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Guitar Scales Beginner Lesson - Scale Basics

If you're a guitar scales beginner, this lesson will give you a basic introduction to the world of scales. You should read through this page before you move on to learning individual scales.

Bear in mind I'm going to explain this as simply as possible, so please don't be offended if I come across as patronising!

What Is A Scale?

The obvious place to begin is to ask the question: what is a scale?

A scale is, simply put, an ordered and repeating sequence of tones (or notes if you like).

For lead, scales provide the roadmap for playing musically over chords. In other words, they help you choose the "right" notes for your melodies.

Scales typically consist of five or more tones, the most common being five-tone (pentatonic) and seven-tone (heptatonic) scales.

But before we look at those, there's one scale that can be considered the "grand daddy" of them all!

The Chromatic Scale

The best way to describe the chromatic scale is all twelve notes on the guitar ordered consecutively in sequence.

For example, take the 3rd string of your guitar. Played open (unfretted) it is the note G (in standard tuning).

If we begin the chromatic scale on this G note and continue, just on that string, we get the following...

chromatic scale starting on G on 3rd string

So we begin on the open G and end on a higher pitch G at the 12th fret (we count both these G's as one note). This covers the entire twelve notes of the musical alphabet...

table of chromatic scale notes and degrees

Each note represents a degree of the scale, and vice versa. So the chromatic scale has 12 degrees, each one being assigned a degree number.

1 always marks the start of the scale, so once we get to G at the 12th fret, we're back at 1 again and the sequence repeats from there.

You could also apply the chromatic scale to any other string (e.g. open A to 12th fret A, open B to 12th fret B etc.) and we'd number the degrees in exactly the same way - 1 to 12.

If you've taken the fretboard lessons (don't worry if you haven't yet) you'll know that there are 12 notes in total on the guitar fretboard. No matter which note we start on, the chromatic scale is note 1 to note 12, without any gaps (12 consecutive semitones, in other words).

Now, the chromatic scale isn't used much as a musical scale because it's not very... musical. But theoretically, this scale is the most elementary scale of them all, as it includes every note we will ever use (not just on the 3rd string and not just starting on G though, obviously).

Spacing The Scale Degrees

When we remove certain notes from the chromatic sequence, creating spaces or distances between the degrees, we can create more musical sounding scales. Let's try removing notes from the chromatic scale on the 3rd string:

G major scale across the 3rd string

These spaces are known as intervals. More on that later.

So again, from open G to 12th fret G we have a sequence of notes, but this time there are gaps between some of the notes and therefore fewer degrees before we reach the 1 again. This particular scale has 7 degrees before the sequence repeats...

G major scale degrees across 3rd string
G major scale table of degrees and notes

The 12th fret G, which is where the scale reaches 1 again, is known as the octave. This is another way of saying "same as the 1 but higher in pitch". A higher sounding 1, in other words. But it's still the same note as the 1, therefore we consider it as the 1st degree. The scale sequence repeats from this new 1.

Side note: Sometimes you'll see the octave written as "8". This is just another way of saying "same note as the 1 but twelve semitones higher in pitch". In my lessons, I always refer to octaves as "1" for consistency.

That diagram above is a G scale because we started on the note G. In other words, G is the 1st degree or 1 in the scale, also called the root note.

The root note tells us what letter to name the scale with. As time goes on, you'll learn how significant this is.

If the 1/root was on A, it would be an A scale...

A major scale degrees across 5th string
A major scale table of degrees and notes

Side note: When labelling our scale notes, we ensure they follow an alphabetical sequence. That's why we used C♯ in the above scale and not D♭, because there's already a D in the scale. In other words, each letter should only appear once in the sequence, which determines whether we use a sharp or flat on the appropriate notes.

When playing a scale, you won't necessarily always start on the root note, but just knowing what the root note is in the scale is the important thing.

Basic Scale Formulas

These spaces between the scale degrees can be labelled as a half step (H) or whole step (W). These are the building blocks of scales.

Across one string, a half step can be thought of as the next fret along. A whole step can be thought of as two frets along.

So if we labelled our scale from earlier using half and whole steps, we'd get the following...

major scale half and whole step formula

Without the diagram, we'd write it as: W W H W W W H

But we can also use numbers to represent these steps. 1 = half step, 2 = whole step, giving us...

2 2 1 2 2 2 1

You'll see both depending on which resource you use. I prefer to use H and W.

This sequence of half and whole steps is one way of writing out the scale formula. It's a short-hand way of telling us the sequence of the scale, starting on ANY root we might choose.

Scales Across More Than One String

So that's ultimately what scales are! A sequence of steps/intervals that repeat at the octave.

Of course, scales are most often played across more than one string. For example, the G scale from earlier can be condensed within the space of just 4 frets:

G major scale box pattern

Again, the 1 or root is on G, and you can see how the scale repeats at the octave.

This is known as a scale pattern. These condensed, four/five fret-wide patterns are sometimes referred to as "box" patterns. They give us a convenient, memorable formation of the scale sequence in a particular position on the neck.

The pattern above is in the "root position", because the lowest note in the pattern is the root itself. This gives us a clear starting point for our scale.

But as we'll learn, we can also visualise scale patterns across larger areas of the neck, which gives us the freedom to play in other positions...

G major scale pattern across 12 frets

I'll help you to break down and memorise these patterns in their individual lessons. I'll also take you through the process of connecting each scale to the chords you play over, giving us the foundation for creating musical solos.

But for now, we have the basics covered. We know what scales are and how they are built (go over this lesson again if you're unsure!). When you're ready, head to the next lesson in the series using the links at the bottom of this page.

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