Scales are often one of the most difficult topics for a guitarist to grasp. Their purpose can be somewhat easy to understand, but the application is often very confusing.
Today, you’ll embark on this mysterious topic with the intention of understanding what scales are and how they work. You might find that you’ve been overthinking the subject, making it more complicated than it needs to be.
Are Guitar Scales Important?
Guitar scales are extremely important, and understanding how they work separates good guitarists from mediocre. Knowing how to effectively use guitar scales will be required if you ever hope to play at a high level.
This is especially true if you have any ambitions as a lead guitarist who improvises solos. All of your solos will be based on different scales (whether you know it or not).
Not interested in playing guitar solos? Any song you play or write is going to utilize a scale in one way or another. In fact, knowing how scales work can make your songwriting develop and blossom into beautiful creations.
Knowing how scales work will also allow you to understand the chord progressions within a song. You’ll be able to quickly reference these progressions and even quickly learn songs by ear if needed. Scale knowledge will also allow you to communicate this information to other musicians.
In the bigger picture, scales are the foundation upon which a song or any musical phrase is built.
Do take the time to really let all of this information marinade in your mind. You will become a much better musician because of it. Let’s take a closer look at how scales work.
How Do Guitar Scales Work?
You could think of scales as a dictionary from which paragraphs of words are written. Each paragraph (a chord) consists of sentences (melodies) that are made up of individual words (notes).
When you look up a word in a dictionary, each word is organized in alphabetical order. For instance, all of the words under C would have a C at the beginning of the word.
In a similar fashion, all of the notes within the key of C major come from the C major scale. Because chords are built from notes, each chord within the key of C major comes from the C major scale.
At its most basic function, a scale is essentially just a sequence of notes. This sequence follows a set underlying pattern, which ultimately determines the notes in the scale.
The major scale itself is an 8 note sequence. Every 8th note is called an octave.
There are other scales with different amounts of notes within an octave. However, all of these are derived from the major scale. Let’s find out how a major scale is created from scratch.
How Are Scales Created?
Because C major is often the first scale most musicians learn, we will use C major as an example. If you’re wondering why this is the first scale learned, it’s because it is a scale without accidentals.
Accidentals are known as “sharps” or “flats,” which can be seen by the time signature when looking at sheet music. Each key has its own key signature, denoted by a set number of sharps or flats.
How does a key have a flat or sharp? Well, it comes from that underlying pattern that determines which notes are in a key.
Take a look at the picture of the C major scale. Each note follows a pattern based on the number of half-steps and whole steps in between.
This pattern is Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. Be sure to memorize this because it’s extremely important.
To easily visualize this, take a moment to think of a piano. Each white key with a black key in between has a whole step between the two.
For instance, C and D have a whole step because there is a black key in between. Similarly, B and C are only a half step apart as there is no black key in between.
On the guitar, a half step is only one fret above or below the note you are playing. Similarly, a whole step is two frets away, with a fret in between. This is exactly the same as a piano.
If you want to know a little hack, pay attention. The notes E and F, as well as B and C, will only ever have a half step in between. To have a full step in between, one must be raised (sharped) or lowered (flatted).
How Do I Build A Scale?
Before you progress any further in this article, take a moment to grab your guitar. The following information is going to be useful to you if you use your guitar for reference. I will guide you through a few exercises to help you understand scales.
Let’s use the Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half pattern to build C major.
To start, you’ll need to begin at C, which is known as the root of C major.
Count up using the pattern to derive the notes that are used in the C major scale. Doing so will give you the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
Notice how there are no accidentals in the names of any of those notes? Let’s see how an accidental gets introduced into the mix.
Why Do Scales Have Sharps Or Flats?
Let’s use the same pattern, but this time starting at G. This will give you the G major scale.
If you do this correctly, you’ll get G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Where does the F# come from?
It’s quite simple, as F# is just a half step away from G. According to our formula, there needs to be a half step between the 7th and 8th note in the scale. Because there is a whole step between F and G, we needed to raise the F to satisfy the formula.
However, the 8th note isn’t the only note that required the 7th note to change. The distance between the 6th and 7th note (had F been natural) would have been a half step. To satisfy the formula, the F needs to be raised for there to be a whole step between the notes.
Let’s try one more example. This time, let’s figure out the key of F. Start at F and use the formula to figure out the notes.
The correct answer this time is F, G, A, Bb (flat), C, D, E, F. Notice that, to satisfy the formula, we had to flat the B. Doing so gave us a half step between A and Bb, and a whole step between Bb and C.
If you simply read through this without playing your guitar to figure the exercise out, you might be lost. Please go back over it using your guitar and you’ll see how this is possible.
Remember that a half step is one fret above or below the note. To have a whole step, it must consist of 2 half steps. Thus a fret will be between the note you’re playing and the one you’re going to.
How Are The Chords In A Key Determined Using Scales?
If you understand these concepts, you might wonder what you’re supposed to do with them. Well, by figuring out these scales, you’ve also figured out which chords are in each key.
However, you’re missing one key ingredient to the name of each chord. You still don’t know the tonality (major or minor) of each chord. Fortunately, this follows a pattern much as the scale does.
The names of the notes in a scale are also called scale degrees. These are primarily written as roman numerals. A roman numeral that is capitalized will be major, with a lower-case representing minor.
All major scales follow this pattern of chord tonalities: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii°. That funny ° symbol on the 7th degree represents a diminished chord. Read on and this will be explained.
Using this chord formula and applying it to the C major scale, you’ll have the chords of:
- C major
- D minor
- E minor
- F major
- G major
- A minor
- B diminished
A triad chord is built from 3 notes. At its most basic, it consists of the Root, the 3rd, and the 5th. Each of these has an interval of a 3rd between them.
Let’s build a C major chord using the notes from a C major scale. Using the numeric formula, we can determine that C will consist of C, E, and G. E is a 3rd above C; G is a 3rd above E as well as a 5th above C.
Similarly, the E minor chord consists of an E, G, and B. Each note is a 3rd above the last, with B being a 5th away from E.
However, this still doesn’t fully explain how exactly the major and minor tonality is formed. Let’s take a moment to explore this.
How Is A Chord Tonality Determined?
Remember our good friends the whole step and the half step? When relating to the pitches within a scale degree, these have a different name, each with its own tonality:
- A half-step is a minor 2nd
- A whole step is a major 2nd
This same concept is applied to the interval of the 3rd. Ultimately, the 3rd will determine when a chord is major or minor. Here’s the formula:
- A minor third is 1 whole step plus 1 half step, or 3 half steps (3 frets)
- A major third is 2 whole steps, or 4 half-steps (4 frets)
Let’s take a look at the chord C major (C, E, G) again. We can see that there is a distance of a major 3rd (4 half steps) between C and E. We can also see that there is a minor 3rd (3 half steps) between E and G.
Using this formula for a major chord, it can be reduced to:
- A major third on the bottom (between Root and 3rd of chord)
- A minor third on top (between 3rd and 5th of chord)
Let’s use E minor from the C major scale and figure out this formula. When counting half steps, it can be reduced to:
- A minor third on the bottom (between Root and 3rd of chord)
- A major third on top (between the 3rd and 5th of chord)
What about that weird diminished chord at the 7th scale degree? This is essentially a modified minor chord. Except, instead of a major third between the 3rd and 5th, it is a minor third.
So, essentially, a diminished chord consists of:
- A minor third (between Root and 3rd of chord)
- A minor third (between 3rd and 5th of chord)
I Know My Chords, What Does It Have To Do With Scales?
If you fully understand how the chords within a key are derived from a scale, you'll have a powerful tool. This will allow you to easily figure out the chord progressions inherent within any song.
Let’s say for instance that you’re learning a song by ear. You notice the chords being played include E major, A major, and D major. By process of elimination, you’ll determine that the song is in the key of A major.
Similarly, in this context of A major, you’ll understand that:
- The A major is the I chord
- The D major is the IV chord
- The E is the V chord
Knowing these labels will allow you to name the progression. For instance, if the song’s progression went A, D, and E, it would be I-IV-V.
Knowing what key the song is in will allow you to determine what scale you should play in a solo. This is especially useful if you’re in an improvisation setting and you’re not sure what to play.
What About Minor Scales?
Up until now, we’ve primarily covered the importance of the major scale. However, if you’ve been playing for a while, you’ve likely heard of minor scales. How are these derived?
Let’s take another look at that chord pattern from the major scale. If you recall, it goes: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°.
Minor scales are derived from the 6th scale degree of the major scale. As you’ll notice, the 6th scale degree is also a minor chord in the chord scale. This is what is known as the “relative minor”.
For example, the relative minor of C major would be A minor. Using G major, E minor would be the relative minor.
Essentially, what is happening is that you are starting the major scale formula from a different note. The intervals and tonalities stay the same, but the sequence starts from the 6th note instead of the 1st.
This effectively creates a pattern of: i, ii°, III, iv, v, VI, VII. This is the same pattern, just repositioned.
You’ll be able to determine how the natural minor scale is built by using the root note of these chords. Using this pattern, A minor would be the sequence of A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
Unfortunately, this isn’t all there is to know about scales. However, you’re now primed with the necessary knowledge to continue. Don’t worry, the light is starting to shine at the end of the tunnel.
What Are The 12 Guitar Scales?
You’ve probably heard that there are 12 scales. What does this refer to and how are these derived?
These 12 scales refer to different major scales. Each key has its own major scale.
There are a total of 12 possible keys. Each of these has its own unique scale as determined by the intervallic pattern formula.
You’ve likely seen a famous circular diagram called the Circle of Fifths. This handy diagram tells you many things.
In particular, the Circle of Fifths shows the progression of key signatures by accidentals. It also shows what the relative minor is of each key.
You can create your own by starting at C and counting a 5th from C to arrive at G. A 5th from G will give you D, and so on. Eventually, you’ll arrive back at C, with 12 total keys possible.
To make things easy, the names of these 12 guitar scales are as follows:
- C major
- G major
- D major
- A major
- E major
- B major
- Gb/F# major
- Db/C# major
- Ab major
- Eb major
- Bb major
- F major
How Are Major Scales Played On The Guitar?
The guitar is a very unique instrument. Scales can be played in many different directions on the guitar.
For instance, you can play scales on one entire string. You can play scales in a diagonal direction (up the neck) as well as a lateral direction (in one area). You should know how to play scales in all of these directions.
Quite often, when looking at a diagram of a scale, you’ll see a full fretboard diagram of every note used. This fretboard diagram is then broken up into different groupings of frets.
This tends to be where many guitarists get tripped up when it comes to scales. The reason for this is that there are many octave possibilities within the fretboard. Each pattern consists of an octave.
Due to the way that the fretboard is set up, each position will have the notes for the major scale. However, the lowest note within that position may not always be the root (1st scale degree) of the scale.
For that reason, it is important that when you do learn a scale, you learn 1 position at a time. When practicing that position, you should always start at the lowest available root note.
Play up to the highest note in that position, and work back down to the root. Then, play the lowest available notes in that position. Always return back to the root, no matter what position you’re playing.
The major scale is often taught in 2 different ways. Each of these methods has its own valuable takeaway:
- 3-notes-per string method
- CAGED method
What Are The Benefits Of The 3-Notes-Per-String Method?
The 3-notes-per string (abbreviated as 3NPS) method essentially assigns 3 notes of the major scale to each of the 6 strings. The result is a very congruent pattern that is useful for alternate picking.
There are 7 different patterns within the 3NPS method. Each pattern starts at each scale degree of the scale. For instance, C major will have pattern 1 at C, 2 at D, etc.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to learning this way is that you’ll have an easy entrance to modal playing. You’ve likely heard of the modes before.
Modes are created by repositioning the major scale starting point, just as we did with the relative minor earlier. These modes are excellent tools you can use to create unique-sounding solos and songs.
We won’t go into too much detail on the modes here, but for reference, the names are as follows. Take note that each mode uses the major scale formula, but with a different starting point:
- From Root position (1st scale degree) is known as Ionian
- From 2nd scale degree is known as Dorian
- From 3rd scale degree is known as Phrygian
- From 4th scale degree is known as Lydian
- From 5th scale degree is known as Mixolydian
- From 6th scale degree (natural minor) is known as Aeolian
- From 7th scale degree is known as Locrian
The best part about the modes is that you only need to know how to play the major scale. After all, they contain the same notes but have a different tonal center (starting point).
What Are The Benefits Of The CAGED Method?
CAGED refers to the major scale based around the open chord shapes of C, A, G, E, and D. Each pattern is built around each of the chord shapes and repeats on the entirety of the neck.
This can be thought of as using a capo to play the same chord up and down the neck. In fact, using this method will give you a very visual diagram you can use to navigate the fretboard.
Having such a visual basis for the fretboard will unlock many doors for you. You’ll be able to quickly play different inversions of chords. When it comes time to solo, you’ll recognize the chord shapes and have a solid foundation to work from.
However, that’s not to say that this is the only benefit to using CAGED. In fact, it can be a great starting point for understanding and playing the pentatonic scale. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at how to play the CAGED method in greater detail.
How Does CAGED Work?
Let’s use C major as an example. The first pattern of the CAGED method would be built around the open C chord in its standard location.
The next pattern of C major would be found on the A shape of a C chord. This is essentially a 5th string rooted major barre chord at the 3rd fret. You’ve likely played this barre chord many times.
Continuing on, the next position (G) would be based around the open G-shaped chord form of C. In this case, you would play an open G shape chord at the 8th fret.
In this pattern, the open strings would be played at the 5th fret to keep the pattern true to form. This would be similar to if you placed a capo at the 5th fret and played a G-shaped chord.
Take note that those “open strings” from the G shape are also present on the A shape. This is the beauty of the CAGED system. You can easily connect each shape, as each pattern uses part of the pattern above and below.
The same thing goes for the E-shape of C. This is essentially the E major barre chord shape (root 6th string) used to play C major at the 8th fret.
In the final position, the D-shape, you’ll be playing a pattern based around the D chord. This position would be similar to placing a capo on the 10th fret and playing a regular D-shaped chord.
After you’ve completed the D-shape, the pattern starts over again at the C shape. It’s really that simple.
This same pattern can be applied to any key. For instance, the key of A would use the A-shape as a starting point, continuing to G-shape, etc.
What Are Pentatonic Scales?
In addition to the major scale, you’ll commonly come across major and minor pentatonic scales. As the name implies, these are essentially scales built in 5 note sequences. These have 5 different patterns that repeat up the fretboard.
For the major pentatonic, the scale is built similar to the major scale, minus the 4th and 7th scale degrees. The first position is based on the G-shape of the CAGED system.
Similarly, the minor pentatonic is based on the minor scale without the 2nd and 6th scale degrees. The first position is based around the 6th-string rooted E-minor barre chord.
How Are Pentatonic Scales Used?
As previously mentioned, the pentatonic scale consists of 5 different patterns. It’s important to note that these same 5 patterns are used for both major and minor pentatonic scales.
Like the difference between the major and minor scale, the only difference is the starting point of the scale itself.
Take a look at the diagrams given for pentatonic scales. You’ll see that both C major and A minor contains the same notes. Similarly, G major and E minor pentatonic consists of the same notes and shapes.
Once you become skilled in both major and minor pentatonic scales, you can actually use both within the same solo. This technique is often used in blues music. To use this effectively, try practicing them together.
I’ll give you a great exercise that you can use to practice the tonalities together. You’ll want to play one pattern of the minor pentatonic going up, then major pentatonic going down.
For this, I’ll use roman numerals to denote between the major and minor pentatonic scale patterns:
How Many Guitar Scales Are There?
There is a massive amount of scales. To put a number on it would have to be in the range of 20,000. The reason for this is that there are 12 different keys.
However, because each key has the same inherent patterns, you can learn a scale and apply it to every key. This makes learning scales seem not as daunting.
In addition to the major scale, minor scale, and pentatonic scales, there is also:
- Blues scales
- Chromatic scales
- Melodic Minor
- Harmonic Minor
- Whole-tone scales
- Diminished (Whole-Half) scales
- Half-Diminished scales
- Hexatonic (6-note) scales
- Heptatonic scales (7-note) scales
- Exotic scales (including Hungarian, Japanese, etc.)
- Hybrid scales
What Guitar Scales Should You Learn First?
Because of its effectiveness, you should really spend your time learning the major scale first. This is the fundamental scale from which every scale in the same key signature is derived.
Focus on one pattern at a time and then work on connecting the patterns in one whole piece. After you can do this efficiently, practice the same scale in a different key. Rinse and repeat.
Once you have the major scale down well, you should also work on the pentatonic scales. Minor pentatonic seems to be one of the more commonly taught scales at the beginning.
There is a good reason for this. The pentatonic scale consists of notes that are very similar to what someone would sing. This effectively makes your solos take on a melodic vocal quality.
The minor pentatonic is especially useful because it can be played over both major and minor keys. However, do not discount the major pentatonic, as it uses the same patterns.
You’ll hear the major pentatonic used frequently in country music. In the context of rock music, the major pentatonic has an Allman Brothers Band sound.
Another scale based from the pentatonic shape is the blues scale. This is essentially a minor pentatonic with an added flat 5th scale degree. When practicing, you’ll have a 3-note chromatic series within the pattern.
The natural minor scale is also worth getting under your belt. While it has many of the same notes as the minor pentatonic, you’ll have a couple extra for more options.
As you’ll have the major scale down, take some time to practice the modes. These use the same notes as the major scale, just with a different starting point.
All of these aforementioned scales will give you a seriously large toolkit to work with. Take your time to master these before learning other scales.
Once you do master these scales, the choice is yours where to go. One of the more popular choices would be the harmonic minor.
What Are Guitar Scales, Final Thoughts
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to learning about scales and why they are important. However, once it all clicks, you’ll laugh at yourself for ever feeling confused about the subject.
Take your time and have patience when learning new scales. You’ll be relying on them for far more than just running exercises. These scales contain the ingredients for excellent guitar solo phrases that you’ll use to define your own musical language.
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