Guitar scales are the building blocks for writing songs, creating solos, and even composing good chord progressions. Learning how to use guitar scales will not only help you improve your guitar skills, but it will help you become a better musician.
In this guide, I will answer the most common questions guitarists have about scales, how to learn them, how to use scales, how to practice scales, and more.
Important: I know that many guitarists aren’t interested in learning music theory. In this guide, I will explain scales in the simplest way possible that doesn’t rely on an understanding of music theory.
Even if you know nothing about music theory, by the end of this guide you will know enough to start using scales in your playing.
Once you have a basic understanding of what guitar scales are, check out this guide for some guitar scales exercises.
What Is A Guitar Scale?
Before we start looking at how to learn, practice and use guitar scales, let’s look at a basic definition of scales:
A guitar scale is a selection of notes that work well together that you can use to write music. Different types of guitar scales (eg: Major, minor, Pentatonic) use different selections of notes and change the feel of music you can write.
The above definition gives you a basic understanding of what scales are without needing to know about music theory topics such as intervals. A scale is basically a bunch of certain notes that work well together and can be used to build chord progressions, write riffs and solos.
As mentioned above, there are different types of guitar scales and each type of scale can create a different type of vibe, feel, or color for a song or solo.
Here are some examples of different types of guitar scales you’re likely to come across:
- Major scale
- Minor scale
- Pentatonic scale
- Blues scale
You’ve probably heard of the above scales and may even know a couple of scale patterns. For now, don’t worry about modes and focus on learning the basic scales such as the Major scale and Pentatonic scale. Once you understand these scales, it will be easier to learn the modes.
A guitar scale is a selection of notes that work well together and each type of scale uses a different selection of notes. For example, here are all the notes in the ‘A Minor Pentatonic’ scale highlighted on a fretboard (if you don’t know how to read the below scale chart, skip to the next section then come back):
If you only play the above notes and don’t play any other notes, you’re playing the A Minor Pentatonic scale.
Here are the notes for the C Major Scale:
It should be clear that this scale uses a very different selection of notes. This means that the C Major scale will sound very different when compared against the A Minor Pentatonic scale.
The Major scale uses more notes than the Pentatonic scale, which means it gives us more notes to choose from when playing or writing music.
For now, just remember that each type of guitar scale uses a different selection of notes.
How to Read Guitar Scale Charts
Throughout this guide, I’ll include scale charts as examples. If you’ve never seen a guitar scale chart before, it might seem a bit confusing. Before we look at what guitar scales are used for or how to learn them, let’s go over how to read guitar scale charts.
Here is the chart for the ‘box shape’ or ‘first position’ of the minor Pentatonic scale:
The above scale chart is basically a snapshot of the fretboard. The six horizontal lines represent the six guitar strings. The bottom line is your low E string and the top line is your high E string. As you might expect, the vertical lines represent the frets on the fretboard.
The dots on the lines represent the notes within the scale. When you see a dot, it means that note is part of the scale.
Here’s the above Pentatonic shape starting on the fifth fret on the guitar:
What this means is you can play any of the notes shown above and you will be playing notes in the A minor Pentatonic scale. We know this position is the A minor Pentatonic because the root note from the chart starts on the fifth fret on the E string (A).
Whenever you see guitar scale charts in lessons, books or exercises on this website, imagine them as snapshots of the fretboard.
Here is the above scale shape played ascending up the fretboard in TAB format:
Play this example and compare it against the above scale chart. Now try to play it again by only looking at the scale chart. Try starting on the highest note and move backward through all the notes.
What Guitar Scales Are Used For
Think of guitar scales as the building blocks of music. You can write a riff, song, or solo without knowing about any scales, but knowing scales can give you an advantage. Knowing how to use scales can help you write chord progressions, compose solos, or even figure out how to play other songs.
Writing riffs, solos, and melodies
Guitar scales are used to write music by giving you a good idea of what notes will sound good when played together. If you’re writing a solo for a song, a scale can tell you which notes will likely work really well together and can help you figure out what to play next.
To give you an idea of how powerful scales are when writing music, take a look at the below TAB for the main melody to Always With Me, Always With You by Joe Satriani:
The above melody is a great example of what you can do with scales. How did Joe Satriani know which notes would sound good in this melody and which notes to avoid? Why did he choose to play these notes and not include some of the in-between notes?
While Joe has a very deep understanding of music theory, the simple answer is that he used a scale to write the melody. By sticking to a scale, he could easily write a melody that works.
Take a look at the notes in the below scale (B Major) and compare those notes against the above TAB:
If you look closely, you’ll see that every single note in that melody (apart from one sliding note) fits perfectly within the B Major Scale. In other words, Joe Satriani used the B Major Scale to write this melody. The Major Scale gave him an easy shortcut to writing the melody and you can do the same once you learn scales.
If you want to write your own music or develop a stronger understanding of other people’s music, learning scales can help you.
Guitar scales can also be used to help you figure out what chords might sound good together in a progression. If you’ve written a progression using three chords and you want to figure out what the fourth chord should be, you can look at scales to give you some hints.
Take a look at the highlighted notes on the first three frets below which are part of the C Major scale:
Look at the notes and think about which open chord shapes fit within those notes.
For example, you can see that the Am (A minor) chord shape fits perfectly in these notes:
This means the chord Am fits as part of the C Major scale. What other chords can you find in those notes?
Here are some other common open chords that work as part of the C Major scale:
- C (C Major)
- Dm (D Minor)
- Em (E Minor)
- F (F Major)
- G (G Major)
- Am (A Minor)
If you know any of these chords, check for yourself whether those chords fit within that scale. If you know more chords, try to find any others that might fit within the scale. A chord fits if all of the notes fit within the scale.
All of the above-listed chords (and many more I haven’t listed) fit as part of the C Major scale. This means you can come up with a chord progression using any of those chords and they will work together.
The main point to remember is that you can take a look at a scale and it will tell you what chords fit within that scale. This is a really important aspect of writing music and the more time you spend playing around with this idea, the easier it will be to write your own music or understand other people’s music.
Find out how to find the chords in any key in this lesson. It explains in detail how to find the chords in any Major or minor scale.
How to Learn Guitar Scales
Hopefully after reading the above information you have a basic idea of how scales are used in music. The best way to see why scales are important is to learn them and start using them for yourself. Let’s look at how to learn guitar scales.
There are two parts of learning guitar scales:
- Memorizing which notes to play for each type of scale
- Developing muscle memory to play the notes in a scale
Some exercises help you work on one of the above points, while other exercises help you work on both points at the same time. Let’s look at what you need to do for each of the above points so you can pick the methods and exercises that suit you best.
It’s important that you spend time working on both of the above points or you may find that you get stuck later on.
For example, some guitarists spend a lot of time practicing scale exercises to help them work on muscle memory, but they don’t spend any time memorizing which notes fit into each type of scale. So they end up being able to play different scale patterns really fast but aren’t confident in changing between different scales.
Once you memorize the notes for each type of scale you want to learn (you don’t have to learn every type of scale), spend time practicing scales in a way that you will use them. This means if you will be using scales to write solos, practice scales in the upper parts of the fretboard where you’re likely to play your solos.
If you’re planning on using scales to write riffs and chord progressions, use scale exercises that prepare you for writing riffs or chord progressions.
The way you practice scales is the way you’ll end up using them.
This is a really important point to remember. Guitarists who practice a lot of three-notes-per-string scale runs up and down the neck, end up playing that way. Guitarists who practice only one scale pattern in one position, end up only being able to play in that one position.
Guitarists who practice a variety of scale exercises all over the neck end up with the freedom to play anything they want. What you practice is what you become.
Memorizing notes in a scale
There are plenty of different methods or systems guitarists use to memorize notes within a scale. There is no best method to learning scales because every guitarist learns in different ways. To find the best method for you, compare the different methods and think about which one may suit you the best.
Memorizing scales using formulas
One way of memorizing the notes in a scale is by memorizing the scale formula for each type of scale. The advantage of this method is that you only need to memorize one formula for each type of scale.
The disadvantage is that it takes more effort in the beginning as you need to memorize a formula, then learn how to apply that formula. For this reason, many guitarists instead prefer to use a method that relies on memorizing patterns.
Here is an example of how you would memorize the notes in a scale using a formula.
The formula for the Major scale (the most common type of scale you’ll use as a guitarist) is: W W H W W W H
The ‘W’ means a whole-tone or whole-step. This means a distance of two frets on the fretboard.
The ‘H’ means a half-tone or half-step. This means a distance of one fret on the fretboard.
The way you use a formula like this is you pick a note – let’s use C – then use the formula to figure out the other notes in the scale. By the end of the formula, you’ll have all the notes in the C Major scale.
If this sounds confusing, it quickly becomes easy after some practice. So let’s go through an example.
Starting on C, the first step in our formula is to move up a whole-step (W W H W W W H). So we start on C and move two frets up. Moving two frets up, we end up on the note D. This means D is the second note in the C Major scale.
We then start on D and look at the next step in the formula, which is to move up a whole-step (W W H W W W H). Two frets up from D is E.
Starting on E, the next step in the formula is to move up a half-step (W W H W W W H). One fret up from E is F.
Starting on F, the next step is to move up a whole-step (W W H W W W H). Two frets up from F is G.
Starting on G, the next step is to move up a whole-step (W W H W W W H). Two frets up from G is A.
Starting on A, the next step is to move up a whole-step (W W H W W W H). Two frets up from A is B.
Starting on B, the last step in the formula is to move up a half-step (W W H W W W H). One fret up from B is C. We end up on the same note we started on, so we know we followed the steps correctly.
When we piece together all of the notes from each step in the formula, we end up with all the notes in the C Major scale: C D E F G A B C.
While this might seem like a lot of work to figure out the notes in the scale, the big advantage is that once you know how to do this, you can find out the notes to any scale.
So if you want to figure out the notes in the A Major scale, you simply start on A and follow the same formula.
Here are the notes in the A Major scale figured out with the formula:
This method is recommended for guitarists who want to develop a stronger understanding of the music you play. If you want to figure out what scales are being used in songs you play, learning the formulas of scales can help you. With some practice, you’ll find it quick and easy to figure out the scales used in any song.
Memorizing scales using patterns
You’ve probably heard of the CAGED system or 3NPS. These methods are based on patterns. Many guitarists find them an easy way to get into scales as patterns are quick and easy to memorize.
A good example of using patterns to memorize the notes in a scale is found in how most guitarists start to learn the Pentatonic scale.
Most guitarists are first taught the ‘first position’ of the minor Pentatonic scale as shown below:
This ‘box shape’ pattern gives guitarists a quick and easy way to start practicing and using the Pentatonic scale. While it’s restricted to four frets on the fretboard when the guitarist is ready they can learn the other four patterns that make up the entire Pentatonic scale.
Here are the five patterns together on the fretboard for the A minor Pentatonic scale:
I’ve highlighted each of the five shapes in a different color so you can see how they connect together.
The advantage of memorizing the notes using patterns is you don’t even need to know the note names you’re playing. You simply follow the notes in the pattern and you’re playing the scale.
To change to a different Pentatonic scale (eg: change from A minor Pentatonic to C minor Pentatonic), you simply need to shift the patterns up or down the fretboard to line up with the correct starting position.
The disadvantage of learning scales using this method is that you don’t know what you’re playing unless you also memorize the notes on the fretboard. Some guitarists are perfectly happy to be able to play scales without knowing the names of the notes they’re playing, so the choice is yours.
Don’t make your mind up yet on which method to use. I recommend you try both of them in the beginning so you at least know what both involve. Then after you learn one scale using both methods, you can decide which method you want to use to learn other scales.
For some great guitar scale exercises to add to your practice routine, check out this guide.
Guitar Scales FAQ
This guide so far has given you a basic explanation of what guitar scales are, how they’re used, and the different methods available to learning them. Here are some of the most common questions I hear guitarists ask about scales.
What are guitar scales used for?
Guitar scales are used to help guitarists write riffs, solos, chord progressions, and entire songs. Guitar scales are used in music in different ways. For example, blues and rock guitarists often use the Pentatonic scale to improvise and write lead sections. Metal guitarists use a variety of different scales to compose riffs and solos.
How do guitar scales work?
Guitar scales work in the same way that different colors go together when painting. A guitar scale is a collection of notes that work well together. When you play the notes that all fit in a certain scale, you’ll end up with something that should sound cohesive. When you accidentally play a note outside of a scale, you’ll probably notice that it doesn’t sound quite right.
What order should I learn guitar scales?
Every guitarist different needs when it comes to scales, but here is a good order to learn guitar scales:
- The Minor Pentatonic Scale
- The Blues Scale
- The Major Scale
- The Minor Scale
- The Major Pentatonic Scale
- The Modes of the Major Scale
The first two scales are very easy to learn and help you get comfortable with learning scales. Once you learn the Major scale, everything will get easier. Leave learning the modes to last as they are based on the Major scale.
What are the 7 guitar modes?
The seven modes of the Major scale in order are:
Each mode has a different flavor or color to it and can greatly change the feel of the music you play. Learning all seven of the modes will help you identify them in music.
It’s also important to note that the Ionian mode is the same as the Major scale and the Aeolian mode is the same as the Minor scale. So if you already know how to play these scales, you already know two of the seven guitar modes.
Are guitar scales important?
Guitar scales are the building blocks of music and incredibly powerful tools in writing and understanding music. Scales are important as they help us understand what we’re playing.
Without scales, you’ll have to randomly play notes until you figure out on your own what works and what doesn’t. Scales give you a shortcut to what works.
Should I practice scales on guitar?
There are a few reasons why you might want to practice scales on the guitar. The first reason is that practicing scales develops your skills on guitar. Scales will improve your finger independence and dexterity, which will help you learn to play songs.
Practicing scales also helps you prepare for the songs that use scales in them. For example, if there’s a complicated solo you want to learn, practicing the scale that solo is built with will make it far easier to learn the solo.
The other reason why you might want to practice scales on the guitar is if you want to write your own music. Practicing scales will help you feel comfortable with using them, which makes it easier to apply those scales in your own music.
How many scales are there for guitar?
Because there are twelve notes on the guitar, for each type of scale there are 12 different possibilities (eg: A Major, Bb Major, B Major, C Major, etc.).
There are countless types of scales for guitar because there are countless different ways you can combine different notes. You could fill a book covering all the different types of guitar scales possible.
The good news is that there are a few different types of scales that are extremely common on guitar. Once you learn the Major scale, minor scale, and Pentatonic scales, you’ll know more than enough to last a lifetime.
What are the 12 Major scales?
There is a Major scale starting on every note on the guitar. Here are the 12 Major scales starting from A:
- A Major
- A# / Bb Major
- B Major
- C Major
- C# / Db Major
- D Major
- D# / Eb Major
- E Major
- F Major
- F# / Gb Major
- G Major
- G# / Ab Major
If this sounds confusing, remember that the only difference between the scales is the starting position. The formula or scale pattern as explained earlier stays the same. If you know the formula or pattern for the Major scale, you will be able to play all 12 Major scales.
How many pentatonic scales are there on a guitar?
Because there are twelve notes on the guitar, for each type of Pentatonic scale there are 12 different possibilities (eg: A minor Pentatonic, Bb minor Pentatonic, etc.).
There are five notes in a Pentatonic scale (Penta means five and Tonic means tones). Because there are 12 notes, there are many different five-note combinations possible. Most of these combinations (usually referred to as exotic scales) you’ll never come across.
The most common types of Pentatonic scales are the minor Pentatonic scale and the Major Pentatonic scale. While there are plenty of others, these two Pentatonic scales are the most common by far.
What are the 5 Pentatonic scales?
When you hear people talk about 5 Pentatonic scales, what they mean is 5 patterns or shapes. Guitarists tend to break the Pentatonic scale down into five shapes to make it easier to memorize.
So there aren’t 5 Pentatonic scales but there are 5 shapes you can learn to memorize the Pentatonic scale (as shown earlier).
What scales should I learn first?
As mentioned above, I recommend starting with the minor Pentatonic scale. It’s an easy scale to memorize and is used in countless songs. Some guitarists only know the minor Pentatonic scale and are perfectly happy because it’s so useful.
Once you learn the minor Pentatonic scale, you can easily learn the Blues scale by adding one extra note to the minor Pentatonic scale. Adding one note to the minor Pentatonic scale can open up your playing in new ways and help you understand how scales work.
Once you learn those scales, you can learn the Major scale. This is the most important scale to learn from a music theory point of view, so it’s worth the time to memorize it.
What scales can you play over chords?
The type of scales you can play over chords depends on the chord progression. You can play any scale that matches the notes used in the chords. The more you know about music theory, the easier this will be to figure out.
You can play a different scale over each chord, or you can play one scale over all of the chords.
If you want to play one scale over all of the chords, you need to find a scale that works with each chord. Understanding music theory will quickly tell you which scales to use, but it’s possible to figure this out without music theory.
If you want to play a different scale over each chord, you need to feel confident with changing quickly between different scales.
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Have a question about scales not covered here? Ask it here and I’ll add it to this FAQ.