Back to Basics: What is a Scale?

While we’ve had a great deal of success and positive feedback with our e-book series over this past summer, with the books there is a certain level of knowledge presumed on the part of the reader, when it comes to discussing scale and sequencing techniques, and drawing out exercises to work on those ideas. But for players who are just starting out, terms such as “scales” and “triads” may not mean much, if anything.

Especially in English, where “scale” also means several different non-musical things, it’s easy to hear the term and recognize that it means something, and still not be entirely clear exactly what it’s supposed to mean. It’s not something on the skin of a fish or a lizard, and it’s not the device on your bathroom floor that you step on to weigh yourself.

Understanding that the word is derived from the Italian word for ladder (scala) might help in visualizing what a musical scale is and does. Many musicians who are experienced and knowledgeable about general music theory use the ladder analogy to explain the concept.

Visualize the scale as a ladder where the top and bottom rungs are the same note, but the top note is an octave higher. You can have up to a total of 12 rungs (not counting the top one), but usually between 5 and 8, with each ascending “rung” being a note in between. The value of this analogy is that it quickly reinforces the concept that like a ladder, you can move the scale around and use it anywhere, and it will retain its original configuration, as far as the spacing of the notes/rungs.

Scales are octave-repeating, so a scale that runs from C to C’ (one octave above) will retain the exact same pattern going from C’ to C” (two octaves above).

The notes of a scale are called steps or degrees, and each scale’s character and “flavor” is determined by the arrangement of the steps. Steps are counted in terms of whole steps and half steps (also known respectively as tones and semitones). A half step (or semitone) is equivalent to moving one fret up or down on the neck, so a whole step (or tone) is two frets.

The chromatic scale contains all 12 notes in the octave, and so is composed entirely of half steps:


Take out every other note, leaving six notes each a whole step apart, and you have a whole tone scale. Here are two ways to play the whole tone scale in a single playing position:



Scales such as chromatic and whole tone are part of a family of scales known as symmetrical, because the intervals between each note are exactly the same throughout the entire scale, thus dividing the octave equally. If you use every third note in an octave you have a diminished chord or arpeggio; if you use every fourth note in the octave you have an augmented chord or arpeggio. Chords and arpeggios (and triads) are derived from combining various degrees of a given scale.



Once you get down to patterns of just 3 or 4 notes, it’s difficult to classify them as “scales,” especially given the rather “rootless” quality all symmetrical scales share. The main thing with symmetrical scales is that every note is potentially a root note, because of the equally divided octave. So an A diminished scale (A, C, D#, F) can be played over a minor or diminished chord from any of the four notes in that scale, since it’s the same four notes in any case.

Don’t worry too much about learning or memorizing symmetrical scales just yet, but it doesn’t hurt to play the patterns a few times and listen to how they sound. It’s a different sound that what you may be used to, since most western music (rock, metal, country, blues, classical) is based on major and minor scales and harmonies. As this article is aimed more at beginning-level players, we’ll focus on those two types of scales for now.

Let’s use the old faithful C major scale as an example. Most rock, metal, country, and blues players will use 5- (pentatonic), 6- (hexatonic), and 7- (heptatonic) note scales in their playing. (You will frequently see the term diatonic scale used as well, to refer to 7-note scales. Technically, “diatonic” simply means “from a note to its octave note” and applies to all scales, but it is common usage to refer specifically to heptatonic scales as diatonic.)

Here is the C major scale in two octaves, played in the standard fashion in the 7th position:


Play the scale one step at a time, ascending from low to high, and then all the way back down, keeping the fretting hand locked into the position, which means each finger is assigned a fret along all 6 strings. So all the notes played on the 7th fret, regardless of string, will be played by the index finger (1), everything on the 8th fret is played by the middle finger (2), and so on. Check out the tab below for reference to fingering:


Let’s look at the scale one more time, with intervals (the distances between the notes) indicated:


The red “R” indicates the root note of the scale (in this case, C), and the intervals indicated on the black dots are their respective distances from the root note (as opposed to the distances from each other, which is a different matter). So the D note is a major 2nd (the Δ symbol represents major) from the C root note, the E note is a major 3rd from the root, the F is a perfect 4th from the root, and so on. (For a more detailed discussion of intervals, please check out the free cheat sheet on the Resources page.)

Using “H” to refer to half steps, and “W” for whole steps, you can see that the pattern for the major scale goes:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C’

  W  W   H  W   W  W  H

So if you take that W-W-H-W-W-W-H pattern, and recreate it anywhere on the neck, starting from any note, you have a major scale in the key of that starting note. Move the pattern one fret down, starting at 7th fret low E string, and it’s a B major scale.


Start it on the A string at 7th fret, and it’s now an E major scale.


Use the tuning of the guitar to find same notes on adjacent strings to create more advantageous fingerings for the same patterns. Here is the above E major scale reconfigured for 3 notes per string, which allows for quick navigation across multiple positionsand greater range, as well as better speed and precision for melodic sequencing patterns derived from scales.


There are many entire books about scale theory, and right now we want to keep it at a basic level, so we’ll leave you with just one other important type of scale (and pattern) to check out. The natural minor scale (actually a mode derived from the major scale, but we’ll save modes for another post) is a vital melodic basis for rock, metal, and blues guitar soloing.

In order to keep all natural notes (no sharps or flats) for our minor scale, let’s move down to A minor to show that scale pattern. Because they use the exact same notes in the same order, just from different starting points, C major and A minor are considered relative keys, and can be played over progressions in either key. So A minor is the relative minor of C major, and C major is the relative major of A minor. (This is true of all keys associated three frets (1½ steps) apart:  D minor is the relative minor of F major; E major is the relative major of C# minor; and so on.)

For now, let’s stick with C major and A minor. Let’s break down the pattern of whole and half steps for A minor, as we did with C major:

[recreate C major / A minor text patterns in GIMP]

A – B – C  –  D – E –  F –   G  –  A’

  W – H – W – W – H – W – W

Right away, you can see and hear the difference made by re-organizing the pattern of half and whole steps. Notice how if you start from the third note (C) in the above sequence, the pattern of half and whole steps is that of the major scale. That illustrates the concept of relative major and minor keys, and serves as an introductory visual to how modes are derived (again, we’ll cover those soon).

Here is the A minor scale, in 5th position, using all 6 strings:


Here’s another way to play the scale, again using 3 notes per string:


A great exercise to get familiar with the scales, as well as general fretboard navigation, is to take a sheet of paper, and map out as many different ways as you can think of to show these scale patterns. Printable sheets of blank tab or neck diagrams (free) can be found on the Resources page.

Use different positions, different strings, different numbers of strings — instead of using five or all six strings to play a scale, use two, or just one. As long as the WWHWWWH pattern of half and whole steps is being observed, it’s a major scale; as long as the WHWWHWW pattern is being used, that’s a minor scale.


We’ll cover some more ground on different types of scales, and how to derive modes from them, in future posts. A lot of beginning (and even experienced) players are unwilling to learn much in the way of how scales work. That’s unfortunate, because a little bit of effort in that direction will save you countless hours of trial and error, and potential frustration. It can look intimidating at first, but with a modest amount of attention and patience, it is not that difficult, especially for people who are mathematically inclined. It’s also pretty cool to see, as you dig deeper into this area, how the pieces of the musical puzzle fit together.

So start simple, learn the basic major and minor patterns, and map out as many variations as you can think of. As you get more familiar with the sounds of the patterns, and not just the sequence of half and whole steps, refer back to the above diagrams to get familiar with the names of the notes, and more importantly, the intervals they represent within the scale patterns.

When it comes to learning the “secret language” of scales, modes, triads, chords, etc., intervals are really the Rosetta Stone of that entire discipline. Once you understand intervals, all those other concepts start falling right into place. Just take it a piece at a time.

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