Guitar Scales: Learn the Vocabulary of Guitar

guitar scalesIn the language of music, if notes could be considered the letters, then scales might be the words – the individual notes must be put together into words in a way that not only makes sense, but also sound good to the listener. Scales are a series of notes found within a single octave that are arranged a specific way. They are the building blocks of every instrument and must be mastered before one may call themselves a musician of any ilk. Anyone interested in playing an instrument must practice scales, from the novice, to the seasoned professional that has been playing for their entire life. Each scale has its own sound and feel and some genres of music use certain scales more than others, but there are some basic scales that every guitarist should know, regardless of what kind of music they want to play. If you’re new to the guitar and want to get started playing today, this course on beginner guitar method will have you playing a song this very day.

Today we will discuss scales that are widely used by guitarists in several different genres, as well as a few that aren’t so well known and that pop up in the fringes of popular music, such as jazz, blues, and metal, as well as in music from across the globe. If you’re interested in the blues, this course on acoustic blues guitar will show you the ropes of this old Southern music, which is the basis for most American music today.

Scale Basics

We’ll begin with some classification info. First off, it’s important to know that there are 12 notes in Western music, referred to as the chromatic scale, consisting of the seven natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), along with five accidentals, or notes that fall between some of the naturals (B flat, C sharp, E flat, F sharp, A flat). Every scale is in a key, or note that the scale revolves around, and because there are 12 notes, there are 12 different keys of scales, with each scale beginning and ending with this key note, or, root note (an A scale begins with the A note, and ascends until it reaches the next A contained in the next octave). You can change a scale’s key by simply moving it up the neck so that you’re starting from a different root note, but using the same structure.

Scales are a good jumping off point for many other concepts in guitar playing. Once you are adept at playing a few different scales, you should be ready to learn a few other basics. Soloing is done by playing a scale, and you can also form chords based on your new scale knowledge – our course on the introduction to lead guitar playing will give you the tools you need to start shredding, and this course on guitar chords will take your scale knowledge into chord territory. Scales may be played on one string up the fretboard, or on a combination of some or all the strings. Learning how to move about the fretboard freely will open it up for you, allowing you to not get stuck in a rut, as well as to attack the same problems from in an original way.

Practicing Scales

Scales that are written down on a piece of paper are very important tools for a guitarist, but by themselves are useless – they must be played and practiced, to the point where the musician is able to play a particular scale without even thinking about it. When starting to practice a scale, play it slowly, then work up to playing it quicker and more fluidly – starting fast will only trip you up and frustrate you. It’s always helpful to play along with songs when you’re first starting out, stopping them at certain points to really dig into what is being played, then, when you get confident enough, go and play with other people. That’s the quickest way to getting good.

When first practicing scales, you want to have a good idea of the path you want to take and where you will want to end up. Analyze your favorite songs, guitarists, and solos and figure out what scales they use, then use that as a framework for practicing your scales. One thing to remember is to keep your fingers limber – scale exercises are not only good for actually playing scales, but also for exercising your fingers and preparing them for learning more, and this course will work out your fingers while teaching you scales.

Helpful Tips for Practicing Scales

  1. Learn different positions for the scales, especially the more popular ones. You don’t want to be stuck playing the same thing in the same place – mix it up, not only for yourself, but for your potential audience.
  2. Play with a metronome. Once you have the movement down, find a metronome, either buying one at your local music store, or downloading an app or finding one online. This will teach you how to play a song at the proper tempo and train you to play in a band if that’s your goal.
  3. Steal from your heroes. They did the same thing, so playing like them at the beginning of your learning is a great idea. It’ll keep you interested and challenge you a great deal, but you’ll want to find your own style somewhere down the line.
  4. Teach yourself exotic scales, as well as scales that challenge you. We will discuss exotic scales in a bit, and they are great ways to not only help you practice and work out your fingers, but they will add a touch of flair and originality to your playing.
  5. Most importantly, keep at it. Don’t let a little frustration get in the way of you playing guitar. Everyone at one point wanted to give up, and so will you. Be ready for that and get over that hump quickly.

Most Popular Guitar Scales

There are a lot of scales out there in the world of music…a lot. It would be a fool’s errand to show you all of them here today. What we will do is show the most popular scales for guitarists, as well as a few of the not so popular scales. These scales are shared by many different genres of music, so don’t think that learning a blues scale will only be useful when playing a blues song. Music has a long history of evolving and morphing and, frankly, stealing, so that blues scale will prove quite handy for any number of rock songs, or that Dorian mode most often used in rock may pop up in a jazz number.

In addition to giving you some basic information on each scale, we will show you how each scale is played in the key of C, beginning with the root note (C), and ending with the last note before the octave (not including the last C). If you are familiar with the intervals between notes and recognize how far one note is from another, you should easily be able to transpose between the scales to other keys. If you don’t quite grasp the concept of intervals, this site on the derivation of intervals should be able to help you out.

  • The Major Scale 

This is the most basic scale out there, and a good place to start. Everyone should be familiar with the notes in this scale, as it’s the same as Do, Re, Mi, etc. This scale is very versatile and is used to form modes, or scales that start on a note that is not the root note (we’ll discuss those later). The Major Scale is handy when soloing over a chord progression as well as over the major 7th and major 6th chords commonly found in jazz. [C-D-E-F-G-A-B]

  • The Natural Minor Scale AKA Aeolian Mode

This diatonic scale (a scale with eight notes) is another popular one used to solo in rock music and other popular genres. This scale is a great jumping off point to forming chords, and this site on the natural minor scale shows you how to do that. [C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb]

  • The Minor Pentatonic Scale 

Where the diatonic scale contains eight notes, the pentatonic contains five. This is a very popular scale with soloists, and is usually one of the first that a player will learn for the purposes of soloing – it’s easy to learn and remember and is versatile genre-wise, popping up in everything from metal to jazz. [C-Eb-F-G-Bb]

  • Blues Scale

A nice transition from the previous Minor Pentatonic scale, adding just one note, the blues scale is easy to learn and is the backbone of rock and roll music and sometimes heard in jazz as well (don’t forget blues music, too). Our course on blues scales will teach you the major and minor scales up and down the neck. [C-D-Eb-E-G-A]

As you may have noticed, most of these scales can be used in jazz, which may seem like a daunting genre to play. However, we have a couple of courses that will make it seem less scary: first, our course on the secrets of jazz guitar will take you to the next level open the door to jazz guitar improvisation. Also, this course on jazz scale positions breaks this beautiful American music down step-by-step.

Other Popular Scales

As mentioned above, most scales don’t fall into one genre that can only be used for that type of music, unless you’re talking about jazz. Using the analogy from earlier of music being a language and scales the words, you as a player may add whatever accent to those words you would like. A blues scale can be countrified, just like a rock scale can be used in the rhythmic confines of a funk band. It’s all in how you play as much as it is what you play.

The following scales are less widely used compared to the ones from above, but depending on your skill level on the guitar or what types of music you listen to, they may pop up more than you might expect.

  • Major Pentatonic Scale 

Found in country and jazz music, this scale is basically the happier brother to the minor pentatonic scale, containing a more upbeat feeling. Both the major and minor pentatonic scales are useful in constructing riffs and solos. [C-D-E-G-A]

  • Melodic Minor Scale 

While there is a melodic major scale, we will briefly discuss the melodic minor scale, as the major is much less frequently used. The minor is found in jazz and is similar to the major scale, but with a lowered third. [C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B]

  • Harmonic Minor Scale 

This unusual sounding scale is good for those guitarists that want to break out of the rock and roll blues and pentatonic slump. It’s similar to the natural minor scale, but with a raised seventh added, giving it a peculiar three semitone interval. [C-D-Eb-F-F-Ab-B]

  • Symmetrical Scales

Another exotic group, the symmetrical scales are unusual sounding, but are sometimes a bit difficult to work out the fingering on. These scales have an interval pattern that repeats, thus building the scale. Besides awkward fingering, these scales, while effective, may grow old quickly, so use them sparingly, however, when used effectively, they prove useful for composing, arranging, and improvising, especially in jazz – this course on jazz scales will show you painless finger positions good for improvising. Below are examples of some symmetrical scales.

  1. Whole Tone Scale This scale is made up of six notes and is built off an augmented triad, and can add a bit of spice to your playing. [C-D-E-F#-G#-Bb]
  2. Augmented Scale Also containing six notes, the augmented scale contains two augmented triads, one located at the root (C in our case) and one at the minor third (Eb here). [C-Eb-E-G-G#B]
  3. Half-Whole Diminished Scale This dark sounding scale can pop up in jazz, blues, or even metal. It’s made up of alternating half-steps and whole-steps, hence the name. [C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G-A-Bb]
  4. Tritone Scale This uncommon scale is composed of two major triads placed a tritone apart, then placing the notes in scale order. It may be used to bring energy and tension to your playing [C-Db-E-F#-G-Bb]

Exotic Guitar Scales

For those of you who interested in adding Eastern tinges to your Western music, these less traditional scales will do the trick. These scales have roots in Spain, Hungary, India, and other exotic locales, as well as a healthy Gypsy influence. Use them sparingly to give your playing a bit of an international flair.

  • Double Harmonic Scale AKA Byzantine Scale AKA Arabic Scale

This scale is used in traditional Eastern music and may be a bit tough for the Western player’s fingers to adapt to (this course on building your guitar chops will work those fingers out so the double harmonic scale will seem easy). The exotic sound from this scale comes from the flattened second degree, raised third, and raised seventh. [C-Db-E-F-G-Ab-B]

  • Freygish Scale AKA Spanish Gypsy Scale

 This scale is a lot like the double harmonic in both sound and structure, with only the seventh degree differentiating the two. This scale is sometimes used in heavy metal. [C-Db-D#-E-F-Gb-Ab-Bb]

  • Neapolitan Scales (Major and Minor)

 These scales are found in gypsy music, and are obviously of Italian descent, but does not sound classically “Italian”. [C-Db-Eb-F-G-A-B (major)][C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-B (minor)]

  • Hungarian Minor Scale 

A scale popular in Eastern European folk music, this scale is a mode of the double harmonic scale from the top of this list, but has a bit more of a romantic feel to it. [C-D-Eb-F#-G-Ab-B]

  • Indian Scale

In Indian music there are many more notes used than here in the West, and this scale uses that as a guideline. By adding a few notes that you wouldn’t normally add to a “normal” Western-sounding scale, you are able to evoke a sound reminiscent of Indian music. [C-D-Eb-E-F-Gb-G-Ab-A-Bb]

  • Jewish Scale

Like the Indian scale, this scale adds more notes than the usual scales you are used to playing. It is also known as the Phrygian Natural Third scale, and is popular among several famous rock guitar virtuosos, such as Jimmy Page and Joe Satriani. [C-C#D-D#-F-G-A-A#]

  • Japanese (Ichikosucho) Scale

Like the Indian and Jewish scales, there are obviously many more scales than just the one mentioned here today, but we are simply introducing to you a single basic scale that is representative of this style. If you are interested in these exotic sounds, there is a plethora of information, as well as countless other scales in these styles to study. This one is not only a neat addition to a solo, it also provides the player with a good finger workout because of its layout: two notes on one string, three on another. [C-D-E-F-F#-G-A-B]

  • Balinese Pelog Scale 

Native to Indonesia and one of the most used scales in gamelan music, the pelog scale is about as exotic as you can get in your guitar playing. Give a spin and see if it can fit anywhere in your playing. [C-Db-Eb-G-Ab]

Modes

Modes in music terminology are basically alternate versions of the scales. They are derived from scales but start at different notes, whereas the scales always begin with the root note. They put slight twists on the familiar sounds of the scales, but are mostly focused on solely by guitarists, with other instrumentalists holding them in lower regard. The modes listed below include a brief description as well as how it’s constructed, with the root note of C. After reading about them, get started playing them with a little help from this site, which will teach you how to play the seven modes in seven days (good luck with the Locrian Mode, though).

  • Ionian 

This is a very popular mode in Western music, as it is exactly the same as the major scale. This mode is essential in Western styles of music, and exudes a happiness when played. [C-D-E-F-G-A-B]

  • Dorian 

More like the minor scale, this mode has a bit of a dark tinge to it, and is sometimes heard in jazz and blues. The difference between the Dorian Mode and the minor scale is the raised sixth. [C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb]

  • Phrygian 

This minor-sounding mode has a bit of darkness to it, as well as a Spanish sound, hence its presence in flamenco music, as well as some jazz. [C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb]

  • Lydian 

Similar to the major scale, but with a raised fourth, the Lydian mode is happy sounding but with a bit cooler sound the some other major modes and scales, also sometimes being described as “dreamy”. [C-D-E-F#-G-A-B]

  • Mixolydian 

This modal scale is sometimes found in country music, but is quite versatile and may be heard pretty much anywhere. It’s a great mode for improvising over, and this course on rock guitar improvising will show you some useful soloing techniques. [C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb]

  • Aeolian 

As you may remember from before, this mode is also known as the natural minor scale, with a darker, more somber sound than your average mode or scale.  [D-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb]

  • Locrian 

Only one note different from the Phrygian Mode, the Locrian Mode is not often used by guitarists. It is considered unstable, and due to its rarity, merely “theoretical”, and not practical. [C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb]

Now that you’re a guitar master, go out there and play! Or if you’re still a little shy, just stay at home and rock out – this article on learning tablature and guitar technique can show you a few songs to get started with. Remember that playing the guitar takes a lot of practice, so don’t get frustrated when your fingers stumble over themselves, or you seem to get trapped into playing the same thing over and over again. A potentially helpful way to play is to record yourself and listen back to see where you’re going wrong, and this course on recording and mixing music can help you make your acoustic playing sound great. So get out your guitar, build up some callouses on your fingers, and get started playing.