In this tutorial we're going to learn an uncommon type of guitar scale, the Whole-tone scale, that, as the name suggests, is composed of only whole-tones.
Take a look at your guitar and give yourself a little bit of a music theory reminder; each fret is a semitone away from the other. If we play the third fret of the A string we get the C note, one fret up C#, and one more fret we get D. Remember the chromatic scale moves up a semitone or half step at a time.
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B
Now the whole tone scale is literally what it sounds like, it is made up of whole notes, no semitones, unlike other common scales. Each note of the scale will always be two frets after the proceeding note.
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B
To listen to the unique sound of the whole tone scale, click on the play button on the interactive guitar below. You can also set the BPM as well as the volume of the guitar and drums. Don't forget to play along with the tool!
Before we discuss the musical implications and details of the whole tone scale, let’s quickly listen to a perfect example of the scale. The Stevie Wonder song "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" has a brief piano part that starts about 3 measures into the song. That ascending scale he is playing on his piano is exactly the C whole tone scale!
Also, it is very common to hear the whole tone in fantasy and dream sequences in movies and TV! These give us an idea of how the scale sounds in music.
Because each note is the same distance apart, no single note stands out and there is no leading tone. Also, the whole tone scale can only be transposed once, as the C# whole tone scale;
C# D# F G A B
Interesting facts about the Whole Tone Scale:
- Any other way to try and play a whole note scale will end up as the same notes as the C or C#
- It is symmetrical and since it is only made up of 6 notes it is also known as hexatonic.
- Every single note in the scale is a major second apart, every second note is a major third, and four notes apart is a tritone
- Anytime you build any triad with the whole tone scale you will get an augmented chord.
For example, the triad of C E G# is of course a C augmented chord. (If it is an augmented chord that means there is a sharp fifth).
This scale has been used in classical music, jazz, a little funk, and of course in any form of experimental fusion. It is especially common among jazz guitar players. Whole tone scales are mostly used by composers who wish to convey an indistinct or vague feeling in their music, which is why it works great in “dreamy” sections. The symmetrical aspect is what make this scale so disorientating.
The whole tone scale has the pattern of:
Root 2 3 4# 5# b7
If you notice the scale has:
- major third
- augmented fifth
- flat seventh
which makes it perfect for:
Dominant Seventh chord
Augmented 7th chords
Because the C note whole scale is symmetrical we can play it over all these chords;
C7 D7 E7 F#7 G#7 Bb7
And of course the C# whole note scale will cover all other 7th chords. The C note whole scale will also be a great scale to use for chords like this:
Caug7 Daug7 Eaug7 F#aug7 G#aug7 Bbaug7
Note: An aug7 is the same chord notation as the 7#5, which means Caug7 is the same as C7#5
Because the distance between root note and sharp fourth is an augmented fourth the scale will fit with rarely used tritones and 9ths and sharp 11ths. So, it will also work with chords like this;
C9, C9#5, and even a chord like C7#11
The whole tone scale is very easy to play, but it’s not always an easy scale to place in your music. The mysterious, aimless, and rootless sound of this scale can make it difficult to know exactly when to use it. The chords listed above are a great place to start to have an idea of when to use this scale, but even then, it is not a scale that you will always want to be playing. After all, with only two transpositions and a symmetrical aspect it doesn’t lend the scale to a multitude of uses!
Still, keep an eye out on other places where the whole tone scale may fit. At times it is possible to use it when you are playing your guitar in Lydian dominant mode. For example, here is the Lydian dominant in C;
C D E F# G A B
Even though the last three notes are different, the Lydian scale and the whole tone scale can sometimes be played together creating a nice little tension and release in your music.
If you really want to use the whole tone scale in some very challenging areas, try minor chords. The same triads that exist in the whole tone scale also exist in the melodic and harmonic minor scales.
When you play the whole tone scale over minor chords you always play it a half step down.
If you have the chord Cmin7 you would use the B whole note scale (remember from above there are only two types of whole note scales, the B scale has the same notes as the C# above). If you can get past the confusion of this, it makes a great mixture especially for improvising in jazz. In the right situations of playing your guitar a minor chord and a whole note scale can be quite different and interesting.
Whenever you have a minor chord to riff over, try the appropriate whole tone scale. Since there are only two of them, it won’t be difficult to find the right one. As mentioned before this dreamy and sometimes uneasy scale doesn’t have a ton of applications, but when used in the right place the whole tone scale can create some interesting tension. When mixed in with other scales they can add a great dimension to your music. The next time you have one of the chords mentioned above, just see how the whole tone scale sounds over it!
Here below you find the most common guitar pattern for playing the whole tone scale on the fretboard. These diagrams has been created with our free online guitar scale finder.
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