How (not) to Learn the Melodic Minor Scale and its Modes

melodic minor scale guitar

If you’re reading this then you’ve probably put in the hours, learned all your major scale modes and are curious about ‘those other modes’; those being the Melodic Minor and the resulting modes spawned therefrom. There are some really interesting sounds to be gleaned from this new set of modes, and if you do cursory search for Melodic Minor scale patterns you’ll probably be presented with something like this:

You play through the patterns for a while but then you start to feel like it’s not really sticking, or it’s difficult to prize some actual music out of these new scale patterns. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I’m not a fan of these neatly divided boxes, particularly when it comes to the Melodic Minor.

If you managed to learn the major scale modes using the awful CAGED system or the 3NPS patterns then it would only seem logical to apply the same method to the modes of the Melodic Minor but I would advise against it, for the moment. The reason for this is your ear… When you learn a scale using either of the above systems you’re actually learning/hearing all the modes at once; this isn’t such a drawback with the major modes as your ear is very accustomed to the sound of them and will soon discern them within the patterns. What’s more, they’re heavily used in most of the music you hear, and especially rock and blues and their derivatives.

When you come to apply this logic to the Melodic Minor scale and its modes, your ear is going to have a hard time simply because it hasn’t had the exposure to them that it’s had to the major scale modes. In fact, playing through the five or seven patterns of the Melodic Minor is akin to trying to pay attention to 7 people (7 modes) talking at once; in other words, it’s too much information for your ears to handle and needs to be broken down.

How to break it down

What we want to do before diving into those mammoth scale patterns is to really get used to the sound of the scale. The Melodic Minor scale is subtle and you’ll need to really get into the sound of it before it’ll become useful. The intervals for the Melodic Minor scale are 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7; it actually differs from the major scale by just one note (the b3) but this is not a useful comparison as their respective applications are completely different.

I suggest finding a comfortable one octave shape to practice with; one of those patterns that falls nicely under your fingers and you don’t have to think too much about. Find a pattern in either A or E Melodic Minor so you can use one of the bottom strings as a drone. We want to hear the scale in its purest form.

I like this E Melodic Minor shape for getting used to the scale’s sound but feel free to find what’s comfortable for you:

Play through the scale using the bottom E string as a drone and really try to get into the sound. At first it’ll sound like some strange or wrong variation of the major scale but give it time and you’ll start to really hear it. Remember: this is not a technical exercise; this is for the benefit of your ears.

Once you start to hear it by all means go back to the CAGED or 3NPS shapes. They should make a little more sense to your ears, or if you want to take this method further, check out the Scale Trainer.

Melodic Minor Modes

You can also use this method to learn the modes of the Melodic Minor though be selective as they weren’t created equally. I’ve found the most usable ones to be the Lydian b7 and the Mixolydian b6 for a little exotic variation over 7 chords. You can also find them in the Scale Trainer.

Taking it slow at first with these scales really does pay off, and your ears will thank you for it.

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About Graham Tippett 301 Articles
Compulsive guitar blogger and writer of many innovative guitar books.

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