Guitar Scales Lesson

AS A REGULAR READER of Acoustic Guitar, you’ve probably learned a thing or two about the major scale. Chances are you know at least one way to play the scale, ascending and descending, across one or more octaves.

If so, grab your guitar, select a key, and play a descending major scale—but instead of starting on the root, try starting on the sixth (for instance, A, in the key of C). Descend from the sixth note above the root to the sixth below the root, moving straight through the notes of the key.

If this was easy, congratulations: you really do know your major scale! (For the record, moving through the C major scale from A to A is the same thing as playing an A natural-minor scale. See “One Scale, Seven Modes” for more information.)

Don’t feel bad if this exercise gave you trouble, because you’re certainly not alone. Strictly defined, a scale is a collection of pitches arranged in ascending or descending order, and many of us are used to thinking about scales only in relation to their root notes, like C for C major or A for A minor.

In this lesson, we’ll expand your scale knowledge by trying unfamiliar fingerings, starting and ending on nonroot notes, reordering pitches, and discovering some cool musical ideas along the way.

Get a New Perspective

guitar scales lessons

Example 1 shows a two-octave major-scale pattern in the key of A that most players know. If your fingers automatically gravitate toward this pattern upon hearing the words “major scale,” considerExamples 2a and 2b—two different fingering patterns that include all the same notes.

One of the defining features of Example 1 is that the notes fall within a span of four frets on the neck, eliminating the need for position shifting or stretching across frets. However, this pattern requires that the first note be fretted with the middle finger of your fretting hand, which may not be desirable or convenient.

Alternative patterns like those in Example 2a and 2b don’t fall quite as neatly on the fretboard, but they do provide options when the desired root note is closer to your pinky or index finger, respectively.

This small change in starting position causes a major change in fingering, but it is one that is really worth investigating. Try starting other familiar scale patterns with different fretting-hand fingers, and force yourself to navigate your way through the scale—the new geography you discover can help you find riffs and melodies that might not have occurred to you otherwise.


Guitar Scales –

Shift the Starting Point

guitar notes tips

Once you’ve achieved some familiarity with a scale pattern, a great way to start exploring it in greater depth is by changing the first note to one that you don’t normally begin on. Take a look at Example 3, a two-octave natural-minor scale pattern in the key of A.

Even just starting from the middle root (Example 4) is a good way to determine how much of what you know about the scale depends on your memorization of a specific fingering pattern.

If you have trouble recalling the pattern when you start on a different note, it’s a good thing—you’ve exposed an area that needs a little practice, which will result in an even deeper understanding of something you already know backward and forward (literally).

But don’t stop at the middle root—see if you can trip up your knowledge by re-creating the experiment from the beginning of this article. Try the scale pattern in Example 5, an alternate fingering for the A-natural-minor scale in Example 3.

The fourth note of the A-minor scale is D, so start on D and see if you can get through the entire A-minor scale pattern from this note (Example 6).