An acoustic guitar has often more than 132 frets. But not all of them sound good together. Why is that? That’s because chords, chord progressions, and melodies are all built from scales.
What is a scale? Why do we need to learn scales? Can’t we just keep strumming chords? How do you play scales? This blog we’ll be answering these answers, as simply as possible.
Guitar Scales For Beginners
A scale is a sequence of musical notes. There are many types of scales but the most basic type of scale is a natural major scale. That’s what we’ll be focusing on in this lesson.
If you pluck the lowest string on your guitar, then go 12 frets higher on the same string (the fret with the two dots) you’re playing the same note.
This is called an octave. Going from one note to the same note an octave higher takes 12 frets. But not all of those frets sound good together. Which notes are part of the major scale?
A natural major scale is a sequence of 7 musical notes.
So which 7 notes are part of the natural major scale?
Tones and Semitones
Before I answer that question I must explain the difference between a tone and a semitone.
A semitone (or a half tone) is the smallest possible step between two notes. If you were to move from point 1 on the picture, to point 2, you’re taking a semitone
A tone is the double of a semitone. Instead of going up one fret, you’re going up two frets.
All you have to remember is that moving up two frets is a WHOLE tone and moving one fret is a HALF tone. This works descending as well.
How does this help us when we build scales?
Building Scales From Tones and Semitones
Every natural major scale is built the same way:
- You start on a note
- First, you take two whole (W) steps
- Then you take one half (H) step.
- Then you take three whole (W) steps again.
- Finally, you take one half (H) step to get back to the octave of the first note you played
W-W-H-W-W-W-H is something you should memorize. It works on any natural major scale, no matter on which note you start. It’s something that will help you understand chords, it will help you with chord progressions, with lead playing… Like knowing how to play a chord, it should be second nature.
Our definition becomes:
A natural major scale is a sequence of 7 musical notes: two whole tones, one half tones, three whole tones, and a half tone in that order.
Taking It Vertically
Until this point we’ve been looking at our scales horizontally on one string. The wonderful thing about the guitar is that there’s more than one way to play a note.
This is where the 5-fret rule comes into play: If you play a note anywhere past the fifth fret, go one string higher and then descend 5 semitones, you have exactly the same note.
This works everywhere on the guitar, except between the fourth and the fifth string. Here you have to descend 4 semitones.
This means that we don’t have to play a scale on the same string anymore. We can play our scales vertically. Once we’re past the fifth fret we can just move up a string. We don’t have to make huge movements this way. We can now play an entire scale without having to move our hands horizontally.
Instead of doing this:
We can now do this:
(the 2 being an open string)
The C Major Scale
In the last picture, we were already playing three of the seven notes of our natural major scale. We started on the C, so we were playing a C major scale. Like I said earlier, the major scale can be played anywhere on the neck, but for now, we’re gonna focus on the C major.
So starting from the C we take two whole steps, one half step, three whole steps and finally one half one again (W-W-H-W-W-W-H). Our scale looks like this now:
You start on 1, and you ascend to 8, which is the octave (so it’s the same note as 1). 2, 5 and 7 are open strings.
This is just one octave. You can go higher and you can go lower. For now, we’re gonna focus on one octave.
So what fingers should you use?
In this case, you don’t use your little finger. Every note on the third fret is played with your ring finger. Every note on the second fret is played with your middle finger, every note on the first fret is played with your index finger. The open strings are played without any fingers of course.
This way your hand will always be in the same position, and you will never have to make any large movements.
Scales should be learned slowly. It’s a tedious process, just like learning chords. Take your time with them. Here are some exercises that should make it more fun.
Play, Play, Play!
All these exercises are in the C major scale. Every exercise will start on 1 as shown in the pictures above.
This already sounds more fun than just playing notes on your own, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s a simple ascension on a scale, so in a while, it will start to sound repetitive.
Just a simple change in rhythm already gives the scale an entirely different feel. I’d say give this a few tries until it feels natural to you.
Now it’s up to you. This is the backing track, without me playing along. Experiment with what you can do with the scale you just learned. Try to make up your own melody or rhythm. Anything is possible!
This was a very theoretical blog. Don’t feel intimidated by all the new terms and information. If you don’t immediately understand everything, don’t get frustrated. Remember to have fun whilst learning. I’ll be here to answer any of your questions. Feel free to leave them below.
Until next time!