Guitar: Understanding Scales

Most guitarists, when in their formative years of learning and playing, tend to focus on learning chords. Lead guitar is often something that comes later on, as you need to understand how harmonies work over the existing backing chords.

Now, within lead guitar there are two main types of learning – the physical techniques (such as hammer ons, bends, vibratos etc.) and the theory. The first step with the theory side of lead guitar should be to get a basic understanding of scales.

Think of scales as pots of “flavours” – each scale has its own unique flavour because of the different notes it uses. Different notes act as different tensions over a particular chord, and eventually guitarists learn which tensions compliment particular chords. Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste what goes with what. That’s where your creativity takes over.

Technically, a scale is merely a sequence of notes – that’s it! However, it is the intervals between each note in the sequence that defines its structure and flavour. For example, we have the natural major scale (also the 1st mode called Ionian). The numerical notes of the major scale are:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Simple, eh? That’s because the major scale is the basis from which we build all other scales. Even minor scales are referenced against the natural major scale. For example, the natural minor scale (also the 6th mode called Aeolian) is:

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 – the “b” means “flat”, so what it’s really saying is “the 3rd, 6th and 7th tones of the natural major scale have been flattened”. This is what creates what has been named the natural minor scale (or Aeolian).

All scales work in a similar way, being noted against that original major scale position.

Therefore, in light of all this, it would make sense to learn the natural major scale first! Once you’ve done that, you have your foundation scale upon which to build all other scales/flavours.

Now, when learning a scale, the notes will be spaced out over the 6 strings. These are known as intervals. Looking at the major scale once again…

1 W 2 W 3 H 4 W 5 W 6 W 7 H… then the sequence starts again at 1.

The W stands for “whole step” – this is the equivalent of a two fret space on your guitar. So, if you were on the 3rd fret on the low E string (the note G), moving up a whole step would put you at the 5th fret (the note A).

The H stands for “half step” – this is the equivalent of a single fret space on your guitar. So, if you were back on the 3rd fret on the low E string, moving up a half step would put you at the 4th fret (the note Ab).

Obviously though, to be practical, we want to play the scale across 6 strings, not just 1. This is where you need to know about string relationships and how a note at one fret on the low E string is the same as another fret on another string. That’s what allows you to condense the scale into a “box” about 4 or 5 frets wide, across the 6 strings of your guitar.

Essentially though, it’s these whole steps and half steps that determine the structure of notes/tones in a scale and therefore determine the overall flavour of the scale!

At this stage, it’s not that important to know the actual notes you’re playing (e.g. the notes of the “B major scale” would be: B C# Eb E F# Ab Bb), but rather just understand the sequence of intervals in the scale. This will allow you to visualise the scale more generically, in any given key.

The A major scale, B major scale, C major scale, C# major scale etc. all have their own notes, but the intervals they all use are the same… the major scale’s sequence of intervals!

There are many resources on the web to help take you to the next stage of learning scales. Once you know how intervals work within scales, you can also learn how chords and arpeggios are essentially created from the same bag.

However you progress, don’t become complacent and learn things parrot fashion – don’t just learn scales… understand them!

Post by: Mike Beatham
Mike Beatham runs a free, easy to follow guitar lessons site with backing tracks and audio exercises for you to develop your own unique playing style. Visit to learn guitar at your own pace.