In recent years, tutorials and videos on how to play scales on guitar have become increasingly popular. It is almost as if scales hold the key to musical secrets that only the pros have unlocked.
To a certain part, this IS true. What is more amazing, though, is that today, you can unlock these secrets, as well!
Are you simply confused by the countless types of minor and major patterns, or is the concept of scales completely new to you?
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What are guitar scales?
A common question beginners ask is what guitar scales are. Sometimes, even intermediate players are confused about the nature of guitar scales and how they relate to note choice, to chords and to playing music in general.
Let us start simply with a scale that is both the easiest scale to play and the most complex one at the same time. This scale is called the Chromatic Scale and it is made out of all the notes that you can play on a guitar, a trumpet or on a piano.
And just to clear up any possible confusion: no matter if you are playing classical guitar, electric guitar or acoustic guitar, you need the knowledge of scales and you will be able to use them on all of your instruments.
Now think about a guitar string.
Whatever string you pick, it plays a note. If you go up one fret at a time, you will eventually return to the first note you played, one octave higher. That is the chromatic scale.
And because the chromatic scale contains all 12 notes (starting from an open E string up till the 12th fret on the same string, for example), there exists only one singular chromatic scale. You can, of course, pick different starting points. You can consider the Chromatic scale the mother of all other scales.
Using the Chromatic scale is problematic, though, because we have a very high number of notes to choose from and a nearly infinite number of combinations to play melodies and harmonies.
That is why we choose a smaller number of notes and create smaller scales. Usually, we compose using scales with 5 or 7 notes, though there are exceptions.
By choosing a smaller number of notes, we are somewhat limiting ourselves, but we are making it easier to create a song. Each scale has a distinctive sound to it and even the starting note will affect how the other notes sound.
To make it a little bit more simple: Scales on guitar and scales in general are groups of notes that have a distinctive sound when played together or in succession.
This is why we often say that songs in a minor key like A Minor sound sad, while a song in C Major sounds happy.
If you have understood everything up until now, you can take a short break, but be ready, because in the next section, we will try to answer another important and common question regarding scales.
How many guitar scales are there and do you have to learn all of them?
This question is not easy to answer and the answer will depend on the perspective. Consider the last chapter: to create a scale, you are choosing notes from the Chromatic scale. As such, one might rightfully claim that as a musician, you have only one musical scale to master – the mother of musical scales.
But as with most things in life, mastering the Chromatic scale is much easier if you break it down into smaller parts – in this case, smaller scales containing 5 or 7 notes. Most pop and rock songs will utilize only one of these smaller scales, anyway, which means that by learning the smaller scales, you can already improvise over a lot of songs.
There are a few common scales that are used and that we will analyze: the Major Scale, the (Natural) Minor Scale, the Melodic Minor and the Harmonic Major Scales, as well as Major Pentatonic and Minor Pentatonic Scales.
All of these scales will have a slightly different sound depending on the note which you use as a basis for the scale (called the root note). This means that a C Major scale will sound slightly different from a G Major scale. But, any lick, riff or specific note sequence that you learn in C Major will sound equally good in G Major or any other major scale.
On the other hand, different scales with the same root note will sound different. A C Major scale will sound happy, while a C Minor scale will produce a sad sound.
As to whether you need to learn all of these scales, this will greatly depend on what kind of songs or music you are playing, but generally, you will have to have very good knowledge of the scales we have mentioned above, while more obscure scales can be omitted.
Why is it important to learn guitar scales?
There are numerous benefits to memorizing guitar scales. What benefits exactly apply to you will depend on your current skill level.
For beginners, choosing a favorite and easy scale can make writing songs easier as they will have fewer notes to play. Each scale also has specific chords that are tied to it, so by looking up online which chords go with which scale, beginners can learn which chords sound good together.
Advanced players can use scales to boost their technique, speed, dexterity and to play sick solos over almost any song. By memorizing different scales, great players can use different scales over the same chords to create very different and unique sounds.
You could achieve the same by simply randomly mashing notes, but the difference between professionals and amateurs is the control and the intentional use of notes when playing a specific solo.
But regardless of whether you are a beginner or a pro, there countless more benefits of learning to play scales on guitar: developing your ears, learning songs faster, reading music and understanding the structure of a song.
How to memorize, practice and master any scale on guitar?
There are two main ways to memorize a scale on guitar – memorizing the required notes and intervals (instrument independent) and memorizing a specific fingering and shape (in our case, on guitar).
A) Memorizing the required notes and intervals:
Every scale is made up of different intervals. You can remember a scale as a sequence of half- steps and whole-steps (semi-tones and whole-tones). An example: the Major Scale has the following pattern: You start on a root note, then you play whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
You can also remember a scale based on the very specific intervals: the Major scale will have a major third, major sixth and major seventh, while the Minor scale will have a minor third, minor sixth and minor seventh. Other scales will have a different combination of notes and intervals and slightly resemble the Major scale, the Minor scale or maybe look completely different from either one.
B) Using tabs to memorize shapes on guitar:
This method utilizes the visual representation of notes on a fretboard. You can either use guitar tabs or diagrams to memorize the scale. After that, you need some time practising, repeating and playing the notes. As an example can take a look at a shape of C Major first, but we will analyze it in more detail later on, so don’t worry about memorizing it right away:
When playing scales on the guitar, you must absolutely keep in mind the following two things:
A) Almost every note on the guitar can be played in more than one place, and every note can also be played in different octaves. Because of that, playing a scale is more than learning just a few basic shapes, although that is a starting point.
B) When playing scales, it is important to use the two-notes-per-string and three-notes-per-string patterns. This also means that you must use not just one finger that you move around, but you have to start using two, three and even all four fingers of your fretting hand to ply the notes.
Do not use only two fingers when playing three-notes-per-string patterns, for example, as this is a very bad technique.
We will take a closer look at these shapes right away as we are going to start with our top 6 most important scales on the guitar! If you want to re-visit a scale you have learned in the past or just skip a scale that you may already know, check out our preview:
6 MOST IMPORTANT GUITAR SCALES:
Pentatonic Scales: Minor Pentatonic And Major Pentatonic
Pentatonic scales are scales that consist out of 5 notes. Generally, you will use two-notes-per-string patterns to play these scales.
While there are many possible combinations for creating pentatonic scales, the two most important ones are the Minor Pentatonic Scale and the Major Pentatonic Scale, used in almost all genres of music.
1) Minor Pentatonic Scale
The first scale you want to learn is the Minor Pentatonic Scale. This scale is used in almost all forms of music and is also a basis for bigger scales with more notes. No matter if blues, rock, funk, metal, punk or jazz, you need the Minor Pentatonic scale.
From the name, we can see the following:
A) As we have learned, a scale is a group of notes that we use to make melodies, solos and other musical stuff;
B) Minor means we are playing an interval called the Minor Third, which is 3 semi-tones higher than our root note. This is our basis for minor chords and all minor scales.
C) Pentatonic means we only have 5 different notes to play with.
We will start with A as our root note. After playing an A note, we will try to find and play the following notes: A, C, D, E and G. Should be easy enough as you have some of these notes as open strings as well.
But how should it sound and where should you play them? Here is a quick video that you can use as a starting point.
You can move the scale shape up and down to play different scales. By starting on a G note, for example, you can play G Minor Pentatonic. But at first, focus on mastering only A Minor Pentatonic as you will later be able to move the shape around anyway.
Here is a tab that will help you visualize and remember where the notes are. Start off with the first shape shown in the video, but also try to add notes that are not presented thereby moving your hand to the left and the right.
2) The Major Pentatonic Scale
The Major Pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale used in blues, rock and country solos. Let us take a look at the name and what it means.
Major refers to the interval of the Major third and to the Major Chord. That means that the C Major Pentatonic Scale will work with a C Major chord and songs in the key of C Major. The Major third interval is the basis of any major scale and the “happy” sound that major scales create.
Pentatonic means that this scale has a total of 5 different notes that repeat all over the fretboard.
Here is a fun fact: C Major Pentatonic uses the same note as A Minor Pentatonic – the scale we just learned! So what is the difference? It is the chords used in the background and the notes that we focus on most of the time. So, starting with C, we have C, D, E, G and A.
Think of it as twin siblings, but one of them is a pessimist, while the other one is an optimist. They look the same, but they sound very different. Let’s listen to the sound of this scale before we start playing it:
Now we can try playing C Major Pentatonic. You should find this exercise to not be very hard if you take it one step at a time. It will also be a great basis for all future major scale variations.
You can, of course, play this scale with different root notes, so start with C and work until you can play it in all 12 keys. Here are some basic shapes to help you practice, with the C note as the root marked in red.
The Blues Scale, The Minor Blues And The Major Blues
Hexatonic Scales consist out of six notes – the half of the total number of notes.
While you could create a lot of different scales with six notes, only one is really important for guitarists of all levels – namely the Blues Scale.
The Blues Scale is a hexatonic scale that is an expanded version of the pentatonic scales presented earlier. It has an additional note compared to the previous scales and it has a unique feature of mixing minor traits with major traits.
3) Minor Blues Scales
4) Major Blues Scales
Sometimes you will hear the names Minor Blues and Major Blues scale. This is not exactly wrong, but the Blues Scale should be viewed as one scale that combines major and minor because that is the way by which you are getting out the unique sound found in blues and older rock genres.
You can view this scale in two ways:
1) Take the shape and notes of the Pentatonic Minor Scale and add the tritone of the root note (the tritone interval is the interval between the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth, also know as the augmented fourth or diminished fifth interval). In A Minor Pentatonic, we now have the added note D#, alongside the notes A, C, D, E and G;
2) If you take a Major Pentatonic Scale, you can create the Blues Scale by adding in the Minor Third alongside the Major Third interval. In C Major Pentatonic, which is the relative major of A Minor Pentatonic, you would also get the additional note D#.
This shape opens up a few new possibilities. You can play chromatic runs by playing the three semi-tones in a row, you can create a few augmented chords and you can add more tension to your solos. The additional note gives your chord a little flavor. It sounds a bit wonkier and almost wrong, but if used correctly, it creates a very emotional tone.
This is a great scale to practice finger independence and you will need it for more advanced solos. For the first time, you are forced to use a three-note-per-string pattern alongside the previous two-notes pattern. This will be a great basis for our next scales.
But before that, make sure to practice this scale. We will mark not just the root, but also the added note, called the Blue Note, for your convenience.
Heptatonic Scales: The Natural Minor Scale and the Natural Major Scale
Heptatonic scales are our most important scales because they contain the pentatonic scales within themselves, but have an additional two notes that are used to create a total of 7 chords. The chords are used in creating arpeggios, melodies and harmonies.
5) The Natural Minor Scale
The Natural Minor Scale, commonly just called the Minor Scale, is one of the most important scales in Western music. It is used in classical, pop, rock, funk and disco music, but in almost any other genre, as well. It even better expresses sad emotions than the pentatonic minor scale.
It is also known as the Aeolian Mode, which we will explain at the end of our article.
Heptatonic scales have a total of 7 notes. A Minor has the 5 notes of A Pentatonic Minor, but also an additional two notes – a Major Second interval and a Minor Sixth interval. This brings us to a total of seven different pitches: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
You can create all basic chords for this scale by skipping one note at a time and getting a total of 3 notes. For example, by playing A, C and E, you get an A Minor Chord, while playing D, F and A results in a D Minor Chord.
But, of course, you can work in reverse. If a song has the chords A Minor (consisting of notes A, C and E) and an F Major chord (consisting of an F, an A and a C note), you can be fairly sure that the A Minor Scale is a good choice for soloing over it.
This scale uses what is called three-notes-per-string patterns. You should get used to playing three different notes on each string while practising on this scale. On very high frets, playing four notes per string becomes possible, as well.
Keep in mind that you should memorize the shape of the scale while practising it. You can move the shape around to get other variations of this scale, like G Minor or E Minor. We use A Minor for our practice only because it is easy to compare it to previous scales and because we can start on the 5th Fret, which is a fairly comfortable position.
6) Natural Major Scale
The last scale that we are going to analyze is the Major Scale. As with the pentatonic scales, each Minor Scale has a relative Major Scale and vice versa. This scale is also called the Ionian Mode.
Just like with the last scale, the Major Scale consists of 7 different notes. If we take C as our root note, we will have to play the intervals of a major second, a major third, a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth, and lastly a major sixth and a major seventh.
With these intervals, we get a scale that goes like this: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C. As you can see, we again have the same notes as in A Minor, but this time, the root is C. A song in C major will have the chords C, F and G, and maybe go to an A Minor chord once in a while.
Because of this, the C Major scale sound happier. Remember our last example with twins? Well, the pentatonic scale twins have grown up and gained a few more notes. They are still the grumpy and the jolly pair of scales, but instead of 5 notes, they are 7 notes big. Pretty exciting, isn’t it?
The C Major scale is possibly the most famous scale there is, but that doesn’t mean it is less valuable. And once you have mastered the C major scale, you will be able to play E major, G major and all the others, as well.
So, once you are able to play this scale, you will be able to play solos over almost any song written in a C Major key. This scale will also use the three-notes-per-string-technique, which also means that you should be able to use at least three fingers to fret those notes.
This scale will conclude our main part of the article, but keep on reading to see how you can improve your scale knowledge even further!
Are there any other guitar scales to learn?
By mastering the scales that we have talked about, you will have already made a huge step towards becoming a guitar master. Most pop, rock, blues and even a good chunk of classical music will use only these few scales.
First of all, every scale you learn has a trait that it can be started from any note, not just the first one. The first note will be your main focus of the scale and because of that, it will influence the remaining chords and the sound of the rest of the notes.
It is as if you had a cake with many different layers that have a different taste – the order of the layers will affect the final taste, even if the same layers are used.
Because of this, you have 7 different modes of the Major Scale. C major and A Major, also known as Ionian and Aeolian mode, are just two of the 7. The Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian modes will start on the D, E, F, G and B notes, respectively.
This means that C Major (or C Ionian) will have the same notes as D Dorian or as E Phrygian, but all of them will have a different focus note and sound.
Then there are scales that are built on the basis of the Minor scale. By raising the 7th scale degree of Natural Minor, you get Harmonic minor; then, by raising the 6th degree of that scale, you can get Melodic Minor.
Harmonic Minor is used often in classical music and Neo- Classical metal, while Melodic Minor is sometimes used in classical music, but also in jazz. These two scales also have 7 different modes each, and their harmonical structure is much different than that of the natural scales.
Sometimes you will find octatonic scales, but more often than not, they are just a combination of notes from the scales we already reviewed. For example, you could add the tritone (the blue note) to a natural minor scale.
It is more practical to consider this kind of technique a borrowing of notes from other scales while keeping the basic scale in mind.
Next, of we have the Whole-Note Scale and the Altered Scale. These two scales use constant intervals and they have some very unique sounds. These scales are seldom used throughout a whole composition. They are more often used as short passages or connecting lines when changing scales in a composition.
Finally, we have some weird and obscure scales like the Hungarian Minor Scale and the Enigmatic Scale. These scales are used rarely in popular music.
The Hungarian Minor is sometimes heard in certain folk and traditional compositions, while the Enigmatic Scale is more of a theoretical challenge than a very useful compositional tool. Maybe, in the future, these scales will become more popular and maybe you can try them out for yourself.
CONCLUSION: Where to go from now on?
You should definitely make sure to spend a lot of time with the basic scales before moving to more complex ones. There simply is no reason to learn things like the Enigmatic Scale if you don’t understand the basics of the Pentatonic Minor or Blues Scale.
Make sure that you are able to play each scale in different modes, different positions on the neck and all over the 6 strings. Also, make sure that you can use many different fingerings for the same scale.
By using websites, you can always try to find chords that fit into a scale. Make sure to practice arpeggios based on those chords and make sure that you are not just playing ascending and descending runs, but also alternate the order of your notes, use bending and be brave enough to make some bigger jumps.
Finally, make sure to rely on your ear and use it as your main tool. Simply playing fast is not musical. On the other hand, your technique is important as well. No matter how melodic your solos are, if you want to produce unique melodies, you need a good and solid technique, which also means that you need to practice legato and fast arpeggios.
We hope that this guide has helped you gain a basic overview of the numerous scales out there. If you are still having problems with the scale, you might want to use the principles of the ACE method, but apply them to learning scales.
Mastering even the basic scales will require some time, but everybody can do it. Make sure to keep on practising and you will become a great player and composer before you know it.
Tell us in the comments below what your favortie scale or mode is. And if you have any questions, make sure to post those, as well! Till next time!