Scales are an important building block of music that every guitarist should know. And I’m sure you’ve heard that you need to know them. This is both and easier task than it sounds like, and a harder one. Let me give you a quick overview of guitar scales. Both common ones and a few more esoteric.
Let’s start with what a scale actually is. A scale is simply a set of notes that we’ll use to write a piece of music with. Think of it like a painter’s palate. The painter has his blue, green, red, black, white, etc… and he’ll throw those at the canvas and create a painting. A scale is out palate of colors and we’ll throw them at the page and instrument to create a piece of music.
So with 12 notes in our chromatic scale, how many different scales do you think we can come up with? A zillion? Yeah. That’s the tough part. There are a ton of scales.
The easy part? You don’t have to learn them all. At least not all at once. In this article, I’m going to run down a lot of the more common scales, but you shouldn’t try to learn them all at once. Get comfortable with them one at a time and then return to learn a couple more. This page will always be here for you to come back to.
What does getting comfortable with the scale mean? You should be able to play it in two positions and you should spend at least a week improvising with it before adding a new scale.
Your task here is NOT to learn a bunch of crazy names and and the formula for every single scale. It’s more important to know how they related to one another. What you’ll see is we end up a bunch of wacky names for the same set of notes in a slightly different order.
The first few (Major, the different Minors, Pentatonics, and the Modal scales) are commonly used. After that it gets more esoteric.
I’m assuming here that you know how to find specific notes on your fretboard. If not, check out this article first. Being that this article is just on the different kinds of scales and their basic construction, I won’t be giving specific fretboard patterns. If you can find the notes on the fretboard, you’ll find the patterns. That will also be the subject of an upcoming article.
Scales are built from a series of half steps (one fret movement) and whole steps (two frets movement). In other words, once you have the formula for a major scale, you can apply the same pattern of whole steps and half steps, starting from any note, and you’ll end up with a major scale in that key.
The Major Scale:
The major scale is really the only one you need the whole/half formula for. The rest of the scales are variations on the same idea.
Major scale formula: w w h w w w h
So starting from C, that would give us C D E F G A B C – All whole steps, except for the half steps between E&F and B&C.
What would that look like if we start from G? G A B C D E F# G
Or Eb? Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
A good way to start is by playing the formula of half and whole steps straight up one string. Once you’ve got the notes figured out, then you can find a pattern that uses all the strings, across the fretboard.
The natural minor has exactly the same notes as your major scale, but starts from the 6th scale degre (ie. 6th note in the scale). This is what we call the “relative” minor. That means it has all the same notes, but a different starting note (also called the ‘tonic’).
So if a C major scale is: C D E F G A B C
Then A natural minor is A B C D E F G A
The Harmonic Minor:
Because the Natural Minor creates a minor V chord (see this article on chord theory if you don’t know what that means), the brains behind this system decided to alter the scale so it creates a major V chord. The Harmonic Minor scale sharps the 7th scale degree of the Natural.
A Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G# A
The Melodic Minor:
The problem our musical forefather saw in the Harmonic Minor scale is the large awkward jump between the 6th and 7th notes. So they decided to fix that too by sharping both the 6th and 7th scale degrees. However that also creates an awkward sound when you hit the minor 3rd in the descending version of the scale. So a true melodic minor uses the sharp 6 and 7 going up, but returns to the natural minor going down.
A Melodic Minor: A B C D E F# G# A G F E D C B A
As music entered the Jazz Age, improvisation started to become a big part of playing music. When they encountered the Melodic Minor with its differing versions based on ascending and descending, they decided that was great when composing with quill and parchment. Not so hot when you’re blowing on the bandstand. So Jazz Minor is simply the Melodic Minor with the sharp 6 and 7 in both directions.
A Jazz Minor: A b C D E F# G# A G# F# E D C B A
Up until now we’ve dealt with septatonic (7-note) scales. Pentatonics have just 5 notes. The major pentatonic is simply the regular major scale with the 2nd and 7th notes removed.
C Major Pentatonic: C D E G A C
The minor pentatonic does the same as before, starting on the relative minor (the 6th scale degree) IF all the notes were there.
A Minor Pentatonic: A C D E G A
Now, you can get a lot of mileage out of just what we’ve gone over so far. Be sure to spend time with each of those scales individually to see what they can do.
If you take a look at that relative major/minor idea again, we took the same set of notes and either started on the 1 (for major) or 6 (for minor). So what’s to say we can’t start on any of those other notes and have a valid, useable scale. In fact, we can. Those are called Modal Scales.
Modal scales go back to ancient Greek music and have a bunch of crazy names. If you want to get deep into the history and theory, check out the Wikipedia page. It’s some serious Egghead music theory stuff. But you don’t need to know all that to make these work.
Essentially, if we take the notes of our major scale and start on a different note each time, we get a new mode with its own unique tonality.
C Ionian (aka Major): C D E F G A B C
D Dorian: D E F G A B C D
E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E
F Lydian: F G A B C D E F
G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G
A Aeolian (aka Natural Minor): A B C D E F G A
B Locrian: B C D E F G A B
You can see that’s it’s the same notes every time, just with that different starting point (tonic). That means you can use all the same patterns you learned for major scales and just highlight different notes to get these modal sounds.
So can we do that with the other scales too? Create modes off the Harmonic and Melodic Minor Scales? You betcha. Ready for more crazy names?
It gets pretty esoteric here, so don’t worry about learning these if they intimidate you right now. You won’t be using them all that often.
Modes of the Harmonic Minor:
There are a few different names for some of these. But these are the common ones.
A Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G# A
B Locrian #6: B C D E F G# A B
C Ionian Augmented: C D E F G# A B C
D Romania: D E F G# A B C D
E Phrygian Dominant: E F G# A B C D E
F Lydian #2: F G# A B C D E F
G# Ultralocrian: G# A B C D E F G#
Modes of the Melodic Minor:
Again, same set of notes as the regular Melodic Minor just with a different starting note. The names here are even less standardized.
A Melodic Minor: A B C D E F# G# A
B Dorian b2: B C D E F# G# A B
C Lydian #5: C D E F# G# A B C
D Lydian b7: D E F# G# A B C D
E Mixolydian b6: E F# G# A B C D E
F# Locrian #2: F# G# A B C D E F#
G# Super Locrian: G# A B C D E F# G#
I don’t about you, but I really want the Super Locrian to come with a cape.
What if we had a scale that was just half steps? That’s a 12 note Chromatic Scale. Same notes no matter where you begin because we’re using all of them.
Chromatic Scale: C C# D E F F# G G# A A# B C
Whole Tone Scale:
And if we can do that, what if we had one that was all whole steps?
C Whole Tone: C D E F# G# A# C
You’ll notice there are only six notes in that scale.
Octatonic (Diminished) Scale:
This is an 8 note scale that alternates half steps and whole steps.
Half/Whole: C Db Eb Fb Gb Abb Bbb Cbb C
Whole/Half: C D Eb F Gb Ab Bbb Cb C
What I want you to get out of this is that we can create a ton of different scales with all sorts of crazy names with very few tools. It’s either taking the same set of notes and using a different starting point, or playing with the combinations of half steps and whole steps.
There are more exotic scales out there. If you want to dig deeper into those, I recommend the book Monster Scales And Modes: By Dave Celentano.
It’s useless just learning a bunch of scales and their names if you don’t know how to use them. You should look at what kinds of chords are built off of those scales. Check out this article for some ideas on doing that.
And, of course, you want to make them musical. See if you can create interesting melodies with these scales. If a particular one doesn’t appeal to your ear, you don’t have to use it.
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