Introduction to Major Scales - Part 1

Music theory is fundamental to playing guitar in the same way basic grammar is fundamental to writing a speech.

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I'm always amazed when guitarists don't know the basic terminology in making music. Sure once in a while you get someone who plays some kick-a-s solos straight from the heart, but those guys are few and far between. The other thing is they tend to run out of ideas after one or two albums. The reasoning is simple they lack the ability to read and appreciate other forms of music. For example, J.S. Bach wrote some pieces of music that are downright bitching to play on guitar, and the way he subtly changes keys while keeping the same basic theme will blow your mind. But if you don't know what to listen for or what you're reading it just looks like a sh-t-load of notes. Music theory is fundamental to playing guitar in the same way basic grammar is fundamental to writing a speech. At the same time, don't get so hung up on the theory that you limit your self-expression as an artist. Sometimes a "wrong" note will sound perfect given the kind of mood you want to elicit. But you have to know what the right notes are before you start using the wrong ones to surprise your audience. Enough of my rant, and on to the music. Scales in western music are made up of twelve tones. The distance between each tone is called a half-step. On the guitar each fret is one half-step. When you get past twelve half-steps the note names repeat themselves, and your ear will actually pick up the similarity. Go ahead and try it. Exercise: Pluck any open string on the guitar, and then play the note at the twelfth fret. Hear the similarity? These notes have the same name, and the distance between them is called an octave. If you can't hear the similarity between the two notes, one or two things could be going on. (1) Your ear needs some time to learn what an octave sounds like (it will come in time). Or (2) your guitar is messed up. To test if the guitar is messed up lightly touch the string at the twelfth fret and pluck it. A note should ring out. (This is called a harmonic but don't worry about that now.) Now fret the string at the twelfth fret and pluck it. The two notes should sound the same. If they don't take it to your favorite guitar shop and ask them to adjust the intonation for you. If it's a decent guitar they should be able to fix it for a minimal cost. If they can't it's time to buy a new ax. Now that we have that established let's play some scales. My Six Months of Speed Course focuses on six major scales. Which ones are not important at this stage. But first and foremost you need to know what a scale sounds like. The formula for a major scale is this: Whole Step Whole Step Half Step Whole Step Whole Step Whole Step Half Step You can also think of it this way: Two Frets Two Frets One Fret Two Frets Two Frets Two Frets One Fret Let's play that. Exercise: Pick any string, which one doesn't matter. Then play the notes on the following frets, staying on the same string: 0 (open string) 2 4 5 7 9 11 12 You just played a major scale. Play it over and over again every time you pick up your guitar. Burn the sound into your memory. You may recognize it from elementary school music class: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. (The "Do" is pronounced "Dough" like Homer Simpson when he's upset.) If all this fancy talk has selections from "Sound of Music" going through your head, slap yourself until it stops. Now let's assign some names to our scales. Take the same pattern you just played, and play it on each string. In case you don't know, the names of the strings on the guitar from low to high are: E A D G B E. So if you play the following patter on the low E String: 0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12 You've just played an E major scale. (Somebody very smart named these things.) Play the same pattern on each of the other strings. You should notice that each scale sounds relatively the same. Each one sounds higher or lower, but the space between each note is what designates melodies in all of music not the absolute note value. Just for shits and giggles, let's play one more scale. Start on the B-string, but this time move the scale up one half-step. In case you can't figure it out the pattern is this: 1 3 5 6 8 10 12 13 You just played a C Major Scale. Not only that, but you've played every scale we work with in "Six Months of Speed." We expand upon these scales, play them different ways, create variations that will blow your mind, but what you played right there forms the basis for everything else. So spend some time practicing these scales until they become second nature. You need to have that sound pattern burned into your head so well that you can recall it when you're sh-t-faced and drunk-dialing your ex. This is what kick-a-s guitarists are made of, so learn it. Ear Training: Critical to the Armagh Approach is the intersection of theory, technique, and ear training. You just worked on basic theory and technique, so let's apply ear-training to the same exercise. Pick one of the scales that you can comfortably sing. I suggest either A or D depending on your range. If it goes too high for you feel free to sing falsetto. Now, let's assign a number to each scale degree 1-8. So as you play each scale, sing the following numbers, one for each note. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 I find that using numbers is a lot more intuitive than the do-re-mi method that's common in singing. Eventually you should be able to sing a scale without playing it. What you're trying to establish here is what the scale sounds like vs. How it looks on the fret board. The guitar is probably one of the more complex instruments out there, with many variations of playing the same note or groups of notes. I find too many guitarists get hung up on what the scale looks like, whether their fingers are in the proper position, and totally miss the sound. It took me years before I realized that what it sounded like was of primary importance (duh), which is why I've structured the Armagh Approach the way I did. IF you can hear the notes in your head, eventually they will find their way through your fingers onto the instrument. I have many more lessons on my website for your enjoyment -

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Probably should have cut down on the rant a little, and amazingly some people just don't hear notes. No matter how much time they spend trying to learn them. Also, adjusting intonation on anything but a Floyd (and acoustic) can be done in a matter of minutes. Just by turning some screws, just make sure to take some of the tension of your string before you do it or you will wind up breaking the string. There are lots of videos on how to do it, it's especially easy if you own a tuner. Now disregarding those 2 points i made this is a lesson that should be thought to any student the second he picks up a guitar. The major scales will give them a grid to go by so they don't get lost if they just want to wank around on the fretboard. It's also very easy to go from Major to the diatonic modes so it's very handy tool.
    "Probably should have cut down on the rant a little, and amazingly some people just don't hear notes. No matter how much time they spend trying to learn them." but playing instrument is about hearing, so as listening. It's sad that most of the people don't do any ear training. I saw once a video on yt of a girl playing a avenged sevenfold song, and she played it technically correct, but haven't detuned the E string to the D... Can you imagine?
    It may be physically impossible to distinguish notes for some people. I've been hard of hearing from birth and haring aides can only do so much. Never stopped me from playing, but I'll never be able to play by ear.
    Good lesson for beginners ....Like me. I've been playing for three months now and finally have grasped scales to the point that I don't scratch my head when someone tries to break them down for me. I was mislead about one thing... I was told in another lesson that the WWHWWWH was just a chromatic scale. So, I'm glad I saw this lesson.
    im not very good at guitar so this lesson is really helpful. plus i learned how to play the little riff from the adams family without trying to learn it. LOL
    I literally just did the same thing after reading this comment thanks for pointing it out!
    Well there's a difference between someone who can't sing and someone who can't sing well. I've encountered very few people who are genuinely tone deaf, however I've met plenty who can't seem to get the quality out of their voice they want to. However for ear training you don't need to sound good. As long as you can match pitch you're moving in the right direction. Do it in the privacy of your own room so you don't feel self-conscious. If the scale goes too high, switch to falsetto or head tone. Remember the goal is to learn the sound of what you're playing and burn it into your memory. You can do this whether the quality of your voice is good or bad.
    Absolutely. What you're describing is a relative pitch approach vs. an absolute pitch approach. What determines a melody is the distance between the notes, not the absolute note values themselves. In my soon to be released training manual I take the student through this concept in a ton of variations.
    Humor me. If you play the "whole step, whole step, half step, etc" anywhere, on any string, so long as you do the whole thing, you've essentially just played a major scale?
    Yes, indeed. You've only played a part of a major scale, but that's right. As long as you keep the notes spaced properly, you are playing a major scale (it's just that you have to identify the first note, called "the root", to know which scale it is - is it A, B, C, C#, etc).