Imagine you could unlock the secret to the beautiful, soul-stirring melodies created by legendary guitarists.
It’s not as far-fetched as it seems!
The key lies in understanding guitar scales.
The seemingly complex melodies they effortlessly play are born from these simple structures.
In this article, we’ll unravel the mystery behind guitar scales.
We’ll demystify the language of music, offering you a simple, yet comprehensive guide to understanding guitar scales.
Forget the technical jargon and complicated diagrams; we’re focusing on simplicity and clarity.
Using easy-to-follow tabs and fretboard shapes, we’ll guide you step by step through the world of scales.
From basic scales that every beginner should know to the exotic scales used in different genres, we’ve got it covered.
You’ll learn how to apply these scales, creating your own unique sounds and melodies.
And the best part?
By the end of this article, you’ll not only understand guitar scales, but you’ll also have the tools to continue your exploration into the wonderful world of guitar music.
So, tune up your guitar, get comfortable, and let’s begin this exciting journey together.
Let’s make music!
What Are Guitar Scales?
Guitar scales are sequences of notes played in a specific order on a guitar.
They serve as the building blocks of melody and harmony in music, providing a roadmap for creating musical pieces.
The order of these notes creates a pattern that repeats across the fretboard.
There are many different types of scales, each with its own unique sound and character.
Two of the most common scales are the Major and Minor scales.
For example, the C Major scale includes the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, while the A Minor scale includes the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
Those are the same notes just ordered differently.
Well… yes, but no.
Every scale has a root note, which is the note that the scale is named after.
This root note serves as a sort of ‘home base’ for the scale.
Landing on the root note of a scale coming from a different note or chord usually feels like a release in tension, and gives a sense of closure to the melody.
If this still sounds confusing to you, we have a dedicated article on relative minor and major scales that will make everything make sense.
For instance, in the C Major scale, the root note is C.
And in the A minor scale, the root is A.
The distance between the notes in a scale is measured in steps or intervals.
Major scales, for example, follow a specific pattern of whole and half steps.
Understanding these intervals is key to mastering scales and applying them in your music.
Scales are important for guitarists because they help you understand how notes relate to each other, how to construct chords, and how to improvise solos.
They can open up a world of possibilities on your fretboard, enabling you to create beautiful, engaging music.
In the next sections, we will delve deeper into the different types of guitar scales and how to play them.
What Are Guitar Scales Used For?
Guitar scales are integral to every aspect of guitar playing.
They are the backbone of melodies, provide a roadmap for solos, and underpin chord progressions.
Here are some ways they will be useful for you:
- Creating Melodies and Solos: Once you’re familiar with a scale, you can use it to create melodies and solos. For instance, if a song is in the key of G Major, you can use the G Major scale to create a melody or solo. The notes in the scale will naturally harmonize with the song, making your melody or solo sound pleasing.
- Improvisation: Scales are critical for improvisation. They provide a set of notes that you know will sound good together, allowing you to create spontaneous solos or melodies. For example, if you’re improvising a solo over a blues progression in A, you could use the A Minor Pentatonic or A Blues scale.
- Understanding and Creating Chord Progressions: Each scale has a series of chords associated with it, known as its diatonic chords. These chords are created by stacking the notes in the scale. Understanding this can help you create your own chord progressions or understand and anticipate the progressions used in songs.
- Developing Finger Dexterity and Fretboard Knowledge: Practicing scales is a great way to develop finger dexterity and learn your way around the fretboard. By practicing scales, you’ll become more familiar with the layout of the fretboard and improve your finger strength and coordination.
- Ear Training: Scales are also excellent for developing your musical ear. By playing scales and listening to the intervals between the notes, you can train your ear to recognize these sounds. This will help you identify scales and melodies by ear and improve your overall musicianship.
I touched on this topic more deeply in this other article titled “What’s the Point of Learning Guitar Scales?”
How to Read Guitar Scale Charts?
Reading guitar scale charts is a skill that can greatly enhance your understanding and execution of scales.
These charts, also known as scale diagrams, provide a visual representation of the layout of notes for a particular scale on the fretboard.
To begin, it’s essential to understand that the chart is essentially a map of the guitar’s fretboard.
The horizontal lines on the chart represent the strings of the guitar, with the lowest line corresponding to the lowest string (the 6th or E string), and the upmost line representing the highest string (the 1st or e string).
The vertical lines, on the other hand, represent the frets, with the left thicker line representing the guitar’s nut.
The dots you see on the chart represent the positions where you should place your fingers to play the scale.
They’re laid out on the strings and at the appropriate frets for the scale.
If the chart indicates a number inside the dot, this represents which finger you should use to play that note, with 1 being your index finger, 2 being your middle finger, 3 your ring finger, and 4 your pinky.
Sometimes, you’ll notice an ‘R’ on a dot, or a differently colored dot, which represents the ‘root note’ of the scale.
The root note is the note from which the scale derives its name.
For instance, in a C Major scale (the one depicted above), the ‘C’ note is the root.
Scale charts often show a section of the fretboard from the nut to around the 12th fret, but remember that the pattern of the scale repeats all the way up the neck.
The 12th fret is where everything starts to repeat, mirroring what you see from the nut to the 11th fret.
By studying and practicing with guitar scale charts, you can visualize the shape and pattern of the scale, which can make it easier to remember and play.
It’s a useful tool for both learning new scales and understanding how scales can be moved to different keys by shifting the pattern up or down the fretboard.
What Are the Most Important Scales to Learn?
For anyone learning to play the guitar, there are several scales that are particularly essential due to their widespread use in many genres of music.
These scales form the foundation of your musical vocabulary and can help you understand and create melodies, harmonies, and solos.
The Major scale is often the first scale guitarists learn and is crucial to understanding Western music theory.
It is used in a multitude of musical genres and forms the basis for many other scales and chords.
It’s the ‘do-re-mi’ scale that many of us learn as children.
Natural Minor Scale
The natural Minor scale is another basic and essential scale.
It’s the scale to learn if you want to create a somber or melancholy mood in your music.
Many rock, metal, and pop songs use this scale.
Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales
The Major and Minor Pentatonic scales are simplified versions of the Major and Natural Minor scales. Each contains just five notes (hence ‘pentatonic’).
These scales are particularly popular in rock, blues, country, and pop music.
They’re often the first scales guitarists learn for soloing due to their straightforward patterns and pleasing sound.
The Blues scale is a variation of the Minor Pentatonic scale with an added ‘blue’ note.
This scale is crucial for playing blues music and is also often used in rock and jazz.
Harmonic Minor Scale
The Harmonic Minor scale is similar to the natural Minor scale but with a raised 7th note.
It’s often used in classical music, metal, and gypsy jazz, and it provides a distinctive, somewhat ‘exotic’ sound.
Modes of the Major Scale
The modes of the Major scale, including Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, are derived by starting the Major scale on different notes.
These modes are important in jazz, fusion, and some rock and pop music.
While there are many other scales, these are some of the most important to get started with.
By learning these scales, you can build a strong foundation for understanding music and improving your guitar playing.
The Difference Between Guitar Scales and Keys
Understanding the difference between guitar scales and keys is vital for anyone learning to play the guitar and trying to grasp music theory.
Both concepts are interrelated and form the foundation for how music is constructed, but they are indeed different.
A guitar scale is a sequence of notes that provide a framework for a piece of music.
They are the ‘building blocks’ of melodies, chords, and solos. In simple terms, a scale is an ordered set of notes typically spanning an octave.
For instance, the C Major scale includes the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then returns to C.
On the other hand, a key is a group of pitches, or scale, that forms the basis of musical composition in classical, Western art, and Western pop music.
In more straightforward terms, when we say a song is in the key of C Major, we mean that the song is based on the C Major scale and that C is the ‘home base’ or tonal center of the song.
The key tells us a lot about what chords will appear in the song and what notes will be used in the melody or solos.
In essence, while scales are sets of notes arranged in a particular order, keys are broader concepts that dictate the harmonic structure of a piece of music.
All notes, chords, and harmonies in a piece will typically relate back to the key.
Therefore, you could say that a key is a kind of ‘musical home’, while scales are the ‘paths’ that lead us home.
Understanding these two concepts and how they interact is crucial for understanding how music is created and how you can create your own melodies, chords, and solos on the guitar.
For more information check out our complete guide on the C Major scale:
Guitar Scale Formulas
Guitar scale formulas are fundamental to understanding how scales are constructed. A scale formula is a sequence of intervals between the notes in the scale.
It’s a useful tool to understand and remember the structure of scales, and it also allows you to construct any scale starting from any note.
The formulas for scales are usually written in terms of whole steps (W) and half steps (H).
A whole step is equivalent to a distance of two frets on your guitar, and a half step is equivalent to one fret.
For example, from the note C to D on a guitar is a whole step, while from E to F is a half step.
Let’s look at some common scale formulas:
The formula for the Major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Starting from C, this gives us C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
Natural Minor Scale
The Natural Minor scale has a formula of W-H-W-W-H-W-W. If we start from A, this gives us the A minor scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.
Major Pentatonic Scale
The Major Pentatonic scale formula is W – W – W+H – W – W+H. Starting from C, we get: C-D-E-G-A-C.
Pentatonic scales have longer interval jumps depicted as Whole + Half Step (3 frets in the guitar)
Minor Pentatonic Scale
The formula for the Minor Pentatonic scale is W+H – W – W – W+H – W. If we start from A, we get: A-C-D-E-G-A.
The Blues scale is the same as the Minor Pentatonic with an added flat 5th. Its formula is W+H – W – H – H – W+H – W. Starting from A, we get A-C-D-D#-E-G-A.
Harmonic Minor Scale
The Harmonic Minor scale has a formula of W – H – W – W – H – W+H – H. Starting from A, we get: A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A.
By understanding these formulas, you can figure out any scale in any key.
Just pick a starting note, and follow the formula to find the other notes in the scale.
This ability can greatly enhance your understanding of music theory and your versatility as a guitarist.
Pro tip – Learn the differences between pentatonic and blues scales here:
Guitar Scales in Different Keys
Understanding how to play guitar scales in different keys is essential for any guitarist.
It gives you the flexibility to play along with songs in any key, improvise solos, and compose your own music.
When we talk about playing a scale in a different key, we mean starting the scale on a different note.
The relationship or interval between the notes remains the same, but the actual notes you play change.
For instance, if you’re playing a C Major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), and you want to play a D Major scale, you’ll use the same intervals but start on D (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D).
This concept applies to any scale.
Let’s say you’ve mastered the A Minor Pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G-A).
If you want to play this scale in the key of B, you shift every note up by two frets, maintaining the same pattern, resulting in the B Minor Pentatonic scale (B-D-E-F#-A-B).
The beauty of the guitar is that once you’ve learned a scale pattern, you can move it up and down the neck to play in different keys.
This is because the guitar is what’s known as a transposing instrument. The same patterns and shapes apply no matter where you start on the neck.
One tip for finding the key is to look at the root note – the note the scale starts on.
If you’re playing an E Major scale, your root note is E.
If you’re playing a B Minor Pentatonic scale, your root note is B. This root note is usually the name of the key you’re playing in.
Getting comfortable with playing scales in different keys takes some practice, but it’s well worth the effort.
It will help you understand the guitar neck better, expand your repertoire, and give you the tools to express yourself musically.
Building Chords From a Guitar Scale
Building chords from a guitar scale is a fundamental part of understanding music theory and becoming a versatile musician.
By learning this skill, you’ll be able to create unique chord progressions, write songs, and comprehend why certain chords sound good together.
Let’s take the C Major scale as an example: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
To build chords, we’ll use a technique called “harmonizing,” which involves stacking thirds on each note of the scale.
Here’s how it works:
- C Major (C-E-G): Start with the first note, C. Skip D and go to E, then skip F and go to G. This gives us a C Major chord, which consists of the notes C, E, and G.
- D Minor (D-F-A): Start with the second note, D. Skip E and go to F, then skip G and go to A. This gives us a D Minor chord, which consists of the notes D, F, and A.
- E Minor (E-G-B): Start with the third note, E. Skip F and go to G, then skip A and go to B. This gives us an E Minor chord, which consists of the notes E, G, and B.
We continue this process for the remaining notes of the scale, which results in the chords F Major (F-A-C), G Major (G-B-D), A Minor (A-C-E), and B Diminished (B-D-F).
In the key of C Major, we now have seven chords: C Major, D Minor, E Minor, F Major, G Major, A Minor, and B Diminished.
These chords are often represented in Roman numerals as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii° respectively.
This pattern of major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, and diminished is the same for any major key.
Understanding this process allows you to figure out the chords in any key, just by knowing the notes in its scale.
This powerful skill can help you understand song structures, write your own music, and even improvise on the fly.
Chord Progressions From a Scale
Chord progressions are the backbone of any song, providing a roadmap for the melody and rhythm.
In essence, they are a sequence of chords that flow smoothly from one to the next, and they are usually derived from a specific scale.
Here’s a basic explanation of how to derive chord progressions from a scale.
To begin, it’s essential to understand that each note in a scale can be the root of a chord.
For instance, in the C Major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B), each note can be the root of a chord.
The type of chord (major, minor, or diminished) depends on the specific scale and the position of the note within that scale.
In a major scale, the chords that naturally occur are major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, and diminished, in that order.
So, in the case of the C Major scale, the chords would be C Major, D minor, E minor, F Major, G Major, A minor, and B diminished.
A chord progression is then simply a sequence of these chords.
Some of the most common chord progressions include the I-IV-V (in C Major: C-F-G) and the ii-V-I (in C Major: Dm-G-C).
These progressions are used in countless songs across various genres.
Creating a chord progression from a scale is a matter of selecting a sequence of chords that sound good to you.
Start by experimenting with different combinations of chords from the same scale.
Play them in different orders and listen to how they sound together.
Remember, these are just the basics.
Music theory offers numerous more advanced concepts for creating chord progressions, including seventh chords, chord extensions, modulations, and more.
But understanding how to build chord progressions from a scale is a crucial first step in understanding how songs are built and how you can create your own.
As with all aspects of music, the key is to learn the rules first, then learn how to bend or break them to create something unique.
Now, if music theory is something that is starting to sound interesting to you, I recommend you check out our ultimate guide with all the music theory you will ever need.
How to Learn Guitar Scales?
Learning guitar scales is a step-by-step process that can greatly enhance your musical ability.
It’s not just about memorizing patterns on the fretboard; it’s about understanding how these patterns connect to make music.
Here’s a simple approach to get you started.
- Start with Basic Scales: For beginners, the Major scale and the Minor Pentatonic scale are great starting points. These scales are fundamental to many genres of music and are relatively straightforward to learn. For instance, you can start with the C Major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) or the A Minor Pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G-A).
- Understand the Structure: Scales aren’t just random notes. They follow a specific pattern of intervals or distances between notes. For example, the Major scale follows the pattern: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Understanding this structure can help you figure out any Major scale.
- Learn the Fretboard: Get to know your guitar’s fretboard. Understanding where each note is located will greatly help your scale learning process. A good exercise is to pick a note (like C) and find all the places on the fretboard where you can play that note.
- Practice Slowly and Consistently: When you’re first learning a scale, start slowly. Speed is not the goal; accuracy is. Practice each scale until you can play it smoothly and without mistakes. A little bit of practice each day is more beneficial than one long practice session once a week.
- Apply Scales to Music: Finally, apply what you’ve learned to actual music. This could mean playing along with a song, improvising a solo, or even composing your own tune. The real value of learning scales comes from using them to create music.
Remember, learning scales is not a race.
Everyone learns at their own pace, and that’s okay.
The goal is to improve a little bit each day and enjoy the process.
With persistence and practice, you’ll see your efforts pay off in your playing.
Here is a great guide on the best guitar scales to practice to jumpstart your playing.
Scales Are Not Just a Guitar Thing
While it’s true that we’re focusing on guitar scales in this article, it’s crucial to understand that scales are not exclusive to the guitar.
In fact, scales form the foundation of all music, regardless of the instrument being played.
They are the building blocks of melodies, harmonies, and chords in every piece of music you hear, from a symphony orchestra to a solo piano performance, and yes, to your favorite guitar solos.
Take the piano, for example.
The white and black keys represent the notes of various scales, most commonly the chromatic scale.
When a pianist practices scales, they’re familiarizing themselves with the layout of the keyboard and the relationship between the notes, just as a guitarist does with the fretboard.
Or consider the violin.
Unlike the guitar or piano, the violin doesn’t have frets or keys.
Instead, the player must know exactly where to place their fingers on the strings to play the correct notes.
This requires a deep understanding of scales and the intervals between notes.
Even in vocal music, scales are critical.
Singers must be able to accurately pitch each note of a scale to sing in tune.
They often practice scales to improve their vocal range and pitch accuracy.
Drummers, too, can benefit from understanding scales, even though they’re not typically playing pitched notes.
Knowledge of scales can help drummers understand the structure of the music they’re playing and communicate better with the rest of the band.
Scales are a fundamental aspect of all music.
They provide a roadmap for understanding how notes relate to each other and how to create nice melodies and chords.
Whether you’re a guitarist or not, understanding scales is a critical part of becoming a better musician.
Guitar Scales FAQ
What better way of closing this guide than with a lightning round of the most frequently asked questions about guitar scales?
Let’s go through them one by one:
Guitar scales serve several purposes.
They are used to construct melodies, solos, and riffs.
They also form the basis of chords and are a fundamental part of improvisation.
Understanding scales can help guitarists predict chord progressions and create more harmonious compositions.
Guitar scales are a series of notes played in a particular order.
This sequence of notes creates a pattern that repeats across the fretboard.
The intervals, or the distance between the notes in a scale, give each scale its unique character and sound.
For beginners, it’s often recommended to start with the Major scale, then move to the natural Minor scale.
After these, you might explore the Minor Pentatonic scale and the Major Pentatonic scale.
This sequence gives you a solid foundation in the most commonly used scales before moving on to more complex scales and modes.
The 7 modes are variations of the Major scale.
Each mode starts on a different note of the Major scale.
They are Ionian (Major), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (natural minor), and Locrian.
Scale modes are a bit hard to understand at first, but once you get a hang of them, they can be the key to unlocking the fretboard for you.
Yes, guitar scales are crucial.
They provide the foundation for understanding how melodies, chords, and solos work.
And they also can help improve your finger dexterity, ear training, and improvisation skills.
Running scales through the fretboard is a great exercise per se.
While both are important, beginners often find it helpful to start with scales.
This is because understanding scales can make learning chords easier, as chords are built from scales.
Practicing scales can improve your finger dexterity, speed, and accuracy.
It can also help familiarize you with the fretboard, making it easier to navigate when playing songs or improvising.
While it’s not mandatory, memorizing scales can greatly improve your playing.
It allows you to navigate the fretboard more easily and improvise more effectively.
You don’t need to know where each of their notes is, though.
Just learning the shapes will get you started!
Technically, there are countless scales as you can create your own.
However, there are 12 Major scales, 12 natural minor scales, and various other scales like pentatonic and blues scales that are commonly used.
The 12 Major scales correspond to each note in the chromatic scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, and B.
Each Major scale follows a pattern of whole and half steps.
There are 5 Major and 5 Minor pentatonic scale shapes in the guitar, each corresponding to the five different notes where these scales can start.
The 5 Pentatonic scales are variations of the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales.
They each start on a different note of the pentatonic scale.
These scales are often used in blues, rock, and pop music.
Most guitar teachers suggest starting with the Major scale as it’s the basis for many other scales and chords.
The choice of scale depends on the chord or chord progression.
As a rule of thumb, Major scales work well over Major chords, and Minor scales over Minor chords.
For example, if a song is in C Major, you can use the C Major scale to solo over it.
However, music is all about creativity and experimentation!
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.