By Kathy Dickson
If you have been a guitarist for any length of time, you’ve no doubt heard about scales and how you need to know them. But let’s face it, the sheer number of scales to learn can be overwhelming. They smack of theory and are boring to play, right? In truth, scales are one of the most indispensable tools you can have in your guitar-playing arsenal. They are the key to improvisation and the ability to play killer solos, and they can actually be fun to practice — once you know how.
While it’s true that there are guitarists who go their whole careers learning riffs and making up licks without knowing how to play scales, mastering scales is an important part of your development as a guitarist. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Joe Bonamassa, and all the greats are celebrated for their improvisational skills. Don’t think for a second they’re just playing random notes real fast. They’re not. The notes in their solos are all related and work together for a reason. You guessed it: scales.
What exactly is a scale and what’s its purpose? A scale is simply a group of notes that sound really good together. These notes can be used to make up solos and melodies to play over a group of chord progressions that also sound good together.
For this reason, guitarists who want to play lead really need to learn their scales. But scales aren’t solely used for the purpose of playing lead guitar. They are also used to identify intervals, build chords, chart progressions, play by numbers, as well as compose vocal melodies and harmonies. So even if you’re strictly a rhythm guitarist or songwriter, you can still benefit from learning them.
What Is a Root Note?
Every scale has what is called a root. A root note is what gives a scale its name. It’s the note you typically start and end on when playing the scale (though not always). A root note grounds the melody and gives it that sense of “home.” In a scale chart, the root is often indicated in some different way than all of the other notes of the scale form. The charts above show the root as white dots.
What Are Scale Patterns?
A scale has a fixed number of notes, and these notes can be played in more than one position on the neck. Additionally, when scales ascend and descend, their notes can be repeated in higher and lower registers until no further pitches are available. This means the notes of a five or seven tone scale are actually scattered all over the fretboard, with multiple occurrences of each note and higher and lower versions of each pitch found everywhere.
In order for guitarists to learn the notes of a scale across the neck, they break up the fretboard into sections called patterns, positions, shapes, or boxes. The related scale notes in each position form a pattern. If you practice and memorize these patterns until all areas of the fretboard have been covered, you can freely use the scale anywhere.
How to Play Patterns
Although sometimes the finger you use will be determined by the lick you’re playing, it’s important to develop strength in all your fingers when playing scales. Using Pattern 1 above as an example, if the notes you’re playing are located on the third through sixth frets, you are going to assign your index finger to the third fret, your middle finger to the fourth fret, your ring finger to the fifth fret and your pinky to the sixth fret. If you arrange your fingers in this manner for the notes in each pattern, your hand will stay nicely boxed. This makes for economy of motion, which makes playing solos much easier.
The Pentatonic Scale
The word “pentatonic“comes from the Greek words “pente” meaning five and “tonic” meaning tone. Unlike other scales, which often have seven or more notes, the pentatonic scale consists of just five notes. It produces two types of tonalities — major and minor and is one of the most commonly used scales in blues, pop and rock. The pentatonic scale works really well over simple chord progressions, and because it’s one of the easiest scales to learn, it’s usually the first scale taught. Let’s take a look at the minor pentatonic scale.
The 5 Patterns of the Minor Pentatonic Scale
There are five different patterns to the minor pentatonic scale. Each has its own personality and adds its own feeling to a guitar lick. To be truly free to improvise across the entire fretboard, you need to know all five of them. Learn all the patterns thoroughly and also learn them in different keys. It’s a lot of work, but it is important that you do so.
Minor Pentatonic Pattern #1
To play the first box of the minor pentatonic scale, start with your first (index) finger on the sixth string, third fret. Play that note then put your fourth (pinky) finger on the sixth string, sixth fret and play that.
Continue to play the scale as diagrammed, going string by string, making sure to play all notes on the fifth fret with your third (ring) finger and all notes on the sixth fret with your pinky. (There are no notes in the fourth fret in the first pattern, so the middle finger isn’t used).
When you’ve finished playing the scale forwards, play it in reverse. This is a G minor pentatonic scale because the first note we play (sixth string, third fret) is a G note. Strum a G minor chord, then play the notes of the G minor pentatonic scale. The two should sound like they fit.
Minor Pentatonic Pattern #2
Now let’s play the G minor pentatonic scale in the second position. Start by playing the sixth string, sixth fret. Play this note with your second finger as you’ll need to use your first finger in the fifth fret on other strings, and you want to keep that box shape.
Continue playing Pattern #2, string by string, as outlined in the diagram. When you’ve reached the top of the scale, play it backwards, memorizing as you go.
Minor Pentatonic Pattern #3
To play the G minor pentatonic scale in the third position, begin with your middle finger on the sixth string, eighth fret and play through the pattern as noted. This is the only pentatonic scale pattern that requires a position shift.
When you reach the second string, you’ll need to shift your hand up one fret. When you play back down the scale, you’ll need to change position again, moving your hand down one fret when you reach the third string.
Play the scale forwards and backwards until you’ve memorized it.
Minor Pentatonic Pattern #4
The fourth position of the G minor pentatonic scale starts with the first finger on the sixth string, tenth fret. Follow through with the remainder of the pattern.
Play this scale slowly and evenly, backwards and forwards, until you’ve memorized the pattern.
Minor Pentatonic Pattern #5
The fifth position of the G minor pentatonic scale begins with the second finger on the sixth string, thirteenth fret. Follow through the rest of the pattern as shown above.
As with all the positions, play this scale slowly and evenly, forwards and backwards, memorizing as you go.
How to Play Scales in Different Keys
Like a barre chord, you can move these patterns up and down the neck of the guitar to play scales in every key. All you need to know is what the lowest note on the lowest string is to figure out what key you’re in. For example, if you move Pattern 1 up four frets to the seventh fret, the lowest note of the lowest string is B natural. Therefore, if you start playing this box at the seventh fret, you’re playing the B minor pentatonic scale.
Play outside the first box. Don’t play Pattern 1 all the time. Change boxes often to keep your sound interesting and complex. Play through all five patterns, working your way down the fretboard from one box to the next.
How to Get Really Good at Playing Scales
Practice, and lots of it, is the best way to get good at playing scales. Once you’ve memorized the five positions of the pentatonic scale, you need to begin exploring how to use them in your music. One of the best ways to get comfortable with a new scale or pattern is to try and create a few interesting riffs with that scale. Another way is to incorporate it into your solos to allow you to solo in one key all over the fretboard. You can also improvise to backing tracks.
This article is intended to be mostly practical and not theory heavy so not to overwhelm someone new to scales and turn them off completely. When you get a grasp of these basic concepts, delve further into playing scales. Again, experimentation and practice are key, so invest the time it takes to master scales and watch them make a better player out of you.