What is the minor scale? What makes it minor vs major? In this lesson we’ll break down the minor scale and it’s qualities and take a look at how it is applied to the fretboard.
If you haven’t already read the lesson on the major scale and you’re not familiar with the major scale, I would recommend doing so now and coming back to this lesson. This lesson will make much more sense if you first have an understanding of the major scale.
Minor Scale Theory
Unlike the major scale that is bright and happy, the minor scale has a sad and emotional feel to it. Like the major scale, it, too, is a diatonic scale consisting of 7 notes and an octave note. So what makes this scale different?
The difference lies in the 3rd degree of the scale. The major scale contains a major 3rd. That is, the 3rd of the major scale is 2 whole steps away from the root. The minor scale, however, contains a minor, or flattened 3rd degree that is 1 1/2 steps away from the root.
In the table below you see the differences between the G major scale and G minor scale.
In comparing the minor scale to the major scale, you see that the minor scale is consists of a flat 3rd, 6th, and 7th interval. Compare the neck diagram of the two scales and notice the position of the 3rd, 6th, and 7th intervals between the two. You learned that the major scale follows a pattern of whole and half steps. The minor scale, too, follows a set pattern of whole and half steps as follows:
Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole
- From G to A is a whole step (2 semitones) (G – G# – A)
- From A to B♭ is a half step (1 semitone) (A – B♭)
- From B♭ to C is a whole step (B♭ – B – C)
- From C to D is a whole step (C – C# – D)
- From D to E♭ is a half step (D – E♭)
- From E♭ to F is a whole step (E♭- E – F)
- From F to G is a whole step (F – F# – G)
You can construct the minor scale in any key by following this formula of whole/half steps. If you moved the root note up two frets to A and followed the same whole-step/half-step structure, you would form the A minor scale.
Minor Scale Patterns and Positions on the Guitar Fretboard
The notes that make up guitar scales exist all over the fretboard. Fortunately, they can be grouped together to form distinct patterns or shapes that make them easy to learn.
In the examples below we’ll take a look at the five positions of the minor scale based on the CAGED system. Each diagram contains the intervals for the scale position, the recommended fingering for each note in the position, and highlights the root note locations for each position.
It’s very important to learn the root note positions for each scale shape. The root note will act as an anchor point for you to become familiar with each scale position and be able to quickly identify and locate any scale position on the neck.
Below each scale diagram is the guitar tab for playing that position and the audio so you can hear how it should sound.
Starting with the G note on the 6th string, play each note ascending and descending across the fretboard. Always begin and end on the lowest root note. This helps develop your ear for how the scale should sound as you progress through it.
The root notes in this position are found on strings 6, 5, and 1. This example happens to be for the G minor scale, but the root notes would be in the same location in this position regardless of which minor scale it is, be it A minor, E minor, etc.
Position 2 contains two root notes, which are found on strings 4 and 2. When playing this pattern, start with the root note on string 4 and progress through the scale ascending and descending across the fretboard, making sure to play all notes in this position.
Position 3 of the minor scale contains two root notes, found on strings 5 and 2. Start playing this pattern from the root note on string 5 and progress through all notes ascending and descending.
In position 4, the root notes can be found on strings 5 and 3. Begin playing this position from the root note on the 5th string.
Position 5 is the only other position to contain three root notes. The root notes in position 5 are found on strings 6, 3, and 1. Begin playing this pattern starting with the root note on string 6 and progress through all the notes.
Connecting the Minor Scale Shapes
If you were looking closely at each scale position, you may have noticed a relationship between a given position and the position adjacent to it.
The scale positions aren’t independent of each other, but rather are connected by shared notes between each position.
In the diagram below, you can see how each position of the minor scale is connected.
After the 5th position, the scale patterns repeat starting with the first position. Notice how the notes from the 5th position overlap the notes from the 1st position
These patterns hold true for any minor scale. This is why the diagrams reference intervals rather than actual note names of the scale. The interval relationship is the same regardless of whether it’s the E minor scale, B minor scale, etc.
By learning the root note positions and interval relationships for one scale, in this case G minor, you subsequently have learned it for all minor scales.
Single Octave Minor Scale Shapes
The minor scale positions in the sections above are derived from the CAGED system and span two octaves. However, these shapes can be broken down further into single octave shapes as well with the lowest root notes based on strings 3 through 6.
Root on 6th String
With the root on the 6th string, you can form the following patterns. Note that the pattern in the first and last diagrams are the same, only the first uses open strings.
Root on the 5th String
With the root on the 5th string you get the following three scale patterns.
Root on the 4th String
With the root on string 4, you can form the following three patterns.
Root on the 3rd String
Similar to the patterns found when building from the 6th string, the 3rd string also gives you three distinct patterns and one pattern that incorporates open strings.
The minor scale produces a tonality that is more dark and sad than that of the major scale. It is created by lowering the 3rd degree of the major scale and follows a whole-step/half-step structure of W-H-W-W-H-W-W. Following this structure, we end up with flattened notes at the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the scale.