I have to admit, guitar scales are not exactly the most exciting thing about learning to play guitar. But they do play an incredibly important role in providing a foundation for virtually all chords and lead guitar playing. Just about every epic guitar solo you’ve ever heard is based on a scale, so just remember, if it was important to your favorite guitarist, then it should be important to you too.
This blog will explain the basics of musical scales as they apply to the guitar:
- What is a guitar scale?
- What is the right way to practice guitar scales?
- What are the benefits of learning guitar scales?
- What is the difference between major and minor scales?
- What is a guitar scale box?
- What are pentatonic and blues scales?
- What is a moveable guitar scale pattern?
What are Guitar Scales?
Let’s start at the beginning. Like the rungs of a ladder, a scale is simply a series of musical steps between two musical end points. The two end points are the same letter note but in a different octave. If you’ve read my article on beginning music theory, you’ll remember that there are 12 notes in an octave. So if we start with a C note, the 12 notes that exist before you arrive at the next C note are as follows:
* This repeating C note is the first note of the next higher octave.
The name of any scale includes the letter name of a note, and that note is called the root note. For example, the C Major scale starts and ends with a C note, and the C note is also considered the root note. After playing the first lower C note, a guitarist could play every note between the two musical end points, and in the example above it would be all 12 of the notes up until the next upper C. But that’s not particularly musical.
Different patterns of notes that do sound musical is what scales are really about. A C Major scale consists of the following 8 notes within a single octave:
One way to play a one-octave C Major scale on a guitar is to start on the 3rdfret of the 5thstring, as shown on the fretboard diagram and music/tab staffs below. By the way, if you need a refresher on how to read standard music notation and/or guitar tablature notation, check out my articles on those subjects.
How to Practice Playing Guitar Scales
Guitarists often start out learning scales by practicing the C Major scale. It is the simplest scale in the sense that it does not contain any sharps or flats. But trust me, once you’ve mastered this scale, you’ll be ready to move onto the next phase of learning scales.
Start out playing slowly to ensure that each note rings out with clarity. Always remember that it is much more important to play something correctly than to play it quickly. Each time you practice a scale, start from the low root note and work your way up in pitch. When you’ve reached the highest note, turn around and play the notes in descending order of pitch.
Once you’re able to comfortably go “up and down” this scale easily with all of the notes ringing out clearly with no buzzing, then you can slowly increase your speed. But remember, it is important to only increase your speed as much as you can continue to play clearly. Playing lightning fast with a bunch of buzzing and hissing sounds is not good for anyone playing or anyone listening!
What are the Benefits of Learning Guitar Scales?
Like I stated at the beginning of this blog, you’re not going to get any friends or audiences too excited because you can play a few scales. But what scales lack in flashiness, they make up for in both short-term and long-term benefits as a guitar player. Here are four solid reasons why learning and practicing scales will benefit any guitar player:
- Ear Training – Once you learn a handful of scales, especially at different positions along the fretboard, you will soon be able to recognize how each note corresponds to a different location on the guitar’s fretboard. This will help you down the road when you’re learning to play songs or even writing new songs of your own.
- Finger Strength – The repetitive motion of your hands and fingers playing scales forward and backward will help to increase the dexterity and strength in your fingers. You will simply become more comfortable holding and playing your guitar.
- Picking Speed – As you’re able to improve your fretting hand’s ability to quickly find the right notes to play, you’ll also increase the speed with which you can maneuver your pick to play the right strings in a proper tempo. This will come in handy whenever you’re trying to master that challenging solo that once seemed out of your reach.
- Chord Mastery – The more scales you learn, the more easily you’ll be able to understand why certain notes belong in different chords. After all, chords are constructed using the same notes that are in a given scale. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to figure out chords on your own without even having to memorize the finger patterns you read in a book.
What is the Difference Between Major and Minor Scales?
The major scale is the basis from which all other musical scales are derived. Like many musical scales, it contains eight notes and the first and eighth notes are always the same (the root note). As in the example above, the C Major scale starts with a C note and ends with a C note at the next higher octave. The word ‘octave’ is from the Latin word ‘octavus’ which means “eighth”. Just like an octagon that has eight sides!
The concept of half step and whole step intervals from my article on music theory basics is central to how scales are formed. The sequence of intervals between the notes of any major scale is: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Many times, this is written in short-hand as: W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
The image below depicts how the C Major scale is played on a piano, and hopefully you can see how the interval pattern for a C Major scale is revealed. I’ll give you a reminder/hint: half step intervals involve moving ahead one key on the piano, whole step intervals involve moving ahead two keys (remembering to count the black keys along the way). The component pitches of a C Major scale are: C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
To play a D Major scale, the same interval sequence applies, but now you can see that you need to include some of the sharps and flats, which on a piano are represented by the black keys. The component pitches of a D Major scale are: D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C#.
Minor scales (more specifically, natural minor scales) differ in both their interval sequence and the “mood” of the tones they produce. Minor chords are often described as sounding darker, or even sadder, when compared to major scales. In terms of musical intervals, the pattern for minor scales adheres to the following sequence: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. In musical short-hand this is written as: W, H, W, W, H, W, W.
The image below depicts how a C Minor scale is played on a piano. The component pitches of a C Minor scale are: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab and Bb. Did you notice how I used sharps in the D Major scale and flats are used in the C Minor scale? This is to ensure that each alphabet letter is represented in the scale. Otherwise, the C Minor scale would be written as C, D, D#, F, G, G#, A# and that just doesn’t make sense to most musicians.
By now you might be wondering if I changed my mind and decided to write a piano blog instead of a guitar blog. Well don’t’ worry because I’m definitely sticking with guitars. But showing how the interval sequences apply to scales is just way easier on a piano and something that just about any person can relate to. So how does all of this scale stuff work on a guitar? I’m glad you asked…. 🙂
Guitar Scales – Boxes and Chord Charts
If you’re not familiar with chord charts, take a look at my article that explains how they work and why they are so useful. This is really, really important not just for learning how to play chords, but also for learning scales. Chord charts are how guitarists visually show how a bunch of notes should be played on your guitar’s fretboard. Like guitar tablature notation, they don’t tell you which notes to play, but they tell you where to put your fingers and which strings to play.
A single-octave C Major scale represented in a chord chart format is shown below. In this example, I’ve also included the names of the notes for reference. And the two C notes in blue are meant to highlight the root notes.
Now imagine we wanted to continue playing the scale in both directions. In other words, continue playing the next sequence of notes before/below the first C note and after/above last C note. Filling out the rest of the chord chart from above would now look like this:
The image above is a version of what is known as a scale box. Scale boxes are formatted very similarly to chord charts, except they don’t usually tell you which fret to play. In other words, the top horizontal line in the image above, which represents the guitar’s nut, is usually shown as a “regular” horizontal line. The purpose of this is to communicate that guitar scale boxes can be played anywhere along the fretboard. More on that a little later….
The guitar fretboard has room for 5 different boxes, but for the purpose of this introductory article, I’m only going to focus on the first one. To make matters just a little more complicated, there are unique sets of boxes for both major and minor scales. And believe it or not, there are a lot of professional guitarists who have made a pretty solid living out of just knowing Box 1. Let’s have a look at each one. Note that the circles with the letter R inside represent root notes of the scale.
The Really Good Stuff – Pentatonic and Blues Scales
While the major and minor scales are pillars of music theory, guitarists have learned to simplify them without taking away any of their musicality. The abridged versions are called pentatonic scales, and if you think that the simplified scale has only five notes, you’d be correct! The latin word ‘penta’ means five (like a 5-sided pentagon). Below are scale boxes for Box 1 of the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales.
While the major pentatonic scale is popular in all kinds of music, it is the minor pentatonic scale that is the foundation of almost all rock and blues lead guitar. And trust me, you can get tons of mileage from knowing this one simple scale.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: If you only ever learn one scale in your entire guitar life, the Minor Pentatonic Scale is the one to learn!
There is one more scale that I must share with you because it has such a history in early rock ‘n roll music and is still extremely popular today. It is a very close relative of the Minor Pentatonic Scale and despite its name, it sounds great in just about any musical genre. It’s called the Blues Scale and all it does is add an extra note to the Minor Pentatonic Scale. Any guesses on what this extra note is called? It is famously known as the ‘blue note’ because of the extra cool and dark tone that results from its inclusion. Each octave in the scale box below includes a highlighted blue note.
Guitar Scales – Moveable Scale Patterns
One of the great things about learning scale boxes is that any box is moveable anywhere along the length of the fretboard. This flexibility is largely why learning only Box 1 scales is sufficient for so many guitarists. Remembering that all scales are named for their root note, you can literally play any scale just by sliding your fretting hand up or down the fretboard, changing the root note, and thereby the name of the scale! And because the first root note that you play on the low E string aligns with the name of the scale, wherever you begin the scale, is what dictates the tonality of the scale. Below is an example to make the point more clear:
The small number written to the left of the low E string indicates the fret number where the scale begins. Because the fifth fret of the low E string is a A, if you start on the fifth fret, you’re playing an A Minor Pentatonic Scale. Move your hand up two more frets to number 7, and you’re automatically playing a B Minor Pentatonic Scale. Of course, the same rules apply to both Major and Blues Scales as well.
If you’ve made it to the end of this blog, congratulations! You are now equipped with some sound knowledge of musical scales and how they apply to a guitar. With regular practice of guitar scales, you’ll be able to learn chords and lead solos much quicker. Good luck!