Begin with the Parent Scale: The Major Scale
This is a 5- step lesson that contains a lot of information so take it slowly and patiently. Try to apply each suggested exercise. By the time you reach the end you should have a very strong foundation on which everything else can be built.
Now assuming that you are familiar with the musical alphabet by the time you are reading this, we can begin to look at the foundations of music theory and how scales, chords and techniques can all come together in your playing. A common scenario I have seen is that a rock or blues guitarist who has learned either the minor pentatonic scale or the major scale patterns and some chords etc reaches a point where they aren’t sure how much they can do with what they know, or how it all fits together. To make matters worse, it’s so easy to receive a lot of apparently conflicting information from seeking out multiple sources, especially online.
What I hope to do here is to lay out a series of steps for you to follow along with in plain english and in the order that seems most logical to me. I know that it can be really frustrating how poorly music theory is sometimes explained! I hope that this series can shed some light on the various scales you would have heard of and chords and especially, how they go together and how to use this knowledge to improvise and jam with anything.
These 5 steps constitute A LOT of learning so expect to stay on this page for a little while. However, once you have got a firm grasp of everything on this page and can do each exercise the rest will fall into place!
Start with learning the major scale. Believe it or not, once you have learned it thoroughly and have gained some mental flexibility with it, ALL of the other scales will make sense straight away.
So what is the major scale? Basically, a scale is a selection of notes out of all potential notes that you can play. It is determined by a formula which tells you, out of the 12 notes in the musical alphabet, which ones to include and which ones to skip.
The formula is this:
T T S T T T S
T means tone which is equivalent to 2 frets.
S means semi-tone which is equivalent to 1 fret.
So it’s saying this: Pick a note as the key of the scale and perform this formula from that starting point until you get back to that note an octave up. The notes will then be the same in every octave.
If we want to locate the notes in the key of C, we simply find a C and then apply the formula. Have a look a this in action. On the first line is the musical alphabet and on the second line is the selection of notes that the formula tells us to include.
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
C (T) D (T) E (S) F (T) G (T) A (T) B (S) C
The formula tells us that after C, the next note is a tone away. Remember a tone is the same as 2 frets which means we skip the C# that lies in between C and D. We then do the same between D and E, leaving out the D# because the next interval is a tone too. After E, our next note is a semi-tone away. This gives us an F. And on and on until we have all 7 notes in the key.
Try this: Apply the formula to a range of different keys and see what notes are in different keys. Get used to it and memorise the formula. Be able to say to yourself “Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone” without looking. Then you are ready for…
Learn very well at least one positional pattern for the Major Scale on guitar. Over time you learn learn them all (there are 5) and they will feel more like one big pattern. This pattern is actually just what you end up with when the formula we examined above (can you say it off by heart?) is applied to the guitar in normal tuning. The included notes make a pattern. A different formula would yield a different pattern.
These are the positions for the major scale. At least start by learning position 1. Position 5 is also a common starting point.
The black dots represent where the Major Root Notes are in each position. The Major Root Note is the 1st note we started from. In the key above, it would be a C. We are playing in the key of C major if this Major Root Note falls on a C. At the 8th fret of the top E string is the note C so slide position one until the black dot lines up with the 8th fret. Then go through the pattern a few times.
Now, within the scale (using whichever positions you have learned), see if you can play the scale and mentally label each Major Root Note as you play it. You want to do this enough times that it’s clear where the major root notes are at all times. You want your mental labelling to start happening with less and less thinking required, as it becomes more automatic.
Now see if you can do this mental labelling of other notes too. The pattern won’t change, only your mental labelling of which note is currently a priority will change. Whereas before we prioritised the Major Root Note (which in the key of C is the note C)- the 1st note, let’s randomly choose the note G to prioritise for a while. It is the 5th note in this scale. I just chose any one of the possible notes, in this case it is the 5th note.
See if you can play the C major scale and now do your mental noting of the fifth note, G.
Now see if you can mentally label both the major root of the scale AND the fifth note (i.e. C and G).
The point here is to get better and better at mental labelling as well as playing the scale.
It’s very important to make these mental labels because down the track you want your mind always keeping track of what you are playing and this is how you get there! Plus it will allow the rest of your learning of scales to be much easier.
Now let’s look into another important note to consider before moving on, the Minor Root Note. This name is what we give to the 6th note in the major scale. When you play the major scale but prioritise the 6th note, it has a minor sound (often thought of as sad or melancholy). See if you can play the scale but try to play a few melodies that start and finish on the 6th note. Remember: the pattern won’t change, only where you place emphasis within the pattern.
Now there are two very significant notes to mentally label as we play them: the Major Root Note (black dots) and the Minor Root Note (red dots). See if you can play up and down position 1 and make these mental labels really clear.
Try to visualise one of the positions that you know well and see where the major and minor root notes fall. Notice that they are close to each-other. Note 6 occurs 3 semi-tones before note 1 begins again (note 1 is equivalent to note 8 which would be the next Major Root Note an octave up so we call it 1 again).
Once all of this is really clear and you can do everything mentioned above, continue on to the next article in this series to see how things start to come together.