How to Write Guitar Riffs Using the Harmonic Minor Scale

It’s been said that you can’t be a great lead player, without first being a great rhythm player. And if you are writing your own material, part of being a great rhythm player involves having great riffs. Today, we’ll look at how we can write riffs using the harmonic minor scale. 

Let’s look at a little bit of theory

The Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale has the following intervals:

1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7

Which creates the following the triads:

Minor - Diminished - Augmented - Minor - Major - Major - Diminished

Which we could also write as:

i  -  iio  -  bIII+  -  iv  -  V  -   bVI  -  VIIo

So in the key of E harmonic minor, we would get:

Em  -  F#dim  -  G+  -  Am  -  B  -  C  -  D#dim

… if you don’t understand any of that, don’t worry. The practical part is coming up. If you are familiar with what I just outlined, but can’t quite do all the music maths in your head, take 10 minutes with a pencil and paper, write out E harmonic minor, then build all the triads one at a time to verify what they are. Anyway, let’s play some guitar.

Mapping Out Harmonic Minor Triads and Power Chords

If we map those out as power chords from the 6th string, and triads from the 5th string, we get (root notes for each pair of chords is in red):

Ok that’s cool, so what do we do with that?

First, treat it like a scale exercise. Play each shape one at a time. Say the chord name out loud as you go. Get your fingers used to the patterns.

Next, take two or three shapes, and start making up rhythms to put over the top of them. You could tap a rhythm on the side of the table

and use that. Take shapes at random. Put some palm muting in. Maybe take two shapes and pick a weird time signature?

Play around with it.

The main riff from Passing Light uses this exact idea. It’s a few power chords and triads from G harmonic minor being played in 15/8.

Bonus 1: Once you have your riff, have a go at improvising over the top using the arpeggio and integration idea.

Bonus 2: Take this idea for making riffs and apply it to the article on chords in minor keys.


So there you have it, a guide on how to write riffs on guitar using the harmonic minor scale. Have some fun and get riffing!