Guitar scales - how to use them to make music

"How do I use guitar scales? I cannot understand music scales at all. All I know is that they are ascending then descending notes. Can anyone explain?"

Of course it's confusing when you look at scales this way. If it's just a ladder of notes you go up and down, what's their purpose? You go up, then down, then what?

There are so many different scales, with so many possible fingerings for each. Major and minor scales, modes, pentatonic scales, chromatic scales... and these are just the basic ones. Where to begin?

The most common place to start is the major scale. C major, usually. Here are a few 2 octave fingerings for the major scale. Put each on fret 8 of string 6 for C major:

guitar scale c major guitar mode ionian guitar mode ionian

So confusing, right off. C major is meant to be simple, and the starting point to make sense of music. Simply because it works on piano doesn't mean it fricking works on the fretboard, too. In fact, it doesn't. It obscures things. This is the major scale on the fretboard, "black and white keys", like piano:

major scale on the fretboard

What people really want with guitar scales, and what you really need, is simply to grok the fretboard. You want to use the fretboard to make cool sounding riffs, licks and melodies. Great sounding progressions and arrangements. Creative uses of counterpoint. In short, awesome sounds and songs and music.

How do you take these "guitar scales" and turn them into music? Pure alchemy?

No no no. You see, scales are way more than just "ascending and descending notes." In fact, they are cycles. On the fretboard, they are networks of pitch relationships. There is so much more to them than meets the eye.

Major, minor and diminished triads, M7, m7, 7 and b5m7 chords, major and minor pentatonic scales, 7 different modes are all part of the major scale. Ladder my eye. What you really need to let the music that's inside come out is the relationships: then you'll make that music you want to make so badly.

There is little value in the ladder view of scales beyond muscle building. Music is made not of single, isolated notes, but of the relationships between them. If you're ready to revamp your fretboard skills in one minute a day, test-drive Fretboard Addicts to dig deep into music, on the fretboard:

Guitar scales & modes in depth

Learning guitar scales and guitar modes can be enlightening or confusing, depending on how you approach it.

Musical scales have existed for millennia all over the world -they are probably as old as the spoken word -and they are one of the pillars of musical theory. However, in general, they are very poorly understood. In fact, a scale is more a system of relationships than a "ladder" of tones: this last view limits our ability to use them with musical sense.

And of course, the way we visualize and study them on the guitar is a key determining factor in what we can do with our instrument.

c major scale

Figure 1: Different views of the C major scale

chromatic scale

Figure 2: An ascending chromatic scale, starting on C

minor pentatonic scale

Figure 3: A minor pentatonic scale (E minor)

What exactly is a musical scale?

Most systems for learning scales on the guitar fretboard are based on two octave fingering patterns. So you can spend years learning every possible scale in all possible inversions and positions (a flabbergasting number of patterns!) and not have gleaned any in-depth understanding of the fretboard: how many guitarists out there can only solo by playing scales up and down, top speed?

If you are bored of that too, you've come to the right place. Truth is, I get bored stiff of listening to such players after the first two minutes of awe at the speed of their fingers!And I don't object to playing fast, but if it's the only thing you can do, you're missing out on so much.

Most music theory courses start out by showing you the C major scale. So do most guitar scale systems. Instead of looking at a box diagram with two octaves of the C major scale, let's take a look at it first along each string and then on the entire guitar fretboard.

Guitar Scales: Section Overview

1. Scales and Modes from A to Z: section index

2. Guitar Pentatonic Scales, made easy!(the smart way)
  • Guitar Pentatonic Scales: The Basics
  • Guitar Pentatonic Scales: Harmonic and Melodic Fingerings
  • Guitar Pentatonic Scales, simplified: Correlations

  • 3. Guitar Modes... the smart (easy) way
  • Guitar Modes: The Basics
  • Guitar Modes: Relative and Parallel Modes
  • Guitar Modes, simplified: Pentatonic Scale and Mode Correlations

  • Click here to go back from Guitar Scales to Guitar Theory in Depth

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