Beginner Guitar Scales Lesson Made Simple
Author: Guitar Lessons for Beginners
Most popular music, whether it’s rock, blues, or even country, is based on a few common scales, so we’re going to start with those.
Specifically, we’ll look at the major and minor scales, and the major and minor pentatonic scales. These are fairly simple guitar scales that are extremely useful in a wide variety of musical contexts.
First Things First
Let’s make sure we have some basic terms down. A scale is a sequence of notes based on a specific chord. The scale begins on the tonic, or root, note. For example, all scales in the key of C will begin on the note C. This can also be called the ‘1’ note, and the notes that come after are referred to by their position in the scale. Looking at the C Major scale, the note D comes next, so that’s the second note, followed by E (the third), and so forth.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale is probably the most useful scale you’ll ever learn on the guitar. It’s also one of the easiest beginner guitar scales to learn. This one scale is the basis for literally thousands of songs, and you shouldn’t go any farther in the lessons until you can play it smoothly, in all positions. We’re going to begin in the key of E because that uses open strings, which makes it a little bit easier to start with. First of all, there are only five tones in the minor pentatonic (‘penta’ = five; ‘tonic’ = note). In E, these are: E, G, A, B, D. It looks like this:
_____0 3 0 2 0 2
Make sure to pay attention to the suggested fingerings: third finger on the third fret and second finger on the second fret. Also, as you learn guitar scales it’s never too early to start working on alternate picking: picking the notes in an alternating down, up, down, up pattern. To do this, down-pick the first E by picking toward the floor. Then up-pick the G by picking up toward the ceiling. Down-pick the open A and up-pick the B. Finally, down-pick the open D and up-pick the E on the second fret to finish. Try to make your hand movements as small as possible. It won’t be easy, but it’s a critical skill.
That’s it: the E minor pentatonic scale. Of course, you’re going to want to use the higher strings also, so now we’ll extend the scale to two octaves, with an extra G on top to finish the pattern. It looks like this:
Notice that the notes simply repeat from one octave to the next. Practice playing this scale until you can do so smoothly and with alternate picking (down, up, down, up, etc.). Focus on picking in a slow but steady tempo, and remember to keep that right hand movement as small as you can.
Once you can play figure 2 comfortably, you’re ready to come back down the neck. It looks like this:
Notice that we repeat the high G: that’s just to make the picking pattern a bit easier. Practice until you can play this entire pattern smoothly and with proper picking. Even simple guitar scales can sound great if you play cleanly, smoothly, and with confidence, so practice until you’re happy with the way this scale sounds.
The Minor Pentatonic in Other Keys
Obviously, not all songs are in the key of E. Luckily, playing in different keys is pretty easy on the guitar: we just shift the scale to a different position. To explore this idea, let’s work on the A minor pentatonic scale, another very common key.
To play in A minor, we move to the fifth fret, which is usually the second dot on the fretboard. Our pattern looks like this:
Notice that we don’t have any open strings now; we’ll have to fret every note. To do that, we will play in the fifth position: our pointer finger will play every note on the fifth fret, the middle finger would play any notes on the sixth fret, the ring finger plays all the notes on the seventh fret, and the pinky plays notes on the eighth fret. With suggested fingerings, the pattern looks like this:
__1 4 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 4 1 4 4 1 4 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 4 1
Using that pinky is really important, although it’s also really hard at first. Keep working at it because your playing will be more limited if you only use three fingers to play. Make sure your left wrist is rolled forward so your wrist and hand make close to a ninety-degree angle. This makes it much, much easier to reach those pinky notes, especially on the lower strings, and it also reduces wrist fatigue.
The great thing about this scale pattern is that you can play it in any key simply by moving it up and down the guitar neck. The key is simply the first note on the low E string. So, to play it in F, move your hand to first position: first finger on the first fret. To play it in C, move to the eighth fret, and so on. This means that when you learn guitar scales, you get a lot of bang for your buck: one pattern can open up twelve new guitar scales for you!
Your mission now: practice this pattern until you can play it smoothly in any position, remembering to focus on alternate picking. And, of course, try different combinations of notes, different patterns, and anything else you can think of. Use your ears to find what sounds good to you, and then work to expand it.
The Major Pentatonic Scale
Here’s the good news: now that you know the minor pentatonic scale, you also know the major pentatonic scale. It’s the same pattern. The difference is the chord or key that the scale is played over. Let’s look at our E minor pentatonic again:
When it’s played over an E chord, it’s E minor. When it’s played over a G major chord, it’s G major pentatonic, and it has an entirely different sound. Try playing a G major chord a few times and then running through this pattern, starting on the low G instead of E. You’ll hear a brighter, happier sound than if you play the scale after playing an E minor chord.
As you learn and experiment more, you’ll find that even simple guitar scales can sound entirely different depending on the chords you play them over. So, even though this lesson focuses on guitar scales for beginners, you’re learning extremely powerful tools that you’ll use every time you pick up guitar.
So, how can the same exact notes be two different scales? The answer lies in chord theory. G major and E minor are what are known as relative chords, meaning that they share two common tones. G major is G, B, D, and E minor is E, G, B. In fact, the G major scale and the E minor scale also use the exact same notes, which we’ll get to shortly.
For now, just remember that relative chords on a guitar are separated by three frets. If you’re playing a major chord, move down three frets to find the relative minor. Even though you might think these are simple guitar scales, that doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful and capable of being used to create great music! Experiment and practice, practice, practice.
The Major Scale
Understanding the major scale is a necessity if you want to understand music at all. It comes pretty close to being the foundation of all Western music. The minor scale is based on it, as are the pentatonic scales and all the other modal scales you’ll eventually learn.
The notes in the G major scale are: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Here’s what it looks like:
Now let’s extend it up the neck:
There are a couple of major scale patterns you’ll want to learn. Notice that these are all the exact same notes; the difference is in where each note is played and the fingerings you use:
2 4 1 2 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 2 4 1 2
1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1
That last pattern can be pretty difficult at first because you really have to stretch your fret hand. If you feel pain or fatigue in your left wrist, stop for a while. Remember to keep your wrist rotated forward, and to focus on slow, steady, accurate alternate picking.
Also, whenever you learn guitar scales, pay close attention to the suggested fingerings to develop good habits. Keep practicing each of these patterns until it sounds smooth and steady. Now try moving the patterns up the neck. Just like the pentatonic patterns, you can move to different keys simply by moving these patterns to different root (starting) notes.
The Minor Scale
Remember how the two pentatonic scales were related? The same thing is true with the major and minor scales. Let’s look at G major again (G A B C D E F#):
And now, here’s E minor (E F# G A B C D):
Notice that, even though we’re starting on E instead of G, these are the exact same notes as in the G major scale. It all depends on where you start: if you start on G, it’s G major; if you start on E, it’s E minor. Try extending it up the strings:
And, now let’s try moving the pattern to play A minor (A B C D E F G), which uses the same exact notes as C major:
1 3 4 1 3 4 1 2 4 1 3 1 2 4 1
or: 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 1 2 4 1 2 4 1
If it’s easier, you can fret the second B on the fourth fret of the G string rather than on the night fret on the D string — that’s what the parentheses means. As with the other scales, you should try playing this one in every position, and use your ears to start figuring out what sounds good to you.
Remember that, even though these may seem like simple beginner guitar scales, they’re the foundation of most of the music you probably listen to, and you can’t spend enough time getting to know them. And, as always, practice, practice, practice!
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