A Minor: The “Rising Sun” Key
“There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy,
And God, I know I’m one.”
~Traditional folk song as sung by The Animals
The House of the Rising Sun may have been the ruin of many a poor boy and girl, but the song, commonly played in A Minor, is a boon to guitar beginners. Most formal lessons start guitar beginners out in the key of C Major, but there’s no question that A Minor is an easier key to play on guitar, using fewer fingers, less cramming, less stretching than the key of C Major. See our earlier blog post for five great tips on how to learn new chords easily.
This song is also a great place to start learning the arpeggio fingerpicking style that the Animals made famous. Check out our previous post on how to play fingerpicking guitar technique.
The key of A Minor has long been associated with spiritual, poignant, even tragic womanliness, making it an essential element in the musical landscape. Romantic Era composers like Mozart, Liszt, and Paganini loved it for expressing tragic tenderness in their work. Modern composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Rachmaninoff found it the perfect vehicle for manifesting the angst of twentieth century existence.
And of course the Animals made it famous with their version of the traditional American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun.”
The key of A Minor is the relative minor of the key of C Major. Why? Because it has the same key signature. Simple as that. What that means for you and your playing will become clearer as you progress.
The A Minor Chord on the Guitar:
Not only is this chord fairly easy to play, it sounds great! Because three of the strings are played open, including the low E and high E, the chord is especially satisfying to play because of its full sound.
Theory and Practice: The Pattern of the A Minor Scale Explained
Since this is the first minor scale we’ll be covering, let’s take a moment to examine the differences between a major scale and a minor scale.
If you’ve already got some music theory about the major scale under your belt you’ll know that the tones in a minor key go like this:
Whole Tone – Half Tone – Whole Tone – Whole Tone – Half Tone – Whole Tone – Whole Tone
In other words, the second and the fifth positions in the scale are just half tones above their preceding notes, and between all the other notes there are whole tones. All natural minor keys follow this pattern, so if you ever want to figure out the accidentals for yourself, just start with the root note and count off the above pattern.
This means that the scale of the key of A Minor is made up of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. It’s the only minor key with no accidentals (sharps or flats) just as C Major is the only major key with no accidentals.
Here’s the A Minor scale, with A at its root and another A, an octave higher, at its pinnacle.
In guitar tablature it looks like this:
Playing scales on your guitar is a whole lot easier after you memorise your guitar’s fretboard notes. Here is a secret technique used by many pro guitarists around the world to learn the fretboard.
To make things a little more complicated, the sequence of types of chords used in minor keys is different than the sequence of types of chords used in major keys. In minor keys the sequence is as follows:
1st chord: minor
2nd chord: diminished
3rd chord: major
4th chord: minor
5th chord: minor
6h chord: major
7th chord: major
The A Minor chord, which forms the root of the A Minor scale, is made up of the notes A, C, and E— the first, third, and fifth notes of the key of A. On the guitar, using the basic A Minor chord position shown in the picture, these notes arrive in this order: E, A, E, B, C and E.
If you’d like to get a more secure feel for the theory behind the practice of music making, our blog has a helpful set of music theory articles. Knowing music theory will help you to be a better musician and give you the peace of mind that comes with knowing what it all means.
Chords and Common Chord Progressions in the Key of A Minor
If you were to use every chord in the key of A Minor, the following would be the chords you’d use. You aren’t strictly limited to using only the chords in the same key, but it helps to know them, so here they are:
A Minor – B diminished – C major, D minor – E minor – F major – G major
Why are the A, D, and E chords minor? Because, unlike the major scale, in the natural minor scale the chords at the first fourth, and fifth positions of the key are minor. Always.
Why is the B a diminished chord? Because in the key of A Minor it sits in the second place, and in minor keys all second chords are diminished.
There is one important thing that chord progressions in major and minor keys have in common. For variety and greater expressiveness, the fifth chord— E minor in the this case— can also be played as an E minor7. Why? Because it sits at the fifth position of the key of A Minor, giving it the honour of being the chord that announces the ending of the musical phrase, just as in the major keys.
Adding the seventh note of the key of E Minor (D) to the E Minor chord, creating an E Minor 7, makes the E Minor chord “lean” a little, as if it’s about to fall over onto the root chord (A minor) that usually comes next in the chord progression, or, in cases where no chord comes next, giving the musical phrase an unresolved sound.
In addition to your Uberchord app lessons, take a little time to play around with the progressions below to become more familiar with how these chords, depending on their order and context, create a sense of beginning, rising, falling, and ending.
So let’s have another look at the chords in the key of A Minor: A Minor, B diminished, C major, D minor, E minor, F major, and G major.
Obviously you can’t just start playing all these chords and expect to sound good. The following are a few common chord progressions in this key. Most of the songs you hear are composed of combinations of these chord progressions. As you play them and get used to their sound, you’ll probably recognise them as familiar.
Note: By far the most common chord progression for folk, country, and pop songs is loosely based on I, IV, V, I. In the key of A Minor this becomes A minor, D minor, and E minor (or E minor 7). Try right now playing these chords in this order:
A minor—D minor—E minor (or E minor 7)—A minor.
Notice how even in this short progression the music has a clear beginning, middle, and end, especially if you use E minor 7?
Now try playing the chords to “House of the Rising Sun:”
Am C D F
There is a house in New Orleans
Am C E
They call the Rising Sun
Am C D F
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy,
Am E Am
And me, God knows I’m one.”
What gives this song its strange, tender sound is not just the tragic subject of its lyrics or the melancholy minor key; it’s the fact that the fifth chord, instead of being played as an E minor as it ought, is played as an E major chord. This innovation in rural folk music was used by the famed Louisiana bluesman Leadbelly, in his song “Black Girl.” these are just two examples of how stepping out of the musical box can create wonderful new sound experiences that end up becoming classics.
Now practice playing through these progressions, getting a feel for the musical messages they might carry.
- A minor—D minor—E minor—A minor.
- A minor—E minor—F major— D minor.
- A minor—F major— D minor——E minor.
- A minor—E minor—vi —C major—D minor—A minor—D minor——E minor.
- Blues: A minor— A minor— A minor— A minor—D minor—D minor—A minor— A minor—E minor—E minor—A minor —A minor.
- B diminished—D minor—E minor.
- A minor—D minor—E minor——D minor.
- E minor——D minor—A minor.
- F major— D minor—A minor——E minor.
- F major— E minor—F major— E minor.
A Few Great Songs in the Key of A Minor
As we’ve pointed out many times, if you’re able to pick up on it you’ll note that each key, and sometimes each chord, has its own unique emotional flavour when played on the guitar. Now that we’ve started looking at the minor keys we can say with certainty that they sound more dark, sombre, serious, and sad than the major keys. The key of A Minor is no different. Its uniqueness lies in its feminine side, its spiritual tenderness, its wistful love-longing.
It can be a gentle warning to an innocent young girl, such as in Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.”
It can be a paean to a lost love, like Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or the Rolling Stones’ “Angie.”
It can sing of a woman’s ascent to Paradise, like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
A Minor is definitely part of the fabric of a self-examined life. Make it a part of your guitar repertoire. Never know when you might need it, and besides, it’s rewarding to play.
Rita Steblin (1996) A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early
Nineteenth Centuries, University of Rochester Press, p. 123
- D. Mar (1981). Anatomy of the Orchestra, University of California Press, p. 349