Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 1

Dec05

In this series I’m going to show you what scales are, and how to use them. Since readers of Guitar Noise are guitarists, we’ll start off with the “guitar friendliest” scale, and move from there to the other ones that are the most musically useful (the major and minor scales). After that, we’ll look at what modes are – and how to use them – and wrap up with some of the more unusual scales used in different types of music.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The most commonly used scale for guitarists is the minor pentatonic scale. A few definitions before we start playing it, because these terms will come up again: “scale” comes from the Latin word for “ladder”, and it’s used to describe any sequence of tones that rise or fall through one octave. (An “octave” is the distance from any pitch and the next pitch with the same name – like the distance from fifth string, third fret C to second string, first fret C.). “Pentatonic” comes from the Greek words “pente”, which means five, and “tonikos”, or tone; pentatonic scales are any scales with five different notes in the octave. And “minor” is a term applied to any scale or chord that contains the major scale’s third note lowered by a half step – a C major scale is the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C; any C based chord or scale that has Eb in can be considered minor.

What makes scales sound different from each other isn’t just the notes in the scale – it’s also the relationship of the sounds to each other. In most melodies, scales, and chord progressions, there’s going to be one pitch that sounds final… like you’ve arrived at the end of the musical journey. That pitch is called the “tonic”, and it’s the note that names the scale: A C minor pentatonic has C as it’s home base, while an Eb major pentatonic (which contains exactly the same pitches, as we’ll see later on) has Eb the tonic.

When we analyze the makeup of a scale to see what makes it different from other scales, music theorists compare them to the major scale – the building block of almost all music theory. Later on in this series we’ll look at what makes up a major scale; for right now, we’ll just say that the minor pentatonic scale has the formula 1-b3-4-5-b7, which means a C minor pentatonic scale has the notes C, Eb, F, G, and Bb.

If we start from the C note on the eighth fret of the sixth string, we’ll find the easiest way to finger this scale is C, then Eb on the 11th fret of the 6th string, F on the 8th fret of the 5th string, G on the 10th fret of the 5th string, Bb on the 8th fret of the 4th string, and C again at the 10th fret of the 4th string. Those notes make up the entire scale, but we can keep going through the next octave and get this fingering:

 | 8  |    |    | 11 |
 | 8  |    |    | 11 |
 | 8  |    | 10 |
 | 8  |    | 10 |
 | 8  |    | 10 |
 | 8  |    |    | 11 |

A brief note about fingering: although there are some guitarists, even a few famous ones, who use just two fingers for these scales, I’d advise you to learn them in strict position (fingering 1-4, 1-3, 1-3, 1-3, 1-4, 1-4 for the one just shown. Avoiding unnecessary shifts of position will help you visualize the fretboard; once you can “see” the notes that belong to this scale, feel free to use whatever shifts and stretches you’d like.

Notice there are just two notes on each string. That’s because of the scale structure, and the way the guitar is tuned… and it gives us a huge advantage over other instruments in using this scale. Since each string will have only two notes, one of them must be the lowest note on the sixth string – and as a result, there will be only five possible fingerings, one beginning with each scale note.

To put it another way, if you’re playing the C pentatonic scale in 8th position, you’re playing 10th fret notes on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th strings, and 11th fret notes on the other three strings. If you want to move your hand up to the 10th position, you can play those same notes using the first and second fingers; we can complete the next scale fingering by filling in the pitches C, Eb, F, G, and Bb that we can reach from the 10th position:

 |    | 11 |    | 13 |
 |    | 11 |    | 13 |
 | 10 |    | 12 |    |
 | 10 |    |    | 13 |
 | 10 |    |    | 13 |
 |    | 11 |    | 13 |

We can continue moving up the fretboard to the 11th position and get this fingering… which is actually the one I teach last in lessons, because it’s the only one that involves a shift of position:

 |    | 13 |    | 15 |    |
 |    | 13 |    |    | 16 |
 | 12 |    |    | 15 |    |
 |    | 13 |    | 15 |    |
 |    | 13 |    | 15 |    |
 |    | 13 |    | 15 |    |

You can also play that fingering one octave lower, in open position. But when learning scales, I find it best to stick to “closed” fingerings (no open strings) until you’ve mastered the positions. If you can’t reach the 16th fret on your guitar, no problem – just practice these fingerings in a different key. In the key of F, the first fingering will be at the first position, the second fingering in third position, and this fingering will be in 5th position.

Now I’m going to drop an octave – notes on the 15th fret are an octave higher than the notes on the 3rd fret, so this fourth fingering pattern will begin with the G (the fourth note of the C minor pentatonic scale) at the third fret:

 | 3 |   |   | 6 |
 |   | 4 |   | 6 |
 | 3 |   | 5 |   |
 | 3 |   | 5 |   |
 | 3 |   |   | 6 |
 | 3 |   |   | 6 |

There’s one thing I want you to notice about this fingering: it’s the same as fingering 1, but with two notes moved up a fret – the higher note on the 5th string, and the lower note on the 2nd string. The reason why that happens is important in music theory, but it’s beyond the score of this lesson – I’ll talk about it at some point in the future.

Finally, our last fingering begins with the fifth note of the scale – Bb if you’re in the key of C. We end up with this:

 |   | 6 |   | 8 |
 |   | 6 |   | 8 |
 | 5 |   |   | 8 |
 | 5 |   |   | 8 |
 |   | 6 |   | 8 |
 |   | 6 |   | 8 |

Notice two things about this fingering: first, it’s the only fingering that’s perfectly symmetrical, with the two “˜outside’ strings fingered 2-4, and the two central “˜inside’ strings fingered 1-4. Second, I want you to notice that there is a note on the 8th fret of every string… just as there was in our first position.

This means we’ve come full circle, and have now identified every possible fretboard position of the notes in this scale. A complete view of the C minor pentatonic will look like this:

( fingering 3)      (fingering 5)      (fingering 2)           (fingering 4)
   | 1 |   | 3 |   |   | 6 |   | 8 |   |    | 11 |    | 13 |   | 15 |    |    | 18 |   |
   | 1 |   |   | 4 |   | 6 |   | 8 |   |    | 11 |    | 13 |   |    | 16 |    | 18 |   |
 0 |   |   | 3 |   | 5 |   |   | 8 |   | 10 |    | 12 |    |   | 15 |    | 17 |    |   |
   | 1 |   | 3 |   | 5 |   |   | 8 |   | 10 |    |    | 13 |   | 15 |    | 17 |    |   |
   | 1 |   | 3 |   |   | 6 |   | 8 |   | 10 |    |    | 13 |   | 15 |    |    | 18 |   |
   | 1 |   | 3 |   |   | 6 |   | 8 |   |    | 11 |    | 13 |   | 15 |    |    | 18 |   |
           (fingering 4)       (fingering 1)      (fingering 3)

Depending on your guitar, you might be able to keep going for another position, or even two.

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 14 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

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About Tom Serb

Tom Serb is a Chicago area guitarist who has been making music professionally since 1978. Over the course of the past twenty-five years he has managed to amuse himself by teaching, writing, performing, producing and composing. He is the author of Music Theory for Guitarists (NoteBoat, Inc., 2003), and a frequent contributor to the Guitar Noise forums.

Comments [12]

  1. I know you say scales are not confusing, but I am confused. Here is what I am having trouble wrapping my mind around.

    I don’t understand why a scale is called what it is. The tonic made it a little clearer, but let me give you an example.

    The minor penatonic scale. Are all minor penatonic scales c minor penatonic and then distinguished by key or does the key name the minor penatonic?

    For example can you have a c minor penatonic scale played in the key of a minor or is the key of that scale name it and make it an a minor penatonic scale and so on for the other notes like b, c d etc…

    Thanks,
    Rich D

  2. Rich,

    Scale names have two parts to them. One part tells you what the tonic is (like C); the other part tells you how the notes in the scale are spaced. When a scale is called “minor pentatonic”, that means the notes will be spaced 1-b3-4-5-b7 compared to the major scale.

    This might become a little clearer later on in the series when I talk about the structure of the major scale. But let’s say you want to make a D minor pentatonic scale. The D major scale looks like this:

    D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D

    The D minor pentatonic will have the 1 (the tonic, in this case D), the b3 (here the 3 is F# – flatting it gets you F natural), the 4 (G), the 5 (A), and the b7 (since the 7 is C#, the flatted 7 is C natural). The D minor pentatonic ends up being the notes:

    D-F-G-A-C-D

    Does that make a bit more sense?

    Tom

  3. So, in other words, the second one, Rich. The “minor pentatonic,” like all scales, can be played in any key. As you said, the key of the scale names it, while the “minor pentatonic” part further establishes what type of scale it is.

  4. Tom, thanks. This is awesome. Extremely well-written and clearly articulated explanation for a concept that many people find fuzzy and befuddling. Like a lot of self-taught players, i never bothered learning scales. I understand them and know all about them theory-wise, but i am (25 years into playing) just now starting to really take the time to learn how to play and use them. With your help, hopefully i’ll be able to recognize them when i learn and play famous solos, and that will lead to a far more solid understanding of my fretboard, allowing me to play freely at a decent clip, instead of poking around in a blues box.

    I can’t wait to see more! Thanks again.

  5. Tom,

    I’m having trouble understanding the idea behind a scale formula. In this and several following lessons, you keep referring back to the format looking similar to this…

    1-b3-4-5-b7

    Maybe I missed it, but I can’t find an explanation for this. I’m sure it’s simple and I’m just overlooking it. Please clarify. Thanks!

  6. Sam,

    Right before giving that formula I said “music theorists compare them to the major scale”.

    The major scale is numbered 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. In the key of C, that corresponds to C-D-E-F-G-A-B. So a C minor pentatonic would be 1 (C), b3 (Eb), 4 (F), 5 (G) and b7 (Bb).

    Does that help?

  7. I think I see what Sam is missing. Where and when did 1-b3-4-5-b7 come to define a minor pentatonic scale?

    I’ve always thought the major with a flatted 3d defined a minor? Does the flatted 7th have something to do with the Pentatonic part? Or am I just wrong?

    I love this site!

  8. Wes, in music (with very rare exceptions) usage precedes theory. So first we’ve got a collection of tones, and then it’s given a name. In the case of the minor pentatonic, the scale had been used for a long time before we tried to give it a name. Then we start applying a bit of logic, looking at the way other scales are named – any naming system is easier to use if it’s consistent.

    It’s called a ‘pentatonic’ scale simply because it has five notes – all five note scales can be called pentatonic. The term ‘minor’, when applied to a scale or a chord, indicates there’s a b3 compared to the major scale. So a Cm7b5 chord, a C harmonic minor scale, or a C minor pentatonic scale will all contain Eb, the b3 of the C major scale.

    A different series, like 1-b3-4-5-7, would also technically be both a pentatonic and a minor scale. But to avoid confusion, the first scale named usually keeps the name, and the new series requires a new name. In this case, the new scale might be called the “pentatonic harmonic minor”: pentatonic tells us it has five notes, minor tells us the b3 is included, and ‘harmonic’ tells us the 7th is the same as in the major scale (just as the harmonic minor scale has the natural 7th: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7).

    Does that clear things up a bit?

  9. Perfectly clear Tom!

    Thank you. It’s good to know there’s someone who not only knows what’s going on (I think there are a lot of people who are intimately familiar with music theory) but can communicate information in an understandable way (I think this significantly narrows the field). To further narrow the field to a handful in the world you are willing to do so. Thank you again.

  10. Tom,
    Can you give an example of how to connect the positions together when going through a run, or point me in the right direction to some other lessons on the site. I really only know the first position of the minor pentatonic well and now that I see how you explained the rest of the positions it makes sense to me, but I’m not really clear how you can start at the open position and run through all the notes in the scale and end below the 12th fret.

  11. Ray, the easiest way to visualize connecting positions is to recognize that the higher notes of one position are the same as the lower notes of the next.

    If you’re in F pentatonic minor, in first position you’re playing:

    1-4
    1-4
    1-3
    1-3
    1-3
    1-4

    You’ve got three notes on the third fret, and three notes on the fourth fret. The next position will start at the third fret (the lowest of the ‘upper’ note from the first position), and will be:

    4-6
    4-6
    3-5
    3-6
    3-6
    4-6

    This logic will hold true for every position – the lower notes are in exactly the same place as the upper notes of the previous position; the higher notes will be in exactly the same place as the lower notes of the next position.

    When you really think about this, it make sense – if you’re in F, the F note on the third fret of the fourth string will work, regardless of which finger plays it… the third finger will be used in the first pattern, and the first finger will be used for the same note in the next pattern.

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