Scales are the foundation of melodies, riffs, licks, solos, and improvisation.
Rhythm guitar can be a lot of fun. But if you want to break out of just strumming and picking chords, and start throwing in some cool flourishes in your playing, you’ll have to learn your scales.
At first, scales aren’t that interesting, so you’ll need to exercise your patience as you begin to explore this area of music. But if you stay with it, the rewards are waiting for you.
Here are five important guitar scales you’ll definitely want to learn. If you want to take your studies even further, you can also check out a tool like the Scalerator.
1. The Major Scale
Every musician should become intimately familiar with the major scale. When you know how the major scale works, you begin to unlock other components of music theory.
The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it has seven notes. Most scales are made up of seven notes, though there are some exceptions.
If you’ve ever learned your “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do”, this is the same thing. But the major scale can be played in every key, so your note selection changes depending on what key signature you’re playing it in.
But let’s keep things simple. In the key of C, this means: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then C. The C major scale is often the first scale taught because it’s made up of just the white keys on a piano or keyboard.
“What a second. That’s actually eight notes” you may say.
Right, but you may have noticed that one of the notes actually repeats, namely C. As you can see from the Do-Re-Mi formula, it starts and ends on Do. In effect, we’re starting on a lower C, and ending on a higher C. This is called an octave.
2. The Minor Scale
The minor scale is another diatonic scale. The major scale sounds happy, consonant, and it resolves. The minor scale is kind of the opposite – it sounds sad or dark, and kind of incomplete.
Since we already talked about the C major scale, the best minor scale to bring up here would be the A minor scale. It is very complementary to the C major scale, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment.
The A minor scale is made up of the following notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G (and yes, you can end the scale on the higher A).
Did you notice how similar this scale is to the C major scale?
In effect, it’s the exact same scale because it has the same set of notes. The only difference is that it starts and ends on A instead of C. It’s still a good idea to differentiate between major and minor, but as far as the fretboard is concerned, you can use the exact same notes whether you’re playing in C major or A minor. This is an important lessons to learn.
3. The Major Pentatonic Scale
“Penta” means five, so that means that a pentatonic scale is made up of five notes. It’s one of the few scales that is named after the number of notes it contains.
The C major pentatonic scale has these notes in it: C, D, E, G, and A.
At first glance, it’s very similar to the major scale. But if you’re soloing or improving over a chord progression in the key of C, notes in the pentatonic scale would all be considered “safe notes”, no matter what the chords are (as long as they’re also in the key of C).
Another way of saying the same thing is that B and F are “color notes” that work well sometimes, and don’t work quite as well at other times. But as long as you’re in the key of C, they won’t sound completely off.
4. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The A minor pentatonic scale has these notes in it: A, C, D, E, and G. Yes, it’s pretty much the same thing as the major pentatonic scale except for the fact that the notes are in a different order.
You’re probably beginning to wonder why you need to know the pentatonic scale when it’s so similar to the major or minor scale.
First of all, the pentatonic scale has fewer notes. This makes it easier to process. There are only five pentatonic patterns across the entire fretboard, and once you learn them all, it makes it easy to improvise and play solos anywhere on the guitar.
Second of all, it gives you access to what’s commonly called “box patterns”. Every note in the pentatonic scale is only two or three frets apart. This means that you won’t get lost terribly easily.
Third of all, it actually saves you from having to learn multiple scales across the entire fretboard, because once you know all five patterns, all you need to do is “add” the right notes to create the major or minor scale.
5. The Blues Scale
The blues scale is a hexatonic scale – that means six notes.
The A blues scale contains the following notes: A, C, D, Eb, E, and G. It’s very similar to the A minor pentatonic scale, except that it includes the flatted fifth, or the “blue note”.
And yes, it’s just like it sounds. The blues scale works great in Blues music. But you might be surprised to find out how many of your favorite Metallica songs have riffs that are based on the blues scale as well.
I already talked about the idea that you can easily change the A minor pentatonic scale just by adding the right notes. This is pretty much exactly the case with the blues scale, where the only thing you need to do to turn a pentatonic scale into a blues scale is to add the Eb note.
The importance of each of these scales may not be entirely obvious to you at this point. Don’t worry about that.
I know that I asked a lot of “why” questions early on in my learning journey, and many of those questions weren’t answered until much later.
What I can tell you is this: I’m nearly 15 years into my guitar journey, and I still haven’t stopped playing or using these scales. That should be enough motivation.