Wanna know a scale that people just as much, if not more than the major scale? That’s right, it’s a fish scale! Oh, wait… uhhh… I mean the natural minor scale!
So today I’ll be going over how one can play the natural minor scale on guitar, solo with it and write chord progressions with it, using the key of E minor as our example.
Let’s do this.
Natural Minor – Shape 1
In case you weren’t aware, the natural minor scale uses all the same scale shapes as the major scale. So if you learn these shapes, you’ve actually just learnt two different scales at the same time.
That’s theory for later, but hopefully that’s good to know.
Anyway, let’s get going with the first shape:
When learning this, pay particular attention to those coloured notes in the scale diagram.
Red = root note. Blue = the other notes in an E minor chord.
Whip out your monocle, your glass eye, your bird-watching binoculars, whatever it takes… just notice those notes.
I like to call them Bingo notes.
Not because they remind me of a bunch of old ladies sat in a hall ferociously crossing out numbers on their multi-coloured tickets, but because these are notes that you’ll want to land on during your solos.
So a good way to learn where these Bingo notes are as you practice, is to pause on each one as you go up the scale:
That way, you’ll be training yourself to instinctively hit the good sounding notes when soloing. As a result, you’ll sound wayyy more melodic down the line.
I first saw this way of practising scales from one of my favourite guitarists, Kiko Loureiro, which I
totally accidentally stole from him. So if you want to see his take on it, click here to view that.
Natural Minor – Shape 2
Alright guys, it’s time for shape number dos. Let’s get you opening up more of that fretboard, shall we?
And because we’re getting pretty high up the neck, I also recommend practising this one an octave lower on the 2nd fret:
Wait a minute… Is that? No, it can’t be. Yes, it is! That’s the same as the 1st major scale shape… MAN, aren’t scales just confusing and awesome at the same time?
Anyway, you may have also noticed that the lower end of Shape 2 is the same as the top end of Shape 1. So if you stuck them side by side, you’d get this:
And that’s the ultimate goal of learning the scale shapes. We want to chain them up to become one massive shape over the entire fretboard.
So to do that, we’ll want to practice sticking each shape together.
*How to Properly Connect the Scale Shapes
If you don’t connect the scale shapes as you go along, then you put yourself in extreme danger…
Extreme danger of falling into the I’m-stuck-in-one-position-all-the-time-and-I-can’t-get-out-help-me-plz trap. A trap that’s swallowed more guitarists than I can count on my left hand…
So to avoid all that, you’ll want to use what I call The Glue Method:
- Practice Shape 1 and 2 separately until they both feel comfortable
- Play up Shape 1, and when you get to the top, slide up to the highest note of Shape 2. Then descend through Shape 2.
You can invert this on the way back by ascending through Shape 2, sliding down to Shape 1, and descending through Shape 1.
- Now ascend through Shape 1, but slide up to the higher notes in Shape 2 on each string as you go.
Again, you can do a quick switcheroo. Descend through Shape 2 and slide down on each string to the lower notes in Shape 1.
- Improvise sliding between the two shapes to put it all together.
It doesn’t have to be melodic yet, just play about and make an effort to slide back and forth between the two shapes.
And as soon as you’ve done that, BAM! You have now officially connected Shapes 1 & 2 like a pro.
*Permission granted to move onto the next shape.
Natural Minor – Shape 5
Yuppidy yup, your eyes don’t deceive you. That’s because I always like to teach Shape 5 straight after Shape 2.
If we learn Shape 5, then we can go up or down the fretboard from our home of Shape 1. This unlocks a new direction, and makes sure we don’t just get too used to just going up. Makes sense, right?
So here it is in all it’s glory:
See, isn’t it nice? The way it fits onto the bottom of Shape 1 and all…
Just remember to use the glue method here again to connect it. And before you know it, you’ll have 5, 1 and 2 combined into one mega-mahoosive shape!
Natural Minor – Shape 3
OK, time to make people happy again by going in the right order.
Ladies and gentlemen, shape number drei:
And of course, you’ll also be practising this an octave lower:
You know what to do here, people! It begins with Glue and ends with Method.
That’s right… the Method Glue! Wait no, the Glue Method!
Natural Minor – Shape 4
You’ve made it to the last E natural minor guitar scale shape, so the end is nigh…
But you’ll most often be using this shape down here:
Just please promise me that you double glue Shape 4. It’s the connector between Shape 3 and Shape 5, and so needs to be glued on both sides to complete the loop.
And then once you’ve done that, congratulations! You officially know the E natural minor scale across the entire guitar neck.
But make sure you also practice it at some point in other keys apart from E! Otherwise, you’ll end up as versatile as a static caravan with no wheels on it… And no one wants that.
Play the Minor Scale Vertically As Well
This is one thing that people forget about all the time, but is sooo helpful it’s unreal.
If you learn to play the E natural minor guitar scale up a string vertically, then switching between scale positions will feel way easier and more natural.
Plus, you’ll be able to come up with some super melodic phrasing that isn’t possible when simply ascending and descending through boxes.
Plus plus, you’ll know where the notes are that you can bend to, and make big slides across large portions of the neck at once.
See? It’s a no-frickin-brainer! All the pros do it, so you should definitely do it too.
Get the Flavour of The Natural Minor Scale
Pedal. Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal. Hmmm, and did I mention pedal?
That’s because improvising over a pedal tone is the best way to get the flavour of any scale. You’ll be able to find the tense notes, the resolving “home” notes and the notes that sound as bland and pointless as a stale brussels sprout.
Man… if I could marry pedal tones, I probably would…
Phew! Kinda emotional in here right now. Let’s move on before I start crying.
Tips for Improvising With the Natural Minor
We don’t just learn scales for the sake of it! We learn them because we want to do stuff! And some of that stuff may be improvising.
So here’s some freshly brewed improvisation tips for y’all, coming right up:
Freshly Brewed Tip 1: Don’t use every note!
Yes, you have 7 notes to play with. Yes, you spent a lot of time learning them. And yes, scale shapes may have traumatized you beyond repair at this point…
But that doesn’t mean that you should try to use every note just because you’ve learnt them. That’ll just sound robotic. So skip notes liberally to make stuff sound less like a scale and more like a melody.
Freshly Brewed Tip 2: Hit the Bingo notes
Landing on those sweet sweet red and blue notes will make your soloing sound 534x more melodic. So try to make those the notes you linger on.
Obviously it’s fine to land on a tense note for effect, and then resolve it to a chord note after. But if you’re landing on yuck notes all the time because you don’t really know what you’re doing, it just ain’t gonna work.
Freshly Brewed Tip 3: Hit the notes of each chord
If you really want to reach the pro level of improvisation, then you’ll want to practice hitting the notes of each chord as they arrive.
You might start improvising over an E minor chord, using the natural minor scale as a path towards the Bingo notes you want to linger on.
But then as the A minor chord comes around, you’ll try and hit the chord notes of A minor (A C E). Again, you can use the natural minor scale as passing notes to navigate to these new Bingo notes to make stuff sound melodic.
Then as the G chord comes round, you’ll try to hit the notes of G major, etc…
It ain’t easy, but MAN you sound good. It’s mostly just about paying attention to the backing track, and learning where the notes are on the fretboard, so you can target them.
Freshly Brewed Tip 4: Use suspended notes
A completely different way to look at following the chords, is to purposely hit non-chord notes like 2nds and 4ths.
Now, this is not stuff for the faint-hearted or guitarists with music theory phobia… But when done right, you’ll sound seriously dynamic.
E Natural Minor Guitar Licks
Oooh baby, it’s time to light this place up with some fiery lickeroos! You wanna impress your mates with some out of tune, slow and downright terrible licks?
Then you’re in the right place! Because I’ll be showing you some actually good ones.
So here’s the first one:
Some slides, some bends, some pull-offs, this lick has it all! And the best part is, the pull-offs at the start make this lick way easier than it sounds.
Anyway, here’s lick number two:
Woooo… spooky! This lick is all about exploiting the most tense notes of the natural minor scale – the major 2nd and the minor 6th – to creating a sighing, sad kinda sound.
Here’s lick numero three, coming your way:
To make those string skipping pick jumps at the end of bar one easier, I use a technique called “Hybrid Picking”.
Basically, I’ll pluck the higher string with my ring finger and the lower string with my pick. This saves me having to make massive pick leaps. Plus, it sounds pretty epic, am I right?
Lick number four, freshly out the oven:
Here I’ve combined a typically pentatonic lick with the natural minor scale, and MAN it sounds good… Plus, it’s a great example of how to skip notes like a skipping rope and stop stuff sounding like a standard scale.
And finally, lick number fünf:
Okay, that one may take a bit of practice. And to be honest, I just did it to show off. But still, it’s a super cool lick and one for all the shredders to get their teeth stuck into.
The Chords in the Natural Minor Scale
If scales aren’t something that you’ve ever delved deep into before, you may be unaware that you can make chords using the notes in a scale.
And with these chords, you can write chord progressions and even entire songs out of the natural minor scale. Now that’s pretty epic, am I right?
So to figure out what chords we can play, we need to make a chord grid. Here’s how you do it:
- Draw a 7 x 5 grid
- In the second row from the bottom, write the notes of the scale you want to write with.
In this case, it’s the notes of the E natural minor guitar scale.
- Write vertically the other notes of the tonic chord.
You can find the tonic chord by selecting the 3rd and 5th note of the scale you just wrote out.
- Write the same scale out again in the 2nd and 3rd rows, but this time starting from the two new chord notes you just added in.
And would you look at that… There are the notes of each chord in E minor. Easy, right? You just find a note, look at the two notes above it, and you know what to play.
But to make life easier for ourselves, we’ll use the bottom row of the column to display whether each chord is major (V), minor (v), diminished (v°) or augmented (V+).
That way, we don’t have to figure out what the chord’s tonality is every time.
- Write down each chord’s tonality
This was pretty easy for me because I know the chord notes off by heart. But if you don’t, then try to build and play each chord on your guitar, and it’ll be pretty obvious whether it’s minor or not.
Either way, the Roman numerals for every natural minor key will be the same. E.g. The 3rd chord will always be major, and the 4th chord always minor etc… So you don’t really need to go about learning all the chord notes if you don’t want to.
BONUS STEP: Add the 7th notes of each chord
|D (m7)||E (m7b5)||F# (maj7)||G (m7)||A (m7)||B (maj7)||C (7)|
Just write the 7th note of the E natural minor guitar scale in the top left box, and fill in the rest of the scale again.
From there you can see what kind of 7th you can add to your chords to jazz them up a little.
And at that point, my friend, you are ready to write to some slippery, snazzy chord progressions!
Writing Chord Progressions With E Natural Minor
Now that you’ve put buckets of blood, sweat and tears into sitting still and watching me make the chord grid for you, the next part is easy.
It’s literally just trying random chords together and seeing what sounds good. In fact, its made even easier by the fact that I’ve already made some for you…
Am I being too nice? I think I’m being too nice.
Anyway, here’s a few that I’ve come up with to hopefully inspire you a little:
- i – v – VI – iv (Em – Bm – C – Am)
But I think this progression sounds especially good with a couple of 7ths inside.
i – v (m7) – VI (maj7) – iv
Hell! Even add 7ths to all the chords! I mean, why not?
i (m7) – v (m7) – VI (maj7) – iv (m7)
Mix and match with the 7ths, and just customize stuff to your will.
- i – III – VI – VII (Em – G – C – D)
Again, with a couple of 7ths:
i – III (maj7) – VI – VII (7)
Wow! Thanks, chord grid!
- i – VI – VII – v (Em – C – D – Bm)
And let’s go a bit bonkers again to finish with a bang!
i (m7) – VI (maj7) – VII (7) – v (m7)
(For those groovy slides, all you need to do is start the chord 1 fret below where it should be, play it, then slide it up a half step to hit the chord you’re aiming for)
And I’ve literally come up with all of those in the last 10 mins, just by looking at the chord grid. So always use one! It’ll become your best friend for writing music.
Wrapping It Up
Shabam! Pow! Hit! Ouch! You’ve just nailed the E natural minor guitar scale like an absolute beast. High five!
As you’ve seen, learning the scale shapes is just the first part. And all the fun comes later with the improvisation and the writing stuff.
So …er… yeah… knock yourself out with all that. And before you know it, you’ll be blasting out so many good tunes that the police will get called on you for being so illegally good.
Anyway, I’ve been Sam Olverson.