, it would be good to take a small break after each 30 minute session.)

These modes sound a lot different than major scale modes, no? As you might suspect, some of the modes are more useful than others. That is, some sound a little too weird to be used in a modal sense, but some of them are very useful. Read on...

Practical Applications:

One of the more practical applications of the Melodic Minor scale is to play it over a dominant 7th chord. This is the scale to play if you want to sound "out", but in a "good" way. For the examples below, E is the tonic or root. Check it out:

Here are some cool voicings for the chords mentioned above.

Cool Chords, Part 1

Cool Chords, Part 2

And finally, here's a fun playing exercise you can do. Record yourself playing a little E7 jam. Use some of the chords outlined above. Now, go back and solo over this recording using the appropriate melodic minor scale(s). Also, to mix things up a bit, and to make things more musical, be sure to incorporate both the E minor pentatonic scale as well as the E major pentatonic scale. The possibilities are endless.

And if that's not enough choices, try this... play a G minor pentatonic scale over E7. Why? Well, check it out...

Let's analyze the notes in a G minor pentatonic scale against an E7 chord:

Note Function: R 3 5 b7
E7 chord: E G# B D

Note Function Against E7: b3 or #9 b5 or #11 #5 or b13 b7 b9
Gm Pentatonic: G Bb C D F

In essence, a G minor pentatonic scale played over an E7 chord yields an "altered sounding" scale that's very close to E super locrian. In fact, these 5 notes are contained within E super locrian. Pretty neat, eh?

The point: If you want a "short-cut" way to play super locrian over a dominant 7th chord, play a minor pentatonic scale a minor third above the root and voila!

In Closing:

I've presented a lot of information and ideas in this lesson. Hopefully, some of them will be useful to you. If you find yourself bored with your playing, you may just want to try to incorporate the melodic minor scale (and its derivative modes) into your playing. But be careful, strive for musicality. It takes just as long to learn how to play "out" as it does to play "in". Maybe even longer.