What Is A Guitar Scale?

What Is A Guitar Scale?

A guitar scale is an organized set of notes played in either ascending or descending order which help to strengthen your fingers, and give you a greater awareness of where notes are. Once you are familiar with the placement of notes in a scale, you will find it easy to create your own tunes, whether they are melodies, riffs, or licks, they all start with a knowledge of the scales.

Many guitarists just want to play the guitar, not learn guitar theory and we get that, so this will be as simple as we can make it without getting into the theory too much.

Pentatonic Scales

These are the best scales to learn and you should get the hang of these five-note scales to help you create your own riffs and licks. There are a few Pentatonic scales that are very useful to learn. They are:

A Minor Pentatonic

A Minor Pentatonic

One of the most commonly used scales especially in the blues genre. The A minor pentatonic scale consists of 5 notes; A,C,D,E and G. These same 5 notes can be found within the 7 notes that make up the scale of C major, and the notes A,C and E are also the notes of the A minor triad chord.

If you want to use the relevant chords for the A minor pentatonic scale they are A minor, C major, D minor, E minor and G major. To memorise the A minor pentatonic scale, practise going up and down the fretboard using the notes A, C, D, E, G. start on the root note (A) then play C,D,E,G, and then continue to a higher A and continue through the other 4 notes. Then work backwards down the fretboard.

The A minor pentatonic scale is regularly used by Angus Young, Jack White and Eric Clapton.

C Major Scale

C Major Scale

C major has no sharps or flats and consists of C, D, E, F, G, A and B. A minor is its relative minor. If you want to use the relevant chords for C major they are C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and Bdim7 The scale of C major should be the first scale you learn as all other scales build on from C major.

C major is used by many groups and for many songs including John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

G Major Scale

G Major Scale

The scale of G major has one sharp, the notes are G, A, B, C, D, E and F#. Its relative minor is Em. If you want to know the relevant chords for G major they are G major, Am, Bm, C major, D major, Em and F#dim Pink Floyd’s “wish you were here” uses the G major scale as does “wake” by Linkin park.

E Minor Pentatonic

E Minor Pentatonic

The E minor pentatonic scale is used in many genres of music including rock, blues, bluegrass and country. One of the simplest scales to learn as it consists of all open strings, the notes are E, G, A, B and D. The only difference between E minor pentatonic and G major pentatonic is the starting (root) note. E is the root note of E minor pentatonic and G is the root note of G major pentatonic.

If you want to know the relevant chords for Em pentatonic scale they are; E minor, F# major, G major, A minor, B minor, C major and D major. Songs using the E minor pentatonic scale include “seven nation army” by The White Stripes, “can’t stop” by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and many more.

E Harmonic Minor

E Harmonic Minor

This scale is commonly used in classical guitar pieces composed by some of the most famous composers including Rachmaninoff, Pokofiev, Bach, Beethoven, the list is endless. The E harmonic minor scale is used predominantly in jazz, surf rock and metal, notably the rolling stones “paint it black” was recorded in E harmonic minor. The notes are E, F#, G, A, B. C and D#.

The relevant chords are E minor, F# major, G major, A minor, B major, C major, and D# Major. 

Once you can master these 5 scales, you will be able to solo over pretty much any tune in any key. All pentatonic scales comprise of 5 notes so they are relatively easy to remember. Major scales contain 7 notes, the 8th note is the same as the first note, but one octave higher.

Other Useful Guitar Scales

There are a few other scales that are worth getting to grips with to widen your soloing ability. Notably modes which are based on scales which were originally formalised in the late 1600s. Used primarily in jazz but also used in a number of genres.  Modes are all derived from the parent scale and use the same notes but start on a different note. It’s this starting note which defines the tonal centre.

Guitar Modes

Modes are inversions of scales, the following modes are all inversions of the major scales. You see, every mode is a scale, but not every scale is a mode. Each mode has a different and unique sound and feel that can be used to improve your soloing, making it more interesting. Learning the modes and positions of the notes will help you navigate the fretboard and give you a greater understanding of the relationship between chords and scales.

The 7 Guitar Modes

Playing The Guitar

We’ll now look at the 7 modes for guitar and explain a little about each one to give you an overview. The 7 guitar modes are;

  1. Ionian Mode
    This is the major scale and is the starting point for most Western music. Substitute Ionian for major in any scale – It’s the same thing.
  2. Dorian Mode
    The Dorian mode (also known as the Doric mode) is a minor scale with a natural 6th, used regularly by Carlos Santana. The dorian mode has 2 flats, the 3rd and the 7th.
  3. Phrygian Mode
    Another minor scale with a Bsus2 Flamenco/Egyptian sounding scale (also known as the Spanish gypsy scale). Basically the phrygian scale uses all of the notes of C major but using E as the root note. It’s a dark sounding scale because many of the notes are lowered a semitone. The phrygian mode has 4 flats, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th. 
  4. Lydian Mode
    Lydian is the 4th mode of a major scale, a good example of a lydian mode is the Simpsons theme tune, and “flying in a blue dream” by Joe Satriani. The lydian mode has all the same notes of the major scale except it has an augmented 4th.
  5. Mixolydian Mode
    Mixolydian mode is a very bluesy sounding mode, good examples are “Gloria” by Them and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by the Beatles. The mixolydian mode has one flat. That’s the 7th note.
  6. Aeolian Mode
    The Aeolian mode is also known as the natural minor scale, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic are good examples of songs using the aeolian mode. The aeolian mode has 2 flats, the 6th and the 7th notes.
  7. Locrian Mode
    The locrian mode is the melodic mode with the same pitch produced by the white keys on a piano between a B octave. “Master of Puppets” and “Sad but true” by Metallica are good examples of the locrian mode. It is considered to be a dissonant mode because the root and the fifth of the chord is a diminished 5th. 


The tonic triad of B locrian consists of the notes B, D and F with the root note being B and the 5th note F, this is what creates the dissonance. The locrian mode has 5 flats, the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th. It feels like an unfinished scale, almost as if it were interrupted in the middle of the tune.

By learning all of the scales and modes, you’ll be able to play better guitar solos which will be more interesting for others to listen to and more fun for you to play.

It’s All To Do With The Third

When it comes to music, any scale, key, mode or lick can be separated into 2 categories, major or minor. What distinguishes a major from a minor is the 3rd note. If the 3rd note is a major note, then it’s a major key/mode/scale/lick. If the 3rd note is a minor, then it’s a minor key/mode/scale/lick. So when you have a chord with a major 3rd note, then the scale you use to play over it must have a major 3rd too. 

Major Modes

There are 3 major modes they are;

  • Ionian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian

Minor Modes

And there are 4 minor modes they are;

  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to mix the modes when soloing over a chord structure. It just means you need to be aware of the 3rd note of the key you’re playing in. Keep that in mind and you’ll be able to produce better, more entertaining solos that remain in keeping with the song. 

Songs can be surprisingly entertaining if they change from major to minor or vice versa. These changes usually occur when transitioning from the verse to the chorus. For instance In the song “Happy together” by the Turtles, the verses are in F#minor and the choruses are in F# major. This transition changes the mood of the whole song.

The point is, if you try to do something similar when soloing, it can open a whole new world of musical adventure and make your solos far more catchy. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What guitar scales to learn first?

The first scale you should learn on the guitar is the minor pentatonic scale. It can be used in many types and genres of music, plus it’s easy to add a few notes and then you have the blues scale.

What is the purpose of scales guitar?

The idea of practising scales on the guitar is to enhance your playing and understanding of the way music is structured. This will assist you when trying to add interesting solos to a musical piece.

How do scales work on a guitar?

A scale on the guitar is a series of notes that go together to create a pleasant sound, by playing the correct notes in one scale you will end up playing a tune that works well.

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