What are guitar scales?

At its simplest, a guitar scale is a series of notes played in succession with one of those notes being the root note. The root note determines what key the scale is in and the choice of notes to play determine what mode it is derived from.

That is also the simplest definition of any scale on any standard instrument. However, there are some distinctive aspects of guitar scales compared to many other instruments.

Distinctive aspects of guitar scales

You really can’t underestimate the significance of guitar scales in all rock, blues, jazz and related styles.

Focusing on rock and blues as a starting point, scales form the foundation of lead guitar playing and improvisation for both. Scales in Jazz guitar improvisation take on a whole new level of complexity which we’ll leave for another blog post on another day.

So if you want to get even a little bit good at lead guitar playing in rock and blues, you need to make guitar scales your long term friend and appropriately hang out lots with them – because practice makes progress.

This can seem a bit daunting initially. The whole area of guitar scales can get very complex and very ‘musician nerdville’. Stay tuned though, because further down we’ll go through an easy, simple but powerful approach that hits the 80/20 mark for a start into mastering scales.

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.

So lets compare doing the ‘Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do’ scale in the key of C on the standard flute compared to guitar. That scale is called the Ionian mode to get nerdy about it – more about modes in a minute. On the flute, you can start the scale from a root note of C in two places (finger positions). On the guitar, just limiting it to options on the 5th and 6th stings, you can start the same scale in 4 different root note fret locations. On top of that, you’ve got multiple options for which finger you start the scale with and what pattern you use if you want to move along the frets or down the strings, or a combination of both… phew. And that is just for one mode. There are 7 traditional modes – so you can multiply all that complexity by 7 (and that’s not even counting some additional ‘fancy’ modes – stay tuned for more on the joy of modes).

Have I convinced you that it’s all pretty complex yet? Actually, writing all this is good therapy for me because it makes me realize why I like to keep it simple and get great bang for my buck with a straight forward but powerful way to hit the 80/20 using scales for rock and blues lead guitar playing.

A bit more on modes

So a bit more on modes – not too much, just enough to get us by. You need to read elsewhere for the full dive in. Modes are important, but sometimes you just want to get playing and dream that ‘lead guitar god’ dream.

There are many different note sequences that can make up a given scale. These are the modes we’ve been chatting about. Try these on for size: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

That list of seven modes is just for the major scale. There is a bunch of variants for the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales as well. Continue the process of brain overload right now with the likes of Superlocrian, Semilocrian, Ultralocrian – and that’s just the extra Locrian set! 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.

To keep it simple, we’re going to quietly leave modes now – go ahead and put them on your bucket list if you must but we are going to focus on the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales as the basis for our simplified approach. This lets us get straight to using guitar scales to achieve our goal of lead guitar magnificence – or at least some passing version of that.

Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

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)

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)

Similarly, 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.

So now technically, we have the two pieces of the puzzle as a way to keep it simple as a start of your Guitar scales journey.

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?

One Pattern to Use

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 ).

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, especially when you are playing along with rock-based music. It is fun to switch between the scales in the same song for different effects. Interestingly though, if you play a major pentatonic scale as lead to a classic 12 bar blues tune, it just sort of sounds ‘not quite right’ compared to the minor pentatonic scale. Check out the Backing Track Blues in G on this YouTube video. Once you learn the patterns as described below, try both scales over the top of it and you’ll see what I mean.

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.

Not So Hard and Lots of Fun

So you can see that it really isn’t so hard to make a start using Guitar Scales to play lead rock and blues like a (beginner) legend. Of course, there is so much more to explore with it all, such as dynamically moving positions up and down the neck as you play. Also, this is just one little bit – but a very important bit – of the range of skills it takes to play guitar and patiently get better at it. If you want a comprehensive and systematic approach to improve your playing, you can find yourself a local guitar teacher (which to be honest, can be a bit hit and miss – best to take a recommendation on someone good from someone you trust), try one of the online courses out there. One of the best (if you’re an absolute beginner) is the Fender Play system.

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