Chances are, if you’ve been playing guitar for more than a few months, you’ve at least heard of scales. Maybe you haven’t gotten around to learning them yet, or feel intimidated by the sheer amount of scales out there. Which ones are the best to learn? How do you even go about learning them?
To put it simply, scales are sequences of notes played in an ascending or descending pattern between octaves. There are many benefits to learning scales. They increase finger strength, dexterity, develop your musical ear, and help make you more familiar with the position of notes on the fret board.
To help get you started, we’ve put together a list of five essential scales to learn on the guitar, complete with diagrams.
1. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
One of the most commonly used scales is the minor pentatonic, which can be heard in countless rock, blues, and pop songs. It’s also a five note scale (penta = five), which makes it a relatively easy one to master. The minor pentatonic is a great scale you can use to create riffs, solos, and melodies.
The minor pentatonic scale looks like this:
In the diagram above, the red numbers are the root notes. In this case, the note is A. But you can take this pattern and move it to any other position, and you’ll still have a minor pentatonic scale.
2. The Blues Scale
This scale is, as you can probably guess, mostly used in blues music. You can play it in other genres, but it will always add that distinctive blues feel to the sound.
The pattern for the blues scale is:
After learning the minor pentatonic, the blues scale is an easy next step. The two scales are identical save for one added note. This is often referred to as the “blue” note. You can see in the diagram above where the blue notes are added (hint: they’re the ones colored blue).
3. The Major Scale
The major scale is one of the fundamental building blocks of music. You might recognize it from elementary school when you had to sing “Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do”. Chords formed from the major scale are commonly used to create chord progressions.
Here’s the basic pattern for the first position of the major scale:
After practicing the major scale for a few minutes, you might be able to cobble together a few classic nursery rhymes that use it. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, and more are now available at your command.
The major scale can also be used to solo over some jazz progressions that use major 7th chords and major 6th chords.
4. The Dorian Mode
Now we come to one of the more interesting ones. In music, there are patterns that are referred to as “modes”. Every major scale has seven: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolian, and Locrian. The major scale above is in the Ionian mode, in which the scale starts on the first note of the major scale. The Dorian mode treats the second note of the major scale as its first. That may sound confusing, but bear with me.
Here’s the pattern for the Dorian Mode:
To make it simple, there really is no difference in terms of the notes you play. The real difference lies in which chords go over the scale you’re playing. For example, playing a C major chord over a D Dorian scale (above), will make the scale sound just like a C Major scale. But, playing a D minor chord over the D Dorian scale will make it sound “dorian”.
5. The Mixolydian Mode
The Mixolydian Mode is almost identical to the Ionian (major scale), except for the last note. It is the fifth mode of the major scale, and used to solo over dominant chords in jazz and fusion styles.
Here’s the pattern for the Mixolydian mode:
When you first learn a scale, practice playing it ascending and descending. Then, start trying to find combinations of notes that sound good to you. Playing with a backing track can give you a good idea as to how the notes of each scale sound against different chords. Mess around. Have fun.
If you want to take your learning to the next level, I’d suggest picking up The Guitar Grimoire: Scales and Modes. It is the most complete book on guitar scales and modes that I have ever read.
If you’re serious about increasing your knowledge of the guitar, you should seriously consider picking one up for yourself. As a personal reference tool, it is an invaluable addition to any guitarist’s library.