Guitar Scales | The Complete Guide
Understanding guitar scales + Scales Chart Pdf + Scale Finder Tool
This tutorial will teach all you need to know about how to play scales on the guitar . After learning strumming chords, the most common step for beginners is to begin practicing single note melodies , and knowing your guitar scales is a huge help for this task.
Moreover, playing scales up and down the neck is a great exercise to gain left-hand agility , and to get familiar with your fretboard.
So let's begin! At first, we're going to understand what a scale exactly is , then we'll see the most common guitar scales that you must know, and then we'll list (almost) all the types of guitar scales existing in music.
I've recorded a video that shows you how to play the most common scales:
What is a scale
Scales are not the same as chords. Chords are built of notes made from scales. When we practice scales initially, we play them one note at a time, unlike a chord. They really are a necessity though if you want to advance musically, even if you just learn a few basic scales.
We can consider a scale as a way to go from one note (say C) to the same note one octave upper .
Let's see this example on the guitar: take the C note at the 3rd fret of the A string , and the C one octave upper, at the 15th fret of the same string.
A scale is a way to go from one note to the same note one octave upper
If you count the number of the frets between the lower C and the higher C, you get 12. So an octave spans 12 frets .
We have multiple ways to go from the lower C to the upper. We could play the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 15th frets, or play only the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 11th, 15th, or even play all the frets between the two C.
Of course, this holds true for ascending and descending both (from the lower C to the upper and from the upper to the lower)
The relationship between each fret generates the scale structure and thus its name. We can construct scales of all of the types: major, minor, pentatonic, harmonic minor, Whole-tone , Augmented , Lydian, Dorian, and so forth (there is even a Neapolitan scale). Each scale type has its own unique combination of distances between the frets in the octave.
Usually, there are eight notes to each scale within a one octave range.
Considering that the scale doesn’t change with an octave change we don’t need to repeat it past 8 notes.
A C scale will always end and start on a C, and the same for each successive note.
How To Read Scales Diagrams
Playing scales horizontally, on one single string, is a great way to visualize and understand the structures, but is impractical when it comes to making music, so usually, we use patterns that use all the strings.
Let's see how to read the scale diagrams that you'll find in this article. Have a look at the diagrams below, that shows you the C major scale
- The top line is always the first thinnest string, and the bottom line is the sixth and thickest.
- The diagrams show you the fretboard with the same point of view of a guitar player that is looking at the instrument.
- The colors of the note identify their degree (distance) from the root.
- The root is always in yellow.
- You must play one note at a time
Often, on the Internet, you'll find scale tabs. Tabs are of course far more popular than actually reading music because they use specific fret numbers of what to play. Even better is if your fretboard diagrams or tabs come with finger patterns, as in exactly which fingering pattern is best while playing.
Scale Patterns are Movable!
Did you notice that the C major scale pattern above is just four frets? We call these shapes box patterns, usually, they span 4, 5 or 6 frets. The reason why guitarists prefer to play scales along these box patterns is that the motion if more efficient: 1 finger for each fret (we're going to see this topic in the following)
The great thing about a guitar scales box is that it will work anywhere you place it on the guitar as long as you follow the pattern. Each scale type has a specific box pattern which can be shifted to other keys. So, for example, if we want to play a D major scale , we move up the C scale pattern by two frets. Want an F major scale? Move the C pattern up by 5 frets!
To play the F major scale, we move the C major scale pattern five frets up, so that the root of the pattern (yellow note) is F
If you want to understand better how and why the frets are placed across the strings, have a look at the guitar notes tutorial .
Major Scale Fretboard Patterns
The most common and first scale to learn is the major scale. This very popular scale has the formula WWHWWWH , where the W equals a whole step (2 frets), and the H equals a half step (1 fret).
On a guitar, each fret is a half step away from the next, just as each piano key is also a half step apart. By taking the C note and applying this formula of whole and half steps we can find the C major scale;
C D E F G A B C
With this formula, you can find any major scale by just starting at the first or root note and counting each half or whole step.
C major scale pattern, 1 octave, root on the 5th string
C major scale pattern, 1 octave, root on the 3rd string
C major scale pattern, 2 octaves, root on the E low string
There are other possible patterns for the major scale, below in the article, you'll learn how to find them.
Major Pentatonic Scale Patterns
Not all scales will be eight notes long, in popular music you will often see the pentatonic scale , which is only five notes . Pentatonic scales were very popular among ancient civilizations across the globe.
They may be only five-note scales, but they are musically very powerful. To find the major pentatonic scale we use 1, 2, 3, 5, 6. of the C major scale;
C D E G A
C major pentatonic scale pattern, 1 octave, root on the 5th string
C major pentatonic scale pattern, 1 octave, root on the 3rd string
C major pentatonic scale pattern, 2 octaves, root on the E low string
Another important group of scales is the Minor Scale. We can have different types of Minor Scales, let's see together:
Natural Minor Scale
Now to make a natural minor scale we use the formula WHWWHWW. If we start from the A, we get the A minor scale
A B C D E F G A
The surprising thing is that the notes of the A minor scale are the same as the C major scale, but they are layed out in different order.
As previously said, the type of a scale (and then its sound) is determined by the distance between its notes.
A Natural Minor Scale on one single string
A Natural Minor Scale Guitar Pattern with root on the E lowest string
Why did we start from A?
Because A is the relative minor of C
The relative minor is taken from the sixth note of the major scale.
If we want to find the relative minor of any major scale, we can do that simply by count six notes from the root of the major scale (C D E F G A), or by looking at the Circle of Fifths .
Harmonic Minor Scale
The formula for the harmonic minor is WHWWH3H , that 3 in there represents three half steps (or 3 frets) until the next note in the scale.
If this is applied to every note, we will get the corresponding harmonic minor scale. A harmonic minor will be;
A B C D E F G# A
A Harmonic Minor Scale on one single string
A Harmonic Minor Scale with root on the E lowest string
Melodic Minor Scale
Another common minor scale is the melodic minor, with the formula WHWWWWH . The A melodic minor is:
A B C D E F# G# A
A Melodic Minor Scale on one single string
A Melodic Minor Scale with root on the E lowest string
Pentatonic Minor Scale
As you would expect, there is also a pentatonic minor scale, the formula being 1, 3, 4, 5, 7.
Here's a popular 4 frets box:
A Minor Pentatonic 4 Frets Pattern
Pentatonic Blues Minor Scale
The Blues Scale is simply the Minor Pentatonic Scale with one more note: the diminished fifth (6 frets from the root). This note gives to the scale the Blues feeling that we all know.
The formula is: 1, 3, 4, b5, 5, 7
A Minor Blues Scale
One way to advance in scales and keep it musically interesting is knowing your modal scales and how they are used.
It is important to state from the very beginning that modes are also scales, they just happen to be specific scales with separate names.
The key signature will determine which eight notes the scale will have. Modes are simply specific scales as they relate to the original root or tonic note.
This video below shows you how to play the 7 modal scales generated from the key of C
The first and easiest mode is the Ionian mode, which is simply the major scale.
C Ionian C D E F G A B C
Ionian songs are mostly upbeat like “Down on the Corner”, “Ode to Joy”, and “Beast of Burden”.
The second mode is called Dorian and it begins on the second note D.
D E F G A B C D
Now it may seem like this simple change wouldn’t amount to much but changing the tonal center from C to D gives it a minor sound. Songs in Dorian mode “ Eleanor Rigby ”, “ Riders on the Storm ”, and “ Another Brick in the Wall ” have sadness or melancholy type feel.
The next mode is Phrygian which starts on the third note of the scale E.
E F G A B C D E
It is very similar to the Aeolian mode but with a lowered second. Jazz and film scores are common users of Phrygian modes. The opening music to Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is a great example of Phrygian.
The fourth mode on the note F is Lydian.
F G A B C D E F
This mode is known as the cartoon scale as found in animation or video game soundtracks. The Simpsons theme is in Lydian mode.
The fifth mode is known as the Mixolydian and starts on G.
G A B C D E F G
Many popular tunes are in this mode, this is a scale you will hear often. Songs like “ Royals ”, “ Hey Jude ”, “ Sweet Home Alabama ”, and many more belong in Mixolydian.
The sixth mode is Aeolian or as we learned above with the natural minor scale.
A B C D E F G A
This is another mode that is very common in popular music. Songs like “ Rhiannon ”, “ Losing My Religion ”, “ You Give Love a Bad Name ”. As a minor scale it usually has a sad feel to it.
The final and seventh mode is Locrian. Starting on the final note of the scale B.
B C D E F G A B
This mode is rarely used and often argued about. It is fun to google Locrian mode songs and then read how people are wrong and it is not TRUE Locrian. This will not be a scale you will use often.
Tool To Understand Modal Scales
Here is another tool to help with modes on your fretboard . Having just this simple guitar scale primer has made it so you can practice your scales, know how to identify music by its mode, and even potentially create your own masterpieces .
How To Play Scales On Guitar
There are different ways to play scales on the guitar. Due to the nature of the fretboard, we have multiple options for going from one note to the upper octave.
We could use only one string, moving our fretting hand horizontally, our we could use all of the strings. There are 3 popular fingering types that you should know:
4 Notes Boxes
This is the common method for beginners when first learning to play scales. There are four frets for each finger, keeping your scale in a nice box already to play without much hand movement.
Each finger frets the notes on the nearest fret (for example, index finger on fret 1, middle finger on fret 2, ring on fret 3, and the pinky on fret 4)
3 Notes Per Strings
This is a way of playing scale often used by shredders and heavy metal guitar players. Basically, your fingerings have exactly 3 notes per string: this is useful for high-speed alternate picking and legato.
The picking patterns are equal on all the strings (down, up, down, next string and repeat) and this allows very efficient motion .
When you play with legato , you pick only the first note on each string; again this is efficient.
C major scale 3 notes per string pattern
Horizontally, on 1 single string
Scales boxes and patterns are useful, but when you'll advance in your guitar studies y ou could feel yourself trapped in these fixed schemes.
Playing scales horizontally, on one single string, allows you to gain more fretboard navigation freedom .
2 Further Resources To Deepen Your Guitar Scales Knowledge
Scale Finder Tool
To experiment with scales, fingerings, and keys, try our Guitar Scales Finder.
It's a free interactive tool that will help you learn you more than a hundred scales patterns. It's also available for left-handed guitar players , bass, ukulele and alternate tunings.
Guitar Scales Pdf Ebook
All types of guitar scales: Names and Formula
For your convenience, here below, you find a complete list of (almost) all the types of guitar scales and arpeggios (exotic scales included) .
This kind of visualization helps you understand the whole-steps and half-steps structure of a scale.
One exercise useful to memorize and internalize the sound of each scale is to play the scale o n one single string , following carefully the interval structures shown below.
- Pentatonic Scale
- Dorian Pentatonic Scale
- Phrygian Pentatonic Scale
- Mixolydian Pentatonic Scale
- Minor Pentatonic Scale
- First Blues Scale Mode I Scale
- First Blues Scale Mode II Scale
- First Blues Scale Mode III Scale
- First Blues Scale Mode IV Scale
- First Blues Scale Mode V Scale
- Second Blues Scale Mode I Scale
- Second Blues Scale Mode II Scale
- Second Blues Scale Mode III Scale
- Second Blues Scale Mode IV Scale
- Second Blues Scale Mode V Scale
- Third Blues Scale Mode I Scale
- Third Blues Scale Mode II Scale
- Third Blues ale Mode III Scale
- Third Blues Scale Mode IV Scale
- Third Blues Scale Mode V Scale
Is this helpful?
Share with your fellow guitar players!
Learn how to play the D major scale on guitar: this tutorial will show you the most common patterns used to play this scale. You'll learn also the notes and the structure of this scale, plus some tips on the best way to play scales on the fretboard.
Free Pdf Ebook to download: 84 guitar scales and arpeggios patterns. Major and minor scales, modals, diminished, triads and seventh arpeggios, exotic scales, and much more.
Free scale finder that helps you learn the fretboard patterns for hundreds of guitar scales and arpeggios. This fingerings generator software runs online and provides scales audio and diagrams..
This tutorial will teach you 8 exotic guitar scales that you can use to make your sound more interesting. Plus, you can download for free a pdf ebook with 40 exotic guitar scale patterns all along the fretboard..