Reading Scale Diagrams
Andrew Cockburn
Oct 26 2008, 05:05 PM
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Hi there, and welcome to my quick lesson on reading scale diagrams!

A first look at a scale diagram can be daunting, but don't worry, they are very easy to read and understand and also particularly useful for practicing!

Lets dive straight in and take a look at one:

Attached Image

This is our old friend A minor Pentatonic. Lets take a detailed look and see what this diagram is trying to tell us!

Well, as every scale diagram does, this diagram wants to tell us which notes are in the scale and which aren't! Scale diagrams can (but rarely do) tell us all the notes possible to play in a scale over the whole neck - but they most often focus on a specific area or box, to show us a group of notes that are easily played together without moving up and down the neck too much.

First, as is usually the case, this diagram is a representation of the guitar fretboard with the low E string at the bottom, and the high E string at the top. In this case the strings are labeled, but they aren't always. If they are not, assume that the low E string is at the bottom and you probably won't go wrong.

Next, the numbers across the top tell us what frets we are looking at. Since this box of the A minor Pentatonic scale is some way up the neck, the diagram doesn't show the nut as that would be a waste of space. As we can see here, the diagram, starts on the 4th fret, and the first actual notes occur on the 5th fret.

Note also, that the standard fret marking dots are present so that we can orient ourselves on the neck - these are usually always included in scale diagrams, whereas sometimes the fret numbers are not.

OK, the rest is pretty simple! Each dot shows us where we place out finger to get a note from the scale we are interested in. If there isn't a dot there, then that note isn't in the scale. In this case, the notes are also marked on the dots which makes it even easier, and if we read them off in order, lowest string first moving from left (lower pitch) to right (higher pitch) and swapping strings when we run out of dots, we get the notes from the scale:


As expected, these are all notes from the A minor Pentatonic scale!

Now, the final mystery is why are some of the notes different colors? In the scale above, the "A" notes are all different - this is because they are the root notes of the scale so they deserve special attention. If you are unfamiliar with the importance of root notes check out my Introduction to Scales Lesson

The only other complication is that occasionally, some of the notes in the scale are picked out in a 3rd color - this is often done when that note has a special significance within the context of the diagram, for instance, if we are talking about the blues scale, the blue note, as it is called, has a special significance so we might identify it by making it a different color.

Finally, lets look at some more examples!

This is box 2 of the A minor Pentatonic scale. Notice that we have moved up the neck, and are reusing some of the notes from the previous diagram we saw, but there are new ones in there as well - this is an example of a scale diagram just focusing on the subset of notes that can easily be played together:

Attached Image

And finally, we can use a scale diagram to show all of the possible notes in a scale - this is useful for reference purposes and allows us to take a larger view of the scale we are working with:

Attached Image

And that's it for this lesson!

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