Scales are essential tools for all kinds of music, used for creating melodies, solos, and building chords. There are many kinds of scales, but they are just a way to organize and think about a particular set of notes. Many beginners wonder what scale they should learn first on guitar. This post will introduce you to a couple of ways to play a good scale for beginners to start with.
The minor pentatonic scale
The very first scale that guitar players often learn is the Minor Pentatonic scale. As you might guess by the name, a pentatonic scale has 5 different notes in it. This scale is frequently heard in rock, blues, metal, bluegrass, and country music. Here are two examples of how you can play this scale on guitar:
A minor pentatonic scale pattern with all notes fretted. Start the pattern at the 5th fret of the 6th string (low E string). For notes 3 frets apart, use your 1st and 4th fingers (index and pinky fingers). For notes 2 frets apart, use your 1st and 3rd fingers (index and ring fingers).
This scale pattern uses the open strings, it’s an E minor pentatonic scale, and it’s the only scale that will use open string notes for the pattern. Start the pattern at the open 6th string (low E string). For notes 3 frets apart, use your 3rd finger (ring finger) for the fretted note. For notes 2 frets apart, use your 2nd finger (middle finger).
How to get these under your fingers
Practice slowly at first, making sure each note sounds clear as you play it, and I recommend playing the scale from the lowest pitch to the highest and then back down from the highest pitch to the lowest. These diagrams are written horizontally, as if you are sitting with your instrument, looking down at the neck and fretboard of the guitar.
How it’s put together
There are a few different ways to label the notes in this scale. In this pattern, the first, lowest pitch note you play is the root, or “home” for the scale. One way to label the notes is by naming each note by its letter name. For example, an A minor pentatonic scale is made of the notes A, C, D, E, and G.
The E minor pentatonic scale is made up of the notes E, G, A, B, and D. Of course, when you play these patterns there are more than 5 notes in them. That’s because some of the notes are repeated. If we name all the notes in the A minor pentatonic scale pattern, it’s A, C, D, E, G, A, C, D, E, G, A, C from the lowest to the highest note.
Another way to label the notes, which I think is more beneficial to guitar players, is by a number system naming the intervals. Don’t worry about what intervals are for now. Get used to these numbers. That same A minor pentatonic scale can be labeled with numbers as 1, b3 (flat 3), 4, 5, b7 (flat 7). Sometimes the 1 is an R instead, indicating ‘root’, the starting note for a scale or chord.
A moveable pattern
This number system is helpful because this set of numbers applies not just to A minor, but any minor pentatonic scale. Wherever you start the scale, that is the root and name of the scale. At the 5th fret, you get an A minor pentatonic. At the 8th fret, you get a C minor pentatonic.
Even though the note names are different for both scales (A, C, D, E, G, vs C, Eb, F, G, Bb), the intervals (numbers) are the same. And it’s the same for the open E minor pentatonic scale. The pattern of numbers is still 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.
How do I use these?
Now you know the scale pattern, what do you do with it? Pentatonic scales aren’t well suited for building harmonies, so they are primarily used for melodies and improvised solos. The minor pentatonic fits over minor chords, but it also works in other circumstances.
Moving with the chords
Most frequently, as in blues and hard rock, the corresponding minor pentatonic scale can be used if the chords are Dominant 7th, such as an A7 chord. This can also work over power chords or even major chords, especially if the song has a “bluesy” feel or uses power chords, which don’t sound specifically major or minor. When choosing which scale to use, you can switch scales for each chord. For example, a standard blues progression would use the chords A7, D7, and E7. You could play the A minor, D minor, and E minor pentatonic as each chord changes.
Staying in place
You could use the A minor pentatonic scale over each chord in the blues progression. You can also use one scale over multiple chords if they come from the same key. For example, the A minor pentatonic scale would work over a song with the chords A minor, C major, F major, and G major.
But wait, there’s more!
This scale has another use that makes it even more versatile. So far, we’ve considered the first note in the pattern as the root or starting note of the scale. But if we think of the second note in the pattern as the root, the scale becomes a major pentatonic scale. If that note is the root, the number pattern becomes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (the note lower than the root is also a 6). This means that if your song is in a major key, or if you want to fit a scale over a particular major chord, you can use the same pattern. You have to shift your brain to think of a different note as “home.” For example, suppose your song is in the key of G and uses the chords G major, C major, and D major. In that case, you can play the E minor pentatonic scale shown above since the second note of that scale is G. You can even mix and match major and minor pentatonic scales over Dominant 7th chords.
How do I know if I’m doing it right?
I think it’s beneficial to learn theory and learn the nuances of how music works, but the saying “If it sounds good, it is good” still applies. That’s the simple way to judge what you’re playing. To learn how to evaluate your playing by ear, record yourself playing over backing tracks, work with a teacher, and listen to other bands and musicians play the kind of music you are trying to play.
Above all else, be creative and have fun!