What Are Guitar Scales?


Diving deep into the music world of guitar, you will come across the term “Guitar Scales”. Now, what exactly are guitar scales? Let’s take a closer look!

In essence, guitar scales refer to a set of notes that are played sequentially, with one of those notes acting as the root note. This root note plays a crucial role in determining the key of the scale, while the remaining notes chosen to be played determine the mode it is derived from.

It is worth noting that this definition is not exclusive to guitars, and is a fundamental characteristic of any standard instrument. However, the guitar has some distinct features that set it apart from other instruments when it comes to scales.

Through learning and practicing guitar scales, you can unlock a world of possibilities when it comes to playing the instrument. It opens up a plethora of techniques and styles that can be unique to the guitar. From soulful blues to fast-paced rock riffs, mastering guitar scales can take your playing skills to new heights.

So, whether you are a beginner or an experienced player, it is important to understand the concept of guitar scales. It’s a crucial step towards becoming a proficient and confident guitar player!

Distinctive Aspects Of Guitar Scale Notes

Guitar scales are undoubtedly a vital aspect of all genres of music, particularly rock, blues, and jazz. In fact, scales serve as the foundation of lead guitar playing and improvisation in these styles. While jazz guitar improvisation takes scales to a whole new level of complexity, we’ll leave that topic for another day.

When it comes to rock and blues, though, becoming proficient at playing lead guitar requires a deep understanding and appreciation of guitar scales. You will need to have a long-term relationship with these scales and practice them often, as practice makes progress.

Initially, delving into guitar scales can seem overwhelming and complex, especially for beginners. But fret not, for there is a simple yet powerful approach that can guide you through the basics of mastering scales. We’ll dive into that approach further down the blog post, so stay tuned!

By mastering guitar scales, you open yourself up to boundless opportunities when it comes to exploring the instrument. From soulful blues riffs to fast-paced rock solos, understanding, and practicing scales can elevate your guitar playing skills to new heights.

So don’t hesitate to tackle the world of guitar scales head-on. Embrace it as an integral part of your journey towards becoming a proficient and confident guitar player, and relish in every step of the way!

Guitar Scales can be complex

You can really dive down into the weeds with music theory and scales in general. A lot of musicians love to get very nerdy about all things music theory and the scales based on that theory. There is a lot to drill into if you want to truly master the subject:

Scale theory on the guitar (and other stringed instruments) has the added complexity that you can change the string and position (fret) you want to start from as the root note. Guitar scales typically start on the 6th string (largest string) or the 5th string.

Starting With Do Re Mi

Delving into the world of music, especially when it comes to playing an instrument, can feel overwhelming, especially for beginners. Even something as seemingly basic as playing a scale can be incredibly complex when you start to dig deeper into it.

Let’s take the example of the Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do scale that is often used in beginner music lessons. On the standard flute, this scale can be played starting from a root note of C in two different finger positions. However, when it comes to playing the same scale on the guitar, things get exponentially more complex.

Limiting the options to just the 5th and 6th strings, there are four different root note fret locations that you can start from. On top of that, you’ve got multiple options for finger placement and patterns, whether you want to move along the frets or down the strings, or a combination of both. And that’s just for one mode – the Ionian mode.

Yes, it’s all pretty complex, and it can be easy to get lost in the intricacies of music theory. However, there is a simpler yet powerful approach that you can take when it comes to mastering guitar scales for rock and blues lead guitar playing.

Instead of focusing on all the different modes and complex variations, focus on hitting the 80/20 rule. This means focusing on the most important and essential aspects first, getting great bang for your buck. By mastering a few key scales and techniques, you can unlock endless possibilities when it comes to playing lead guitar in rock and blues.

So don’t let the complexity of music theory discourage you. Embrace it as a challenge, but always remember to focus on the most important aspects and enjoy the journey towards becoming a proficient and confident guitar player.

A Bit More On Modes

Modes are an essential aspect of music theory that can seem daunting and complex at first, especially when it comes to playing lead guitar. However, with a little bit of effort and focus, understanding and mastering modes can take your guitar-playing skills to the next level.

To explain in simple terms, modes refer to the different note sequences that make up a given scale. For instance, the Ionian mode can be thought of as the standard sequence of notes that create the major scale. But, as you might expect, there are several other modes available for the major scale as well, each with its unique note progression and characteristics.

In addition to the major scale modes, there are several other variants available for harmonic and melodic minor scales as well. As you explore the world of modes, you will come across mode names like Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Superlocrian, Semilocrian, Ultralocrian, and so on.

It is worth noting that mastering all of these modes can be a bit overwhelming, and it’s not entirely necessary for becoming an excellent lead guitar player. Instead, focus on learning and practicing a few essential modes such as the Ionian, Aeolian, and Mixolydian.

Once you’ve understood and mastered these critical modes, you’ll be able to craft moving and memorable solos, transcending beyond playing just notes. You’ll be able to tell a story, combine feelings and emotions, and make a real connection with your audience.

So don’t shy away from the world of modes, but instead embrace them as a tool to fuel your growth and passion for playing the guitar. With focused practice and a little bit of discipline, you can master the modes and use them to advance your skills as a lead guitarist.

Here is a schematic from a Wikipedia entry on the subject that goes to some of the complexity I speak of.

Each “black-key” pentatonic scale can be thought of as the five notes shared by three different heptatonic modes.

Modes can understandably seem complex and overwhelming, and diving into them can be intimidating for many aspiring guitarists. However, fear not, for there is a simpler approach that can help you take your lead guitar skills to the next level.

Instead of struggling with all the different modes, you can focus on a few essential scales that serve as the foundation of rock and blues lead guitar playing. The major and minor pentatonic scales are two such scales and can be seen as the go-to scales for simplified approaches.

Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

The pentatonic scales may be simplified, but that is not to say that they are any less powerful in playing lead guitar. In fact, they can be seen as the quintessential foundation of lead guitar playing and widely used in many genres of music, especially rock, blues, and jazz.

By focusing on these scales, you’ll be able to hone your skills in playing lead guitar, creating solos that captivate your audience and express your emotions. As you master the major and minor pentatonic scales, you can gradually start introducing other scales and modes, opening up even more possibilities for your playing.

A pentatonic scale is a 5 note subset of a full 7 note diatonic scale. In other words, we literally leave out a couple of notes because they just aren’t pulling there musical weight for the emotive quality we want. We are going to focus on the Major Pentatonic Scale and the Minor Pentatonic Scale for our simplified approach to scales derived lead guitar playing.

Major Pentatonic Scale (first piece of the puzzle)

One of the most basic yet effective scales for rock-based lead guitar playing is the Major Pentatonic Scale. This scale is essentially a simplified variant of the Major Scale, featuring only five of the best notes from the major scale.

You see, the Major Scale is a full seven-note scale, and while it can be used to play lead guitar in some applications, its complexity can make it difficult to use for rock-based improvisation. The Major Pentatonic Scale, on the other hand, has politely asked the fourth and seventh notes of the full diatonic scale to ‘sit this one out,’ giving it a more straightforward and more rock-based feel.

So, by focusing on the Major Pentatonic Scale, you have a simplified yet powerful tool at your disposal for crafting moving and memorable solos. It makes it easier to improvise and develop riffs and opens new possibilities for playing lead guitar.

So if you’re looking to get started with playing lead guitar and want to focus on a few essential scales, the Major Pentatonic Scale is an excellent place to start. From there, you can gradually start introducing other scales and modes to your playing style, taking your skills to the next level.

As you delve deeper into the world of music theory and guitar playing, you’ll discover many other exciting scales and techniques that are worth exploring and mastering.

So the major pentatonic scale has 5 of the best notes from the major scale. It has politely asked the 4th and 7th notes of the full diatonic scale to ‘sit this one out’. This is going to be the scale we use for a rock-based improvisation.

Minor Pentatonic Scale (second piece of the puzzle)

When it comes to playing lead guitar in blues-based improvisation, there are a few essential scales that can take your skills to the next level. We’ve already covered the Major Pentatonic Scale, which is the first piece of the puzzle.

Now let’s dive deeper into the second piece: the Minor Pentatonic Scale. This scale is a version of the natural minor scale that has only five notes, consisting of the 1st, flattened 3rd, 4th, 5th, and flattened 7th. The five notes in this scale have been carefully curated to provide a simple yet powerful foundation for blues-based lead guitar playing.

By mastering the Minor Pentatonic Scale, you can unlock a world of possibilities when it comes to playing lead guitar in the blues genre. You can explore techniques such as string bending and vibrato, which can add soulful and expressive elements to your solos.

Additionally, you can use the scale to move between chord progressions, improvising with ease and making seamless transitions. By using the Minor Pentatonic Scale, you’ll be able to add your flair and personality to your playing, bringing out your unique style as a guitarist.

So, with the Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales, you have the two pieces of the puzzle to get started on your journey towards mastering guitar scales. Focus on these foundational scales first, getting acquainted with their unique characteristics, and practicing them regularly. Once you build a strong foundation and develop essential skills, you can start exploring other scales and modes, opening up even more possibilities for your playing.

So to revise, the minor pentatonic scale has kept the 5 best notes from the natural minor scale. It consists of 1st, flattened 3rd, 4th, 5th, and flattened 7th. We’re going to use this for a blues-based improvisation.

Motivation for the effort

Of course, aside from the technical stuff, we need a grounded reason to put the effort into learning scales in the first place. Honestly, using this simplified approach, at least at the beginning, is worth the effort to get at least a sense of how fun it is to play lead guitar and pretend you’re a rock legend. Deciding to continue on the journey if you want to take it further will be easier once you get a sense of it.

“the worst thing that can happen is that all the complexity of Guitar Scales can stop you from making a start. Don’t do that – just keep it simple at the beginning”

The Patient Musician – a.k.a me

So the most fun way to begin with scales is not to practice them by themselves in all their different forms, but instead to go straight to the two scales that cover the 80/20 of lead playing for both blues and rock.

What Guitar Scales Should I Learn First?: Two Scales In One Pattern

Here’s the good news – you can start by learning just one pattern! By focusing on this one pattern and making a few changes, you can master two different scales – the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale.

As we’ve discussed, the major pentatonic scale is perfect for rock-based lead guitar playing, while the minor pentatonic scale is ideally suited for blues-based improvisation.

It’s worth noting that these scales are not hard and fast rules, and depending on the type of music you’re playing, you may find that switching between the scales can create various effects and tones when playing the same song.

For example, playing the major pentatonic scale as a lead to a classic 12-bar blues tune may not quite fit right compared to the minor pentatonic scale. As a practical exercise, try out the Backing Track Blues in G on this YouTube video below. Once you have learned both scale patterns, experimenting with the different scales over the same song can help you find the sweet spot for each.

So the cool thing is you can do this by learning just one pattern. You can use that pattern in two ways by changing which note on the 6th string is the root note. In this way you can play the two different scales:

  • with one scale more focused on rock (major pentatonic scale)
  • and the other more for blues (minor pentatonic scale ).

A Single Scale Pattern

So, on with the simple approach. This is the single scale pattern we can use as the basis for our two scales:

Single Scale Pattern

Note that the 6th string (the fattest one) is at the bottom of the image.

If we want to play the minor pentatonic scale (the bluesy one), our root note is here:

Minor Pentatonic Scale with Root Note

If we want to play the major pentatonic scale, the root note will be here:

Major Pentatonic scale with Root Note

Notice how it is exactly the same pattern for both, just with a different starting root note.

Minor Pentatonic Version of the Pattern

Now if we’re feeling like laying down some blues lead in G to match the YouTube backing track above, we’ll deploy the pattern like this to play the minor pentatonic scale in the key of G:

The red circle labeled ‘G’ on the 3rd fret and 6th string is the starting root note that you would put your 1st finger on (the one next to your thumb):

  • Next, you play the A# on the 6th Fret of the same 6th string with your pinkie finger,
  • followed by the C at the 3rd Fret of the 5th string with your first finger,
  • followed by the D at the 5th Fret of the 5th string with your 3rd finger,
  • keep going with the same idea until you get to the A# at the 6th fret on the 1st string,
  • you guessed it, work your way all the way back to the beginning again.

Just to reiterate, for all strings:

  • use your first finger for notes on the 3rd fret,
  • your third finger for notes on the 5th fret,
  • and you guessed it, your pinkie for notes on the 5th fret.

That’s it. You are now playing lead guitar for blues in G using the minor pentatonic scale in G – sort of. Maybe a bit more practice yet then you can start getting fancy by bending the C note on the 3rd string with your 3rd finger for a bit more of that blues effect and also experiment by mixing up the sequence of notes and going back and forward within parts of the pattern as the blues spirit moves you.

Major Pentatonic Version of the Pattern

To get some of that lead guitar happening, we can deploy the same pattern in the major pentatonic version. Say we want to play along to a rock backing track in the key of A – like in this YouTube video:

All we do is slide the whole pattern down one fret and start at a new root note position like so:

We’re using the same pattern and same finger positions but just moving the whole thing down one fret towards the headstock of the guitar.

You can mix it up in a similar fashion to the blues version of the pattern by mixing up the sequence you play and bending the same note in the pattern – this time it’s the B note at the 4th fret on the 3rd string.

Conclusion: Not So Hard and Lots of Fun

Starting out playing lead guitar with guitar scales may seem intimidating at first, but it’s not so hard once you get the hang of it. In fact, it can be lots of fun, especially when you start to see progress and witness the transformation of your skills as a guitarist.

While guitar scales serve as essential tools, there’s so much more to explore with it all. The ability to dynamically move positions up and down the neck as you play is another fantastic skill you can acquire as a guitarist. By playing with different positions and techniques, you can create a variety of unique sounds and styles, making your playing stand out.

Of course, playing the guitar requires patience and dedication. It’s not enough to master a few scales and call it a day. There’s a range of skills you need to develop to become a proficient and confident guitar player. That’s why it’s advisable to consider enlisting the help of a professional guitar teacher or taking advantage of the numerous online guitar courses out there.

If you’re an absolute beginner, the Fender Play system is an excellent starting point. This online guitar course provides a comprehensive and systematic approach to improving your playing, covering everything from the basics of chord progressions, strumming techniques, guitar scales, and so much more.

With focused practice and dedication, you can hone your skills, improve your playing, and gain a deeper appreciation for the art. So don’t be afraid to take the plunge, learn new techniques, and explore the possibilities that playing lead guitar with guitar scales has to offer.

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