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What is a Guitar Scale?

You might have heard the word "scales" throughout your guitar journey, but some players might not know exactly what they are.

Guitar scales are organized sequences of notes played in an ascending or descending order that help you build finger strength and dexterity. Practicing guitar scales also makes you more familiar with the notes on your fretboard, develops your musical ear, and provides a framework for creating melodies for your own original songs.

For those that want to expand their scale horizons, the available Player Pack on the Fender Tune app features a dynamic scale library with a variety of diagrams and patterns for any variation, flavor, and key. And for those looking to brush up on the basics or just dive into scales for the first time, Fender Play has a wealth of videos that offer step-by-step guides of basic scales that will serve you well.

How to Play Common Guitar Scales

Take a look at a list of five essential scales for beginners (complete with guitar scale fretboard diagrams) to get you started below.

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1. E Minor Pentatonic Scale

The E minor pentatonic scale in the open position is ground zero for soloing. Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times," "Back in Black" by AC/DC and "Rumble" by Link Wray are a few popular songs that feature this scale.

The E minor pentatonic scale only contains five notes instead of the standard eight (octave) notes found in all major or minor scales. Rather, pentatonic scales are abbreviated scales that follow a certain pattern, taking five notes from the corresponding octave-based scale, removing three of those eight notes. (More on that later in this article!)

The E minor pentatonic is easy for beginners to learn because it only contains five notes. Better yet, those notes (in the open position) can be played across open strings, and the second and third frets of your guitar. Your fingers don’t have to maneuver between too many different frets or require your fingers to stretch too far. For this reason, the E minor pentatonic is also popular among more experienced guitarists to create dynamic, yet lightning-fast solos.

E Minor Pentatonic Scale Using Open Strings with Leah Wellbaum

In this Technique of the Week, Leah Wellbaum (Slothrust) teaches the E Minor Pentatonic using the open strings, hammer ons and pull offs. Wellbaum also plays portions of the scale under chords which is a common technique used in her songs.

What Notes are in the E Minor Pentatonic Scale?

The E minor pentatonic scale contains 5 notes between a low E and high E note.

  • E - G - A - B - D - E

What are Pentatonic Scales?

A pentatonic scale is a popular five-note scale that you'll need to know for riffs, solos, and melodies. It is an especially common guitar technique for rock and blues music. Chances are, you’ve heard a pentatonic scale and didn’t realize it!

A pentatonic scale is an abbreviated five-note scale that is made up of notes based on its corresponding eight-note scale. This isn’t unusual since all pentatonic scales (by virtue of their name, “penta’ means “five” in Greek) contain five notes instead of eight. These shortened scales are great for beginners to learn because it means fewer notes to memorize. Plus, formulating these scales is a good way for new guitarists to apply their newfound knowledge of the notes that make up each scale and how these notes sound when played together.

There are specific formulas used to create different pentatonic scales.

  • For instance, if you wanted to build a major pentatonic scale, you’d play the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th notes of a scale. Like standard octave-based major scales, a major pentatonic scale has a bright, upbeat sound.

  • Similarly, the formula to create a minor pentatonic scale would involve playing the 1st, flattened 3rd (b3), 4th, 5th, and flattened 7th (b7) notes of a scale. And much like standard eight-note minor scales, a minor pentatonic scale has a darker, more somber tone.

2. A Minor Pentatonic Scale (Fifth Position)

For the A minor pentatonic scale, it's a snap to learn across two octaves in the fifth position, and it helps you with your fret-hand strength. When we talk about “octaves” in regard to pentatonic scales, we mean a set of five notes selected based on the established formula plucked from a standard eight-note scale.

In this version of the A minor pentatonic scale, you’ll hear it stretch across two octaves, with each series of five notes beginning with “A” and the next series of five notes also beginning with “A,” – but taken up one octave higher. You’ll be able to listen for the same starting point note, but played at a higher pitch. This can help beginner guitarists better develop their musical ear and ability to recognize a note played at either a higher or lower octave.

Some common songs that utilize the A minor pentatonic scale are "Stairway to Heaven" from Led Zeppelin and "Hoodoo Bluesman" by Junior Wells, to name a few. Learn to play the A minor pentatonic scale.

What Notes Are in A Minor Pentatonic Scale?

Similar to the E minor pentatonic scale, the A minor pentatonic scale contains 5 notes between a low A note and a high A note.

  • A - C - D - E - G - A

3. C Major Scale (Open Position)

Learning the C major scale will help you understand the key of C, and because it doesn't have any sharps or flats, it's a great entryway into musical composition. To simply play it all on the B string, you'll need to follow a whole step / whole step / half step / whole step / whole step / whole step / half step formula. You can actually play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" using this method!

While that is a good way to understand the C major scale, it's more commonly played in open position across multiple strings to fret the notes.

What Notes Are in the C Major Scale?

As mentioned above, the C major scale doesn’t have any sharps or flats, so it’s easy to remember. Starting from a low C note, there are 7 total notes in the C major scale – 8 if you count the final note, which is the same as the 1st (or root) note. When you play the “C” note for a second time in this scale, directly after the 7th note, you’ll notice that it’s an octave higher than the 1st note of the scale.

  • C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

4. G Major Scale (Open Position)

Like the C major scale, you can play the G major scale on a single string, also following the two-whole step / half step / three-whole steps / half step formula.

But, again, it's more common to utilize all six strings to properly fret all the notes, and it also helps you build strength in your pinkie finger Learn to play the G minor pentatonic scale.

What Notes Are in the G Major Scale?

Unlike pentatonic scales that only have 5 notes (hence the “pent” in the name), major scales have all notes in the key. So if you’re playing a G major scale, you’ll play all 7 notes that make up the key of G.

Unlike the key of C (which doesn’t have sharps or flats), the key of G has one sharp note in it that you should be aware of.

There are 7 notes in the G major scale between a low G and a high G.

  • G - A - B - C - D - E - F# (sharp) - G

5. E Harmonic Minor (Open Position)

The E harmonic minor scale is used often in classical, jazz, and metal music, as it can spice up your solos. One way to get to know the E harmonic minor scale is to play it all on the High E string, going from the open position to the second fret (whole step), second to third fret (half step), third to fifth fret (whole step), fifth to seventh fret (whole step), seventh to eighth fret (half step), eighth to 11th fret (minor third), and 11th to the 12th fret (half step).

But you'll find it's more practical to play the E harmonic minor scale on all six strings. Learn how to play the E harmonic minor scale in open position across two octaves.

What Notes Are in the E Harmonic Minor Scale?

The E harmonic minor scale contains the same set of notes that the G major scale does. The only difference is that you’re starting and ending from a different note. If you know how to play the G major scale on the guitar, then learning the notes in the E harmonic minor will be a breeze.

The E harmonic minor scale features 7 notes between a low E and high E note.

  • E - F# (sharp) - G - A - B - C - D# - E

Other Most Important and Common Guitar Scales for Beginners

Beyond the five scales we’ve already walked you through, there are a few other important, commonly used guitar scales that are helpful for beginners to learn.

The Blues Scale

Think of the blues scale as a pentatonic scale plus one added note that gives it its signature blues flavor. The blues scale makes use of both the major and minor pentatonic scale formulas, but adds a flattened 5th (b5) – known as “the blue note.”

The formula you’d use to create the blues scale is:

  • 1st (or root) note

  • Flattened 3rd (b3)

  • 4th note

  • Flattened 5th (b5)

  • 5th note

  • 7th note

You can apply this scale using any root note as a starting point to play it in a variety of ways. By including both the flattened 5th note, as well as the standard 5th note, the blues scale takes on its own unique tone. The blues scale can be heard in classic blues and rock-tinted blues songs, such as British rock band Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith.

The Natural Minor Scale (or Aeolian Mode)

Although there are three different types of minor scales (natural, harmonic, and melodic), the most common one you’ll hear when someone mentions a minor scale is the natural minor scale. The terms “minor scale” and “natural minor scale” are used interchangeably. It’s when you hear someone specifically playing a “harmonic minor scale” or a “melodic minor scale” that there are subtle differences.

The natural minor scale also has another alias: Aeolian Mode. Aeolian Mode is an alternate name for the natural minor scale that dates back to the 1500s. In music, the term “mode” stems from the Latin word for “method,” but in musical terms, refers to a type of scale. Any and all scales can be dubbed “modes” – such as the Aeolian mode, as well as the Dorian and Mixolydian modes (which we’ll talk about later).

The Major Scale

The major scale in its standard form contains eight notes, beginning with the 1st (or root) note and ending with the same note – just one octave higher. It uses the following formula:

  • 1st (or root) note

  • 2nd note is one whole step higher than the 1st note

  • 3rd note is one whole step higher than the 2nd note

  • 4th note is one half step higher than the 3rd note

  • 5th note is one whole step higher than the 4th

  • 6th note is one whole step higher than the 5th

  • 7th note is one whole step higher than the 6th

  • 8th note is one half step higher than the 7th and will take you back to the root note

You can apply this formula starting with any root note to play a major scale in any key. You can hear major scales across every genre and a nearly endless amount of songs. Its bright, upbeat tone makes it ideal for danceable pop songs, rock stadium anthems, and more.

The Dorian Mode

Sometimes referred to as the “Doric mode” the Dorian mode is a close cousin of the minor scale. It’s made up of eight notes and has a pensive, maudlin, and even dark sounding tone. You can often hear this scale in conjunction with minor 7th chords in blues and rock genres. Michael Jackson’s iconic ‘80s cautionary tale “Billie Jean” and “Smoke On the Water” by Deep Purple are just a few of the songs where you’ll hear Dorian mode in full effect.

Here’s the formula you’d use to play a scale in Dorian mode:

  • 1st (or root) note

  • 2nd note

  • Flattened 3rd (b3)

  • 4th note

  • 5th note

  • 6th note

  • Flattened 7th note (b7)

The Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode may be difficult to pronounce, but this scale commonly heard in jazz and blues is surprisingly easy for beginner guitarists to grasp. It’s used to craft solos over dominant chords. Once you learn the Mixolydian scale, you’ll be able to improvise with the best of them – including jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (although not a guitarist himself), who famously used the Mixolydian scale in his song, “All Blues.”

To play a scale in the Mixolydian mode, you’d use the following formula:

  • 1st (or root) note

  • 2nd note

  • 3rd note

  • 4th note

  • 5th note

  • 6th note

  • Flattened 7th note (b7)

Although Mixolydian mode has a strong foothold in the jazz and blues genres, you an also hear it in a variety of songs across multiple genres, including “White Wedding” by Billy Idol, “Royals” by Lorde, and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright) by Stevie Wonder.

Learn More and Practice with Guitar Scale Exercises on Fender Play

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