Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 1
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.
More from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 2
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 3
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 4
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 5
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 6
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 7
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 8
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 9