A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale

The natural minor scale is one of the first scales that musicians are taught, usually right after the major scale.

It is also the base for other scales such as the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale.

The natural minor scale has 7 scale degrees, and it has 3 different notes from the major scale.

This guide will go in-depth about the C minor scale, meaning that every example is going to be explained around that key center.

You’ll have access to diagrams and guitar tabs that will teach you how to study and master this scale throughout the entire fretboard.

In any case, all of the concepts that you’re about to learn can be applied to any other key, as long as you transpose it on your guitar.

The C Natural Minor Scale – General Knowledge

The natural minor scale is formed on the 6th degree of the major scale. Let’s take a practical example to visualize this better.

If you are in C Major, A is your 6th degree (6th note of the C Major scale). Therefore, A minor has the same notes as C Major, but the root note is different. Logically, C is major and A is minor.

In the key of C minor, since C is the 6th degree of E flat, we know that these two scales have the same notes.

We can get that information easily from the Circle of Fifths: notice how Eb Major and C minor have 3 flats: B, E and A.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C Natural Minor Scale

If you are not familiar with the Circle of Fifths, it is a tool that allows us to visualize all key centers and the relationship they have with each other, both major and minor.

You add a sharp each time you move clockwise, and a flat each time you move counterclockwise.

With this information, we know that the C minor scale has the following notes:

  • C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb; or alternatively, 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, if you analyze it from a scale degree perspective.

The Natural Minor Scale Formula

Sometimes, it may be more practical to think about a scale as a “formula” and just make sure that you follow it strictly, instead of figuring out its accidentals on the circle of fifths.

This formula (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) and the notes that belong to the C natural minor scale are represented on the table below:


Notes

C

D

Eb

F

G

Ab

Bb
Minor Scale Degrees
1

2

b3

4

5

b6

b7

Interval

W

H

W

W

H

W

W

You should also notice how the distance between each note (W=whole tone, H=semitone) is always the same.

On a minor scale, there will be a semitone interval between the 2nd and 3rd degree, and also between the 5th and 6th degree. 

The C natural minor scale throughout the fretboard – Scale Diagrams and Guitar TAB

To be able to play comfortably and fluently across the whole fretboard, you must have a very solid awareness of where your most important notes and patterns are in every key.

Of course, this is a journey that takes time, but if you approach it with a plan and keep yourself motivated, you are bound to see results gradually appearing.

This kind of skill will make you a much better musician in general, since you will know every available option you’ve got when writing and improvising music.

Luckily, the guitar can be learned by memorizing several different patterns that occur in specific regions of the fretboard. 

By studying and mastering all of these patterns, you slowly start being able to visualize all of the notes of a given scale while improvising. 

This is one of the skills that set pro players apart from the rest.

The following diagram illustrates the C natural minor scale throughout the whole fretboard, from the open strings to the 12th fret. These patterns repeat themselves at that point.

If you have ever studied the Eb Major scale before, you’ll notice that this could also be its scale diagram, as it is composed of the same notes as C minor.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Eb Major scale

One of the most popular methods of learning the fretboard is called the CAGED System.

Thousands of guitarists have learned most of their patterns through it, and it can be applied in various ways, not just to figure out scale patterns.

The next section of this guide focuses on this system and its most important aspects

CAGED System

The CAGED System is one of the guitarist’s best friends, as it allows them to memorize the entire fretboard in an intuitive way that can be applied to any major and minor key. 

This saves an immense amount of time that would otherwise be spent memorizing patterns for each scale learned.

The CAGED System consists of dividing the fretboard into 5 different regions, each one with its unique scale pattern which we call “enclosures” or “boxes”.

The method gets its name from the chords which are the base for each pattern. These are chords that you’ve most likely learned to play in the beginning in their open shapes:

  • C Major
  • A Major
  • G Major
  • E Major
  • D Major

Position 1

The first C minor CAGED position that you can find on the guitar is located between the open strings and the 4th fret. It is based on the D Major open chord shape, as shown below:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 1

Here is the diagram of that enclosure, with the C natural minor notes highlighted.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C natural minor

Notice that the root note appears twice – on the 5th and 2nd strings.

This shape allows you to play one full octave of C minor. 

While you should be able to play the scale from C to C, it is still important to be aware of the location of the other notes, both lower and higher in pitch.

Here is a guitar tab that shows you how you can practice this enclosure ascending and descending.

It is important to practice it in both directions, since your musical ideas will probably incorporate them both.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C minor 5th and 2nd strings

Notice how this scale pattern does not start on the root note (C).

It is important to know the location of all the notes that belong to the scale, not just root to root.

Place your index finger on the first note, as this will position your hand more efficiently for the rest of the pattern.

Position 2

The second CAGED enclosure is based on the C Major open chord shaped, as seen below on the following diagram:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 2

In the key of C minor, this box can be found between the 3rd and 6th frets.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 2, 3rd and 6th frets

Your root note appears twice – on the 5th and 3rd strings.

You can cover one full octave of the C minor scale without leaving this position.

Since it only covers 4 frets, just assign one finger per fret (from index to pinky) and you can play through the entire enclosure without having to move your left hand up or down.

Here is the corresponding guitar tab to help you practice it:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C minor scale 5th and 3rd strings

Position 3

The next CAGED enclosure is based on the A Major open chord shape, as illustrated below:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 3

When you transpose this to C Minor, the enclosure falls between the 5th and 9th frets.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 3, 5th and 9th frets

The root note comes up three times here – on the 6th, 3rd and 1st strings.

You can cover 2 full octaves of the C minor scale with this enclosure.

In order to play through the full box properly, you should start playing with your middle and pinky fingers. This will position your hand perfectly to hit the notes on the 5th and 9th frets.

Here is the corresponding guitar tab:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C minor scale 5th and 9th frets

Position 4

Our fourth CAGED enclosure in C minor is based on the G Major open chord shape, just like the diagram below illustrates:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 4

In C minor, this enclosure is located between the 7th and 11th frets.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 4, 7th and 11th frets

The root note comes up three times – on the 6th, 4th and 1st strings.

You can cover two full octaves of the C minor scale, and the pattern also starts on the root note of your key center. This makes it an easy shape to locate on the fretboard.

Play the frets 8, 10 and 11 with your index, ring and pinky fingers, respectively.

You must shift your hand back one fret when going from the 4th to the 3rd string, and then shift it back for the notes on the 2nd and 1st strings.

Here is the corresponding guitar tab:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - C minor scale  4th to the 3rd string

Position 5

The fifth and last position of the CAGED System in C minor is based on the E Major open chord shape.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 5

You’ll find this box between the 10th and 13th frets.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Position 5 10th and 13th frets

Your root note appears twice – on the 4th and 2nd strings.

You can cover one octave of the C minor scale without leaving this box. 

Just like with position 2, by assigning one left-hand finger per fret, you can breeze through the enclosure without having to shift your hand on the fretboard.

Here’s the guitar tab to help you study this box:

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - position 2 left-hand finger per fret

In regards to practicing these enclosures, you should keep some of these aspects in mind:

  • It is advisable to first get comfortable with the individual 5 enclosures so that connecting them comes more naturally later on.
  • Ensure you memorize the location of the root note in every shape, as this will be your primary point of reference to find your way through the neck.
  • Don’t prioritize speed: you should practice these shapes at a slow tempo (start with 60bpm) and focus on building muscle memory. Increase the tempo 10bpm at a time when you stop making mistakes.

Connecting the C natural minor shapes

Mastering the scale patterns above is a great exercise, but you are not making the most out of that knowledge if you are not connecting the 5 enclosures fluently. By doing this, you open up a million different possibilities when playing.

At first it might seem tricky to connect two different enclosures while you’re playing, but if you start by identifying the regions of the fretboard where two boxes have a few notes in common, you can use those as reference points.

The following diagram illustrates the C natural minor scale, and an indication of where two positions have notes in common.

A Complete Guide to the C Minor Scale - Connecting the C natural minor shapes

There are a lot of different options that you can use when connecting two different enclosures. 

None is the absolute best, it all depends on the context you’re playing in and what kind of feel you’re looking for with your phrasing.

For instance, you could simply slide from one enclosure to another, play an arpeggio, shift your hand a couple of frets above or lower, and many more.

Above everything else, you should try to remain as musical as possible, you don’t want to sound like you are practicing your CAGED enclosures while you are improvising a solo.

Also, don’t forget that although this guide focuses on the key of C minor, these shapes can be used to play any natural minor scale, it all depends on the region of the neck where the enclosure is, and your root note.

This is why you must be aware of the root note locations at all times. Developing this kind of spatial awareness of the fretboard allows you to make decisions ahead of time, improvise with more confidence and play through more intricate chord progressions!


Songs that use the C natural minor scale

Since C natural minor is a very popular scale, there are many songs that feature it, or have their melodies built using the notes of the scale exclusively.

Here are a few examples of songs where you can practice the scale patterns that you have learned throughout this guide!

  • Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise
  • Pink Floyd – High Hopes
  • Stevie Wonder – Master Blaster
  • Supertramp – Breakfast in America
  • Gary Moore – Midnight Blues
  • Chick Corea – Armando’s Rhumba
  • The Isley Brothers – Whenever You’re Ready
  • Adele – Rolling in the Deep
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along The Watchtower
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – Death of a Martian

Conclusion

As you have probably realized by now, mastering the natural minor scale should be one of your top priorities as a guitarist. 

Doing so will improve your musicianship significantly, since this is a scale that is present in countless songs. You will also end up using it in your own compositions.

The C minor scale is one that comes up frequently, so you should be well aware of where its notes are located on the fretboard.

Keep in mind that the natural minor scale always follows the same formula, regardless of the key center: “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7”.

Stick to a tried and tested method such as the CAGED System, and a well-structured practice routine, you will feel comfortable playing this scale much sooner than you’d think.

Gustavo Pereira

Gustavo is a Portuguese musician based in Barcelona, where he’s studying jazz & modern music interpretation on the electric guitar. Favorite genre: blues, jazz, funk, soul

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