Scaling The Heights

Guitar Skyscraper

As you know, throughout the spring (and, quite probably, much of the summer as well) we are going to be presenting lessons on our theme of soloing and improvisation. We got an early start on this with our last guitar column, Moving On Up, where we examined moveable chord shapes. Today we’ll take the next step in building a strong foundation on which we can become good (or better) lead players and improvisers. But let me add that it’s not just the lead guitarist who benefits from this knowledge – the rhythm guitarist can learn to be much more than just a strummer by adding interesting riffs and fills that become an integral piece of the rhythm. This is how hooks are made. Likewise, the bass player who knows more about the theory and construction of chords and scales is much more likely to come up with more arresting bass lines than one who is stuck on root/fifth repetition.

Some of this material we have covered before in our various discussions on theory. For the sake of getting right to the heart of the matter, let’s agree on the definition of a few “givens” right here and now.

1) As far as we are concerned, we have twelve notes with which to work. They are all a half step from each other and are as follows:

12 notes

2) A scale is defined as a sequence of notes used from a specific note to the next occurrence of that same note. This sequence is a specific pattern, usually a combination of whole-steps and half-steps. The pattern tells us what type of scale it is.

For instance, look at the twelve notes we have just listed. The next note in the sequence would be A once again. Each note is a half step from the next. So this is indeed a scale. It is called the chromatic scale. You will notice that this scale has twelve notes in it, which is unlike the major and minor scales we already know. It’s important to get out of the habit of thinking that a scale will have a certain number of notes. .

Let’s take another example. Suppose we had a scale where the notes were A, B, C#, D#, F, G and then A again. There are six notes in this scale and each one is a whole step from the other. This is called a whole tone scale. Since A is the root, or starting point, it is an A Whole Tone scale. Later in this article we’ll be examining the pentatonic scale, which, as you might guess, has five different notes. So please try not to get hung up on the number of notes in a scale, okay?

3) A major scale is defined by the following sequence:

Major scale

I cannot tell you how important it is to know this. When we write out other scales, as we will shortly with the pentatonic, we do so in terms of the major scale. Knowing your major scale well can make learning all the other types of scales much easier.

Be sure you have this down pat before we move on. Read the first part of Theory Without Tears and test yourself by writing out different major scales. Definitely know C, G, D, A and E because you will find that the majority of guitar songs are in these keys.

4) The relative minor of any major key is the sixth note in that key’s major scale. So, for instance, we know that the C major scale is:

C major scale

Since A occupies the VI position, we know that A minor is the relative minor of C major. Type “relative minor” into the search engine on the home page if you want to find a wealth of information to read to learn more about this.

4(a)) A natural minor scale is defined by the following sequence:

Natural minor scale

4(b)) The notes in the relative minor’s (natural) scale are the same notes as its relative major scale. This is a mouthful and I’m not really sure there’s an easy way to say it. This is what I’m talking about. Going back to our C major scale:

C major scale

It has neither sharps nor flats. The A natural minor scale, since A is the relative minor of C major, will not have any sharps or flats, either:

A natural minor

And, if you’re interested in such things, the relative minor scale is called the Aeolian mode. So pat yourself on the back, you’ve picked up a bit of modal theory!

5) Each fret on a guitar denotes a half step in tone. Two frets would therefore be one whole step.

6) Any chord, major, minor, whatever, is built from the I, III and V of its major scale. The IIIs and Vs can be raised (indicated with a sharp (#) sign) or lowered (indicated with a flat (b) sign) a half step, but they would still be discussed in terms of changes from the MAJOR key. (Read The Power of Three.)

The First Major Breakthrough

A lot of people freak out about scales because they think that there are so many of them to learn. Well, they are right. Thinking logically about what we already know, there have to be twelve major scales. Since we know that there are three different minor scales, then it’s easy to figure out that there are thirty-six of those. Almost fifty scales in just two categories! I’d be scared!

But in panicking over scales, we forget about the guitar itself. It is designed the way it is for a reason – to make your life simpler. Last time we saw how we could take one chord shape and turn it into a whole new chord by placing it somewhere else on the fretboard. We do the same thing with scales.

The key to learning scales is to give yourself a reference point from whence to start. Traditionally this point is the root of a scale. And for now, this is a good place for us to start. But don’t get too comfortable here. To develop skills in soloing and improvisation, you will want to know how to practice scales starting from each note of the scale. We’ll be looking at ways of doing this two articles from now.

We know that the G major scale is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. If we were to map this out on our fretboard, it would look like this:

G Major Scale - First position with open strings

You see here that if we put our root (G, in this case) on the low E string, we can climb two full octaves in first position. We can, in fact, do this all over the neck of the guitar. But first we have to eliminate our use of open strings. This is very easily done:

G Major Scale - First Position with no open strings

The trick here is to position your fingers in such a way that you have the best movement over the notes. Since this all fits in a range of four frets, I dedicate one finger for use in each of the frets. The middle finger covers the root and the other notes (C, D and the last G) that fall in the third fret. My index finger gets the second fret, where the B, E, A and F# are played. The first F# and the B that occupy the fourth fret are played by my ring finger and my pinky gets the A, D, G , C and E notes on the fifth fret.

This is what is known as a scale pattern. Usually you will see them written in books like this:

G Scale Pattern

However, for our purposes, we want to convert this from a specific scale, G major, so that it will work for any major scale. Provided that your guitar is standard-tuned (or at least tuned in standard intervals, like all the strings lowered a half step or something) and that your root note is on the sixth string, this will work. What we are going to do is replace the specific notes of the G major scale with their Roman numeral counterparts (and “R” for “root” or “I”):

Scale Pattern

Believe it or not, you can now play every major scale on your guitar. All you need to do is find the root note on the sixth string and follow the pattern. How about a Bb scale? Well, even if you don’t know the notes involved, you can still do it as long as you know that Bb is the note on the sixth fret of your low E string:

Bb Major Scale

At this point, some of you may already be ahead of the game. Knowing one scale pattern that covers four frets, even though it has sixteen notes, certainly doesn’t begin to cover the range of your guitar! And songs don’t necessarily stay all nice and polite in the same key. We’re going to get to all that (promise), but today I want to take a brief sidestep.

Whittling Things Down To Size

If you think that the major scale is a lot to deal with, you are right. Most blues and rock (modern, classic, metal, neo-metal, punk, alternative, progressive and whatever category you’d care to come up with in order to set your music apart from everyone else’s in order to have it be marketed and mass produced for a targeted audience. Lord, doesn’t anyone just play music anymore?) guitarists live and die by the pentatonic scale. Why? For starters, it has five different notes instead of the seven of the major and minor scales. (Much) More importantly, it is very guitar friendly.

Remember our list of “givens?” Here’s another:

7) The major pentatonic scale for any key is defined as follows (all notes derived from the major scale):

Major pentatonic scale

So if we go back to our G major scale and take out the notes we want, we see this is our G pentatonic scale:

G Major Pentatonic Scale

I call the major pentatonic the “My Girl scale” because if you play it with the correct rhythm, it is the opening riff to the old Temptations song. Paul McCartney uses it a lot as a bass line – a really good Beatles song to hear this bass line is Your Bird Can Sing.

But wait! Things get even easier! I don’t know about you, but having to continually span four frets (here the second to the fifth) is a bit of a pain. The most comfortable thing for a guitarist to play is the interval of a whole step (two frets). We can accomplish this by being sneaky and “shifting” the scale along the fretboard. Start with playing the G with your index finger and then the A note (fifth fret) with the ring finger. Now, instead of jumping strings between the A and B, slide your ring finger up the two frets to get the B note and look where the rest of the notes in the scale now fall:

G Major Pentatonic line 1
G Major Pentatonic line 2
G Major Pentatonic line 3

You see, we were doing great until we reached the G string and then had to go back to the fourth fret to find the B note. So, let’s employ yet another shift, sliding once again from the A to the B note on the D string (again, using the ring finger), like this:

G Major Pentatonic Scale first positiom
G Major Pentatonic starting on sixth string

Now look at how much of the neck we’ve covered! And we haven’t once moved beyond the range of two frets!

And Wait!!! There’s More!!!

No lie, it gets even easier. Besides knowing how the major scale is formed, knowing your relative minors will improve your playing in a hurry. Why? Let’s look and see.

We have already established that the G major pentatonic scale is G, A, B, D, E and then G again. Since we know that E is the VI position of the G major scale, we also know that Em is the relative minor of G major. Remember our definition of scale:

A scale is defined as a sequence of notes used from a specific note to the next occurrence of that same note.

If we look at our G major scale and E (natural) minor scale, we can see that they are composed of the same notes:

G major scale

The only difference is which note we have chosen to start on. And because we start with a different root, the pattern of the scale is different. The major scale is root, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. But when you start with the E as a root, the pattern becomes root, whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. This is the big mystery behind modal scales, one that we will examine in depth in the near future. For the sake of simplicity, we usually break down even the minor scales in terms of the major scale, like so:

E minor scale

The “b” indicates “flat” meaning that we have lowered the normal position of the major scale by a half a step. If you compare the E major scale to the E (natural) minor, you will see that we have indeed done this:

E major scale

So, let’s add another given to the list:

8) The minor pentatonic scale for any key is defined as follows (all notes derived from the major scale):

Minor pentatonic scale

Okay, here’s the payoff: The minor pentatonic, in its root form (having the root note on the sixth string as its starting point), is the easiest guitar scale in creation. It is both simple to play and to memorize:

Minor Pentatonic Root Form

Now I want to drive this point home to you. Look at the minor pentatonic scale chart we just did. Now look at this chart of the same relative major pentatonic:

Relative Major Pentatonic

Can you see that it’s the exact same pattern as far as where on the fretboard you can find the notes? The notes are, in fact, the same. What has changed is which position (or degree) the note occupies. To me, this is why learning scales can throw a lot of people off. You could learn one pattern and never see how it interacts with another, or how it relates to chord shapes, which is what we will be discussing two lessons from now.

But, for the time being, what does this all mean to you? Put as simply as possible, this means that as long as you can find your root note on either the first or sixth string, (and they are both on the same fret unless your guitar is tuned differently than standard), you have this incredibly easy scale available to you in both major and minor pentatonic. Let’s look at a few examples:

G Major
C Major
D Major
Bb Major

If you’re a beginner, you’ll be dumbfounded at how may song riffs and solos are taken from the pentatonic scale. Here are a couple of riffs and a lead, which I think you’ll recognize:

Wish You Were Here
Sweet Home Alabama
Fly Like an Eagle

A Hard Days Night

I hope you are starting to realize that the guitar is not the unfathomable mystery you might have once imagined. You simply need to take the time to learn about it and about music and to think things through in a logical manner. Speaking of which, Paul has managed to get an interview with Bill Edwards, the man who wrote and publishes the Fretboard Logic series. Once you start seeing how patterns work, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your fingers take to them. And that can be both good and bad.

We have been fortunate to find a number of talented guitarists and writers to contribute pieces on soloing and improvising. I highly advise you to read all of their material. With this little bit of basic knowledge I’ve given you, it won’t seem as hard as you might initially think.

In the next column we’re going to take a detour into something more stylistic in nature: string bending. It will give us a nice break from moveable chords and scales before we come back and tie a lot of these threads together. Seeing how the chord shapes and scales (and bends) all fit in together will help you make even more sense of all of this.

And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see discussed in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…