If you want to learn guitar scales, you will need to get aquainted with some basic facts. Scales are elements of the language of music. They are the components of chords, which are the basic units of playing music. Once you have some understanding of chord playing, understanding how the chords relate to scales will add depth to your playing. You will know which notes of the scale will sound well played over your chords. In order to create your own chords you will need to know how the notes relate to each other in scales.
When explaining to beginners about guitar scales tabs often add confusion, so I have used charts to illustrate some aspects of scales.
The chromatic scale
There are 12 notes in music. These are represented by the chromatic scale: A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab. The # indicates a sharp, and the b indicates a flat.
The term scale refers to the progression of notes between octaves. In the example of the chromatic scale, above, the notes proceed from the note A to the A an octave higher. The spaces between notes are called intervals. These intervals are called tones and semitones. On the guitar, one fret is a semitone, two frets is a tone. The chromatic scale consists of 12 semitones.
By beginning at the any one of the open strings, and playing the note on each of the frets all the way up the guitar neck, you can play a chromatic scale. If you begin on the open sixth string, and play all the way up to the twelfth fret you will have played a chromatic scale covering one octave.
In the above example, the notes follow each other along one string. In the modes and scales in the guitar scales chart below, the notes follow each other across all the strings on the guitar, within the limits of four frets. No matter where on the fretboard you are playing, four frets is a comfortable span for anybody’s fingers.
The Major Scale and the Modes
The chromatic scale is just a collection of all the notes it is possible to use. The scales you will be learning will consist of either seven, or sometimes, five notes, which will be a mix of the notes found in the chromatic scale. There are nine scales on the guitar, which are popularly used for guitar solos:
- The Ionian Mode (The Major Scale)
- The Dorian Mode
- The Phrygian Mode
- The Lydian Mode
- The Mixolydian Mode
- The Aeolian Mode (The Natural Minor Scale)
- The Locrian Mode
- The Minor Pentatonic Scale
- The Blues Scale
The modes are based on the major scale and are generated from different degrees of the scale. The degrees are simple the names of the notes in a scale as they relate to the “tonic” – the first note of the scale. In the F major scale, F is both the tonic and the first degree.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I will be using the F major scale and the modes derived from it. The reason I use the F major scale is that F is the lowest fretted note on the guitar.
The Ionian mode/major scale intervals are tone – tone -semitone – tone – tone – tone – semitone
Here are the notes of the F major scale: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E
Wild World by Cat Stevens, Third Stone from the Sun by Jimi Hendrix and La Bamba by Ritchie Valens are all songs that will help you to learn to play in the major scale.
The Dorian mode begins at the second degree of the major scale. The intervals in this mode are tone – semitone – tone – tone – tone – semitone – tone
Here are the notes of the Dorian mode as it relates to the F major scale: G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F
The Phrygian mode begins at the third degree of the major scale. The intervals are semitone -tone -tone – tone -semitone – tone – tone
Here are the notes of the Phrygian mode as it relates to the F major scale: A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G
The Lydian mode begins at the fourth degree of the major scale. The intervals are tone – tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone – semitone
Here are the notes of the Lydian mode as it relates to the F major scale: Bb-C-D-E-F-G-A
The Mixolydian mode begins at the fifth degree of the major scale. The intervals for this mode are tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone – semitone – tone
Here are the notes of the Mixolydian mode as it relates to the F major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb
The Aeolian mode/Natural Minor Scale begins at the sixth degree of the major scale. The intervals in this mode are tone – semitone – tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone
Here are the notes of the Aeolian mode as it relates to the F major scale: D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C
If you want to practice working in the minor scale, you could experiment with a few well-known songs. Black Magic Woman by Santana, Hotel California by The Eagles, and Dream On by Aerosmith will all help you to gain an understanding of the minor scale.
The Locrian mode begins at the seventh degree of the major scale. The intervals are semitone – tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone – tone
Here are the notes of the Locrian mode as it relates to the F major scale: E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D
The minor pentatonic scale has only five notes, and is the most important of the beginner guitar scales. Its intervals are tone+semitone – tone – tone – tone+semitone – tone
The notes of the minor pentatonic scale in F are F-G#-Bb-C-D#
This scale is used extensively by guitarists of all levels of experience to create solos, licks and riffs.
The blues scale is the same as the minor pentatonic but with six notes. The extra note is a flattened fifth, which gives the blues, scale its characteristic sound. The intervals are tone+semitone – tone – semitone – semitone – tone+semitone – tone
The notes of the blues scale in F are F-G#-Bb-B-C-D#
The blues scale is the minor pentatonic with the addition of a flattened fifth – the blue note.