Introduction to Scales (lesson)

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We've looked at a few basics around the guitar, and discussed what notes are, the very foundation of music. The next step is to start understanding scales. The problem is that when some people are presented with scales for the first time, and realize that they are being asked to play endless variations of these scales for the foreseeable future, it can become a daunting task. In this introductory lesson we are going to explore some of the reasons that scales exist, and why we make such a big deal about them.


What are scales? A Technical View

In a previous lesson we discussed the 12 possible notes we had available for constructing music out of. Western music has evolved such that rules have emerged over how and when you use these notes together. Although this is merely convention, you will be so used to hearing the various common scales that when those rules are not applied, or are applied differently you will immediately notice that something is wrong or different. There is nothing written in stone about the way these things are organised, but we are all so used to hearing music from an early age that incorporates these rules that we don't even think about the alternatives until we start to study musical theory in depth.

As a guitar player, you need to understand these rules if you want to play western style music at all. A fundamental part of these rules and conventions are the musical scales we use.

What is a scale? It is a restricted sequence of notes, chosen from the 12 available, that work together to give a certain desired mood or effect to the music. The best way to describe individual scales is as a list of gaps between the notes, we use the term Tone or Semitone to denote our Half notes or Whole notes, and give the formula using their initial letters, T and S.

Some people use Half and Whole (W,H) to denote the gaps, and another way is to list the number of semitones (1 or 2). Either way, these three are identical and all give the gaps for the major scale:

1. T T S T T T S
2. W W H W W W H
3. 2 2 1 2 2 2 1

Lets see how this works. Picking a scale at random - G# major. This initially tells us two things. First, our root note (or first note in the scale) is G#. Secondly, we will be using the Major scale formula to work out the notes.

So, we start with our G# note, and add the first step of the formula which is a T, meaning a Tone. So starting with a G# and moving up a tone or two half notes puts us onto A#:

G# + T = A#

Next, we start with A#, and look at the next letter in the formula - its a Tone again, so we add 2 half notes to A#, to give us a C:

A# + T = C

Next, we start with a C and check the formula - this time it is a semitone, which takes us to C#:

C + S = C#

If we carry on with this we get the following:

C# + T = D#
D# + T = F (remember there is no such thing as an E#)
F + T = G
G + S = G#

So, we have built our scale of G# major according to our major scale formula to get the notes:

G# A# C C# D# F G

The majority of scales we use have 7 notes in them but that is not a hard and fast rule. For instance, the minor pentatonic scale only has 5 notes in it (its formula is 3 2 2 3 2 - I used numbers here instead of T and S because it has a couple of Tone and a half leaps, which is 3 half notes, and that is more easily written down as a 3 instead of something like "T + 1/2", but it all means the same thing). Some scales have more, for instance the chromatic scale has all 12 notes in it.

So that's how scales work! The formula describes them and we pick whichever root note we want to construct them around. The next step is to convert these notes into a pattern so that we can play it.

Scales vs Patterns

A lot of the most common questions posted by beginning guitarists are around how scale patterns work and why they are important. There is a difference between "patterns" and "scales".

A "scale" is a group of notes with a specific amount of distance between them - just as we described above. These distances determine what "patterns" we need to use to produce the desired "scale".

If you know one major scale "pattern", you know how to play EVERY major "scale" on a guitar in standard tuning. To play a C Major Scale, start the pattern with your on C. To play a D Major Scale, start the pattern on D. So on so forth. The same goes with minor patterns, diminished patterns, harmonic minor patterns, etc .... once you know the pattern, just start it on whatever note you want, and you're playing that scale.

The C Major scale consists of the notes C D E F G A B. It has consisted of these notes for a very, very long time. It consisted of these notes long before the 6 string guitar as we know it was invented.

Musical instruments, the guitar included, are used to produce these notes. On a guitar, these notes are produced by pressing the string down at a certain point on the fretboard and striking the string so that it will vibrate at the correct frequency to sound the desired note.

Here is the important point: The C Major scale PATTERNS that we all struggle with as beginners were created to reproduce the notes C D E F G A B - the C Major SCALE - on a guitar in standard tuning. They are the patterns that players have determined to be the most convenient to reproduce the desired notes. A pattern is NOT a is a pattern used to produce the notes of a scale. The PATTERN was created to fit the SCALE. This may sounds confusing - but think of it this way: scales are part of music THEORY because a scale is just an idea - a theory - until it is actually played/sung/whatever....and the way that we, as guitarists, put this theoretical SCALE into action is by playing a PATTERN that produces the desired notes.

To demonstrate, tune your low E string down a half step, your A up a half step, and so on until all strings are detuned by about a half step. No need to be exact here...just make sure your guitar is out of tune. Now play the pattern that you know as "the C Major Scale". Guess're no longer playing a C Major scale, because you're no longer playing the notes C D E F G A B. You are simply playing a pattern that, when applied to a guitar in standard tuning, would normally produce the notes of a C Major scale. But since the guitar is no longer tuned the way it was when that pattern was created, you need to press down the strings in different places to sound the notes you want (C D E F G A B ) the pattern no longer works. The SCALE hasn't changed - a C Major Scale is still C D E F G A B - but since the guitar is tuned differently, you would need to create a different PATTERN to play the correct SCALE notes C D E F G A B.

So, a SCALE is a theoretical grouping of notes that are recognized as producing a certain sound when played, like the C Major Scale. A PATTERN is used to produce those notes. All of the patterns you learn are just convenient ways to play a scale.

We will learn about the patterns used to play various scales in later lessons.

There are a couple of different strategies to build patterns:

1. Start on the E string on any note of the scale. Mark that fret in your mind as the home position. Move up that string playing notes from the scale until the next note would be more than 4 frets from home position (counting the home position as fret 1), and place that next not on a higher string. Keep going until you run out of strings.

This approach gives you regular scale boxes - boxes are good because they keep your hand in the same position throughout the scale.

2. Start on the E string on any note of the scale. For each string, add notes until you have played exactly 3 notes on that string then swap strings.

This approach gives you 3 note per string scales - these are good because they have an even number of notes on each string which really helps with speed runs. These patterns are tailor made for triplets.

Change the number from 3 to 2 or 4 and you get 2 note per string scales, or even 4 note per string scales (possible, but very hard to play, a favourite of Alan Holdsworth I believe). 2 notes per string are especially suitable for pentatonic. (In fact for pentatonic it turns out that 2 notes per string and boxes are the same).

3. Whole neck approach - treat each string in isolation, and play entire scales by moving up 1 string. Understand that there will be huge overlap between strings, and figure out all the possible ways of playing an individual note or run on all strings (very hard to do in practice but this is how really top nothch performers see things)

That's all there is to patterns really - and as a point of terminology, I would call boxes a special case of patterns that are constructed using rule 1, patterns is a more general term that realtes to all possible ways to map a scale to the guitar neck.

Scales vs Keys

Although the two are closely related, a scale is NOT a key. Although keys seem to be named after scales, that is a little misleading. A Key is the tonal center of a song, and denotes the chords and notes that the song keeps coming back to. It is perfectly possible to write a song in which you start of with a scale of C major, and then switch briefly to using a scale Ab Major for a bar or two, before moving back to C. The very fact that we moved back to C helps us see this as the tonal centre or heart of the song, the home ground that we keep returning to. The home ground is the Key, and more often than not, we will start with a scale that matches the key. Sometimes we will never leave the scale that matches the key, but it is possible to change between sales without changing the key of the song.

When we change the Key of a song, it is called a "modulation", and here we ARE changing the tonal centre of the song, and we will be using a new scale or set of scales to back that up. The song will be structured so that the new Key is the place we will keep returning to, and the old key and its associated scale or scales is history, unless we modulate back.

So, think of the Key as the anchor for the song, scales as tools to construct the song from, and patterns as the realization of scales on the guitar fretboard.

What Are Scales? A Musical View

OK, we have had a dry technical description of what a scale is - but where is the music in that? Well, in musical terms, a scale is a palette of notes that you can choose from to put together chords, melodies solos, accompaniments, harmonies and just about everything ... hopefully that sounds a little more musical.

Look at it this way - you need to learn English (or the language of your choice) before you can be a poet. Scales are the language of music, and don't worry, there are more than enough different ways to put them together to keep things interesting. Not knowing scales would be a little like trying to write a poem without using real words - in some cases it could work and be very cool, but the chances are better if you stick to a commonly understood medium, which is what scales/language are.

To push the metaphor a little further - there are many types of scales - minor, major, modes etc - think of this as increasing your vocabulary and learning different and more original ways of expressing your ideas.

Why Are They So Important?

There's a good quote from Andreas Segovia, who was deemed the father of modern guitar playing. He maintained that learning scales covers the most amount of technical ground in the shortest space of time. And if you think about it, when you are learning scales you are:

1. Learning how to effectively play one note after another. 2. Improving the dexterity of your fingers, in a useful context. 3. Teaching your ears to hear which notes go together in what sequences. i.e. What notes go into what scales. (This is of paramount importance). 4. Providing you with the muscle memory of how the regular notes and tones go from one string to the next.

It's true that by learning to play in a scale, you are effectively restricting the amount of notes you play. However this is what provides us with recognisable musical structure. If you learn what a large range of scales sound like, you'll be able to quickly select something that suits the mood of the piece you are trying to write. This saves a lot of "fumbling about" looking for notes in the long run.

Sometimes as a more advanced exercise in practice it's interesting to "make up a scale" by picking a set of notes out of the 12 notes available. You'll usually find though that if you research the set of notes you've chosen, that there's probably already a scale which has those notes, but by learning some licks in this new scale, you can jump from something, for instance minor pentatonic, into your new scale for a few seconds, before going back.

What are these "Boxes" That Everyone Talks About?

Moving back to patterns for a little while - most systems of learning patterns partition the fretboard into "boxes". A box is nothing more than a group of notes in a scale that are easy to reach without moving your fretting hand about the fretboard too much. Boxes are constructed by moving up the bottom E string, note by note within the scale, starting on that note whatever it is, and playing notes out of the scale. This means that there will be a box for each note of the scale. In the case of the major scale there will be 7 boxes, whilst there are only 5 pentatonic boxes.

If you have studied the CAGED system you will notice that it only has 5 boxes for the major scale - there is nothing mysterious about this. When constructing patterns we want to cover the most ground possible, and a couple of the possible boxes for the major scale are only separated by one fret position on the neck. This doesn't really add much so we tend to drop those, and the remaining boxes are separated by either two or three frets.

So, boxes are patterns!

Boxes and Scales

There is another very important point to understand about boxes/patterns, and that is the fact that they stay the same no matter what key you are playing your scale in. If you are playing a scale of G major, using a particular box or pattern, and you want to play a scale of A major, all you have to do is move that pattern up the neck by 2 fret positions. Why is this? Well, G and A are separated by 2 semitones. If you just slide the box upwards, none of the gaps between the notes will change, so you are playing exactly the same formula, just using a different root note. This means that you need to learn each pattern once, and you can re-use it for each of the 12 root notes! So, when learning boxes, learn the patterns, not what frets they are on.

How Should I Practice Scales?

When practicing scales, the first step is to learn one or more of the boxes for that scale. Play all of the notes in order up and down and keep repeating the sequence. When you can do this without mistakes, the next thing to do is to start playing it to a metronome, slowly increasing the speed over time. This helps to cement the notes in your mind, trains your playing abilities and helps with speed and technique. Start with an initial box, then learn all of the other boxes so that you can play them all cleanly and fluidly at the same speed.

When you have that down, start on another type of scale!

A Note on Roots

A source of confusion for some people is the fact that a lot of patterns are shown on which the lowest note is not the root note. If you think about it, this makes sense. Look at the way we construct boxes. Lets start on a scale of G major. Our first box would be started on the lower E string, 3rd fret - that is a G, and we add notes from there to make a standard scale:

G A B C D E F# G A B C D E F# G

To construct the next box, we would move up a tone from G to the 5th fret which is A. Now, we start to build our scale from there:

A B C D E F# G A B C D E F# G A

It took us 7 notes to get to our root note G! Well its no big deal - you have to understand what and where the roots are, but there will more often than not be notes above and below the root notes that are part of the scale, and perfectly valid notes to use in playing.

Root notes are important because they identify the scale you are playing (along with the type, major, minor etc). You need to know where the roots are, they are your signpost to figuring out what scale you are playing, but there is no rule that says you must start a scale by playing the root note all the time.

When practicing scales, it IS good to start on the root note. Doing this trains your ear to the sound of the scale. However, when playing, you shouldn't limit yourself to always playing on the scale you practiced between the root notes. The idea of a scale is that it is a palette of notes for you to pick from in your playing, not a thing in its own right. So, when looking at it from that perspective, the root note is less important and you should feel free to use any of the notes marked.

How do you get from one to the other? Well, when training with the scales, start by playing in between the root notes, then as you become more familiar with the scale, perhaps, go a note or two below the root note and back up to it, or a note or two above the top root note, until you are able to include all of the notes in your scale. That way, when you want to use the scale in your playing, you will be familiar with all the notes, not just the ones between the root notes.

What Scales Should I Learn?

Whichever scales you want! Scales are an important part of your creativity arsenal. The more scales you know, the more ways you have of expressing yourself. If you want to take a tried and tested path that will allow you to play the music of many great musicians, I would suggest you learn scales in the following order (but it is of course entirely up to you!)

1. Minor Pentatonic. This is the first scale a lot is people learn. It is easy because it only has 5 notes, and straight away it opens up huge possibilities for improvisation and blues/rock style playing. Some guitarists never need more than this scale.

2. Major pentatonic. This is a variation of the minor pentatonic and is pretty similar

3. Major Scale. This scale is the bread and butter of western music.

4. Natural Minor scale. Along with the major scale, these form the backbone of western music. In fact, the pentatonic is actually the minor scale with just a few notes left out, so wherever you use the minor scale you can also use the pentatonic scale.

With the above collection of scales under your belt you are rocking, and can probably play 95% of music that you are familiar with. If you stop here you can still be a very competent musician. The next scales are more limited in their application, but rarer and cooler and will start to give your music a more unusual and distinctive feel.

5. Harmonic Minor/Melodic Minor. Two variations of the minor scale that give a different feel, especially the harmonic minor.

6. The major modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian). Modes are really variations on the major scales that are built according to special rules. Depending on which you use, they will give your music a different feel. Modes are great to take on when you are thoroughly experienced with the scales I have listed above.

A lot of people don't make it past the major modes - by the time you have the major modes and the other scales under your belt, you are an accomplished musician, with a large range of scales and stylings to feed into your composition and soloing.

7. Exotic Scales. I call any scale that I haven't listed above an "exotic scale" - that's just my label for it. There are literally hundreds of exotic scales, many of them used in specific types of folk music or Jazz. You could spend many many years learning them all, and you can get reference books on them such as the Guitar Grimoire. Its sometimes fun to browse through these for inspiration

8. Modes of Exotic scales. Modes don't just exist for major scales - every scale has associated modes, which give you an even wider palette of notes to choose from.

A Final Word

Music theory and scales are a great place to start because they train you in all of the ways mentioned above, but at a certain point (after much practice) you transcend the scales and play what sounds good to you and that is where the music really is, not in the theory itself. Knowing your scales trains your musical reactions (just as practicing moves in martial arts trains your reflexes). When your musical reactions are well trained, you don't think in scales, you think more in musical ideas, and the scales training backs you up by allowing you to play what is in your mind without thinking about it. At the end of it all, we learn scales so that we can internalize them and then forget about them, at least when we are playing, though you should always keep some scales as part of your practice regimen.

This lesson includes material from Wheeler and Tank, used with permission, minor edits applied - thanks guys!