Scales Chords And Theory Behind Them

This will be a larger lesson that will include the major scale, how to construct it, how to build chords from it, and how to stay in a particular key. This is a long lesson.

Ultimate Guitar
Great! So here we are again. Hopefully this lesson will be easy to understand, as most of the time I tend to confuse people. Anyway. The most important thing to learn for your theory, in my OPINION is the major scale. It is where you go to construct your chords, it can help you determine key signature, and most other scales, if not all idk, are based off this scale too. Let's start. The Major Scale's Construction: This is a happy sounding scale, that is very common in music all over the country. From metal, to country, the major scale is very predominant. So first off, what is a scale? A scale, basically, is a series of tones that go from one octave to another in some sort of pattern. The major scale is referred to as a diatonic scale. It uses seven tones to get from the root note to your octave. The pattern this scale uses is tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. It may also be pronounced whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Now, a step and a tone are pretty much the same, on the guitar at least. A whole step, or a tone refers to two frets on the fretboard. The semitone, or half steps are one fret. Alrighty, so let's go about a construction of a major scale, and see if I'm explaining any of this well enough...ok...pick a note, any note...just kidding, for an example, I will start with Cmaj, because this major scale has all perfect notes, also called natural. What that means is that none of the letters, or notes in the scale are going to be sharped, or flatted. They will be all the perfect notes between your root C, and it's octave. You fret your C on either E string at the eighth fret. Travel up the neck in the order of whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. You should now be at your octave, another C. The notes your fingers landed on between these to C's are all in your Cmaj scale. It should look like this. C-D-E-F-G-A-B, then back to the C. Now the major scale works this way all the time pretty much. If you want to find your Gmaj scale, just start at the G, then go up the neck to your octave, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. The notes your finger falls on should be G-A-B-C-D-E-F#, then G again. So now you need to know one more thing. If you see this 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, that is a representation of the major scale. It is called a formula. This is the base formula for all chord constructions, and scales. Remember that. The Major Scale Applied: Now that you know how to make your major scales, I will show you how the formulas for chord constructions, and scales that I will be going over later. So, you know that if you see this 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, this is the formula for a major scale. This is really just a base for the other formulas, as they are all based on the major scale. Alright so first, I'll show you how this applys to any major scale. You will take the letters you found earlier, that are in the major scale, and place them in order over the numbers above. I will be in C major for this lesson unless otherwise specified. Like this:
Let me show you what some chords formulas will look like, then show you how to apply them. Say you have a formula for a chord, but not the actual notes. The formulas will look something like this. 1-3-5. What that represents are the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, of the chord. This is the formula for a major triad. A three note major chord, which is very common. To determine what notes you are going to use take your chord formula, 1-3-5, then put those three notes, also called scale degrees, together on your neck. The one is C, the three is E, and the five is G. So like this:
That is a C major chord. Let me give you another example to make sure I've explained it well enough. The next chord is called a Major Seventh chord. I love these chords personally. The formula for the chord is 1-3-5-7. Still working in C major. See what you get, then scroll down, and see if you've got it.
Did you get it? Great! Now I'm going to mix it up just a little. The next formula will be a minor chord, and it won't be a C chord, but it will be in the key of C, which will be explained later on in the lesson. Ok, so I just happen to know of the top of my head that C major's relative minor is A minor. Alright, since we are constructing an A chord, we do not use the C major scale for construction at all, but we don't use A minor either. We use the scale of A major, then we apply the minor formula to that scale to construct the chord. I hope I am not confusing anyone. Let me explain, for chord constructions, you always use the major scale, but you always base the major scale you use on your root note, which is A for any A chord, and C for C chords. So to build your A minor chord(Am). The formula for any minor chord is 1-b3-5. The b is representing that the note, or scale degree is flatted. What that means is lower the scale degree on fret, or a half step. Now let's build our A major scale so we can construct our chord. It should look like this:
1 2 3  4 5 6  7
Alright, so now we will apply the formula. The minor triad formula is 1-b3-5. So you have A, C# flatted down to a C, then E. Spells ACE if you build an Am, so it is easy to remember. You remember our C major scale had all three of these notes in it, so that means we are still in the key of C major. We just use the A major scale to construct any A chords. Let's try one more formula just to really drill it in. This time I am going to through a curve ball with a diminished chord. Now the formula for any diminished triad chord is 1-b3-b5. I like these chords. I also happen to know off the top of my head that if we want to stay in C major, we will need a B diminished chord, so let's build our B major scale. Give it a try on your own, then you can peek and see if you got it right. Should look like this.
1 2  3  4 5  6  7
Did ya' get it? Hope so, or I'm doing a terrible job of teaching anything. So, now we apply our formula.
B  D  F
See? All those are in C major, so we are still in key. Now that you understand how the formulas work, and how to construct your own chords. I will explain how to stay in key, since I have mentioned it, but not explained it. Key Signatures: So, let's find out how to stay in key. A lot of people don't seem to think this is that important around here in my town. It really is hard for two guitarists to work well together though, when one, the other, or both don't know how to stay in key with each other. So, let's go back to that oh so important major scale. Tonally, not modally, you are in key if the notes you use all line up to a major or minor scale. Which if it sounds good, it usually is in key. So let me explain with C major, since we've been getting familiar with it already. Build your C major scale. All the notes you use, C-D-E-F-G-A-B, Those are all the notes in key. The key of C major. The easy way to determine what notes will be in any key is to use this formula which is a basic version of the circle of fifths. Write this, F-C-G-D-A-E-B, and remember it. I will explain it after the example. Remember that each key has one relative key, sharing all the notes with each other. The relative minor for C major is A minor. Using these notes you could be in either key signature really. Most of the music you hear will be tonal and not modal, so it will be in the key of C major, or Bb major, or whatever, but not in any mode, and you shouldn't really use modes with tonal music, but if you like, go crazy, do it, music is art so these are only guidelines...I'm rambling, anyhow here is a chord progression, if you feel comfortable with the information, try to write out the scale degrees for your chords, and assume a key signature based on them, then see if you are right. Progression: E minor, F# diminished, G major, and A minor. If I were using those chords, which key do you think I would be in? Did you get G major? Good. Well now let me explain why. First I will show you all the scale degrees that were used in these chords, and then I will explain how I determined G major with that formula from the above paragraph. Em:E-G-B F#dim:F#-A-C Gmaj:G-B-D Am:A-C-E Now see only one sharp, or non-natural note, the F#. I just know off the top of my head the G major has only one sharp, and that happens to be F#, but let me show you how. The formula, F-C-G-D-A-E-B. To find sharps, you count from C to the right. G is one away from C, so no, go back to the front of the formula and count one letter. That letter, which is F, is sharp in G major. Another example. How many sharps in B major. It is five away from C, right, so back to the front, and count five letters, the F, C, G, D, and A are all sharp in the key of B major. Hope that explains it. No to find flats in a key, it simply works backwords, quite literally. Write it backwards, from B, like this. B-E-A-D-G-C-F. You still count right from C, so let's find the flats in F major. F is one away from C, to the right so one flat in F major. Now to find it, go to the front of the backwards formula, and count one flat. B is flat in F major. Once you rap around to the B, they are now called Flat majors. Like this, Eb major. How many flats does it have? Count right from C, rap around back to the front, it is three away from C. Now to the front, count three. B, E, and A are all flat in Eb major. I hope I have explained this well enough. Let's try one more, and try it on your own first, to see if you have it. Try Bb major. You should have found that it has two flats. Those flats should have been B, and E. Ironically, these are the only two that aren't flat in B major. It usually works that way with you flat major keys. Alrighty, now that you know that formula finding key signatures should begin to get easier, and easier. The more you use a key signature the more familiar you will become with it, and you will be able to recognize them quickly in songs, then you can add something that makes tonal sense to the song. Try finding the amount of sharps in D major with the formula(circle of fifths). You should have gotten two sharps. F#, and C#. Great, if you got that right then I have done a half way decent job. that is a lot of random knowledge to absorb, and it will not give you the immediate results you expect. Key signatures, and the application of the major scale will take time to improve your playing, yes, but over time, this information will become like second nature to you and your songwriting and improvisation will improve greatly. Trust me. It worked wonders for me. Anyhow, take you time to absorb all that, and here are just a few chord formulas you can apply to any root note, and in any key signature. Oh yeah that reminds me. One more thing before the chords. With your major scale, whichever one you are using, there is a pattern of corresponding chords that will be in key. The pattern is pretty simple, there are only seven chords, and they correspond with the seven notes that are in your major scale, or key signature. Let's use C major again! Yay! Looks like this.
As I hope you remember, that is the C major scale. Alright, so when I put 1, I am referring to the first scale degree, which will be the first root note, which is C. Here are the corresponding chords. 1-major 2-minor 3-minor 4-major 5-major 6-minor 7-diminished There is also a roman numeral system for this, it looks like this. I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii, there is supposed to be a little dot on the seventh. I don't know how to make it on the computer though, sooooo....yea. Anyway, this is how it always works with major keys. The lower case numerals represent minor chords, minus the seventh, which is diminished. Alrighty, so if you follow that you can make all kinds of chord progressions, and you will still be in key. Now as promised, a few simple chord constructions. I will the formula and the actual notes they represent in C major only. Remember these formulas apply to all key signatures, and the root note can always be changed, just like the beginning of the lesson. Not all the chords are in the actual key of C, but the are based on the C major scale as the root is always C.
Chord type                 Formula        Notes        Abbreviations
Major                      1-3-5         C-E-G         C
Fifth(power chord)         1-5           C-G           C5
Suspended fourth           1-4-5         C-F-G         Csus4
Suspended Second           1-2-5         C-D-G         Csus2
Added ninth                1-3-5-9       C-E-G-D       Cadd9
Sixth                      1-3-5-6       C-E-G-A       C6
Sixth, added ninth         1-3-5-6-9     C-E-G-A-D     C6/9
Major Seventh              1-3-5-7       C-E-G-B       Cmaj7
Major ninth                1-3-5-7-9     C-E-G-B-D     Cmaj9
Major thirteenth           1-3-4-7-9-13  C-E-G-B-D-A   Cmaj13
Minor                      1-b3-5        C-Eb-G        Cm
Minor, added ninth         1-b3-5-9      C-Eb-G-D      Cm(add9)
Minor Sixth                1-b3-5-6      C-Eb-G-A      Cm6
Minor, Flat sixth          1-b3-5-b6     C-Eb-G-Ab     Cmb6
Minor Sixth, added ninth   1-b3-5-6-9    C-Eb-G-A-D    Cm6/9
Minor Seventh              1-b3-5-b7     C-Eb-G-Bb     Cm7
Minor Seventh, Flat fifth  1-b3-b5-b7    C-Eb-Gb-Bb    Cm7b5
Minor, major seventh       1-b3-5-7      C-Eb-G-B      Cm(maj7)
Minor ninth                1-b3-5-b7-9   C-Eb-G-Bb-D   Cm9
Minor ninth, flat fifth    1-b3-b5-b7-9  C-Eb-Gb-Bb-D  Cm9b5
Dominant Seventh           1-3-5-b7      C-E-G-Bb      C7
Seventh, suspended fourth  1-4-5-b7      C-F-G-Bb      C7sus4
Seventh, flat fifth        1-3-b5-b7     C-E-Gb-Bb     C7b5
Ninth                      1-3-5-b7-9    C-E-G-Bb-D    C9
Augmented                  1-3-#5        C-E-G#        Caug
Seventh, flat ninth        1-3-5-b7-b9   C-E-G-Bb-Db   C7b9
Cheeze wiz on crackers...
I can't think of anymore off the top of my head...uhm, there is also.
Diminished Seventh         1-b3-b5-bb7   C-Eb-Gb-Bbb   Cdim7
Now that one is a little tricky because the double flat, but it's not as bad as it looks. Instead of one half step, go two, or a whole step down, and the note is double flatted. Ok, well I'm tired of writing these, I'm sure you're tired of reading them. Try to incorporate as many different chord types as possible into your playing, while staying in key, and you will pretty much have to gain a great knowledge of your fretboard. If you can form each of these chords anywhere on the neck, and in at least three different places quickly, then you must know your neck fairly well. These are all great chords also to go with my lesson over short melodies over common chords. Just remember to use your scale degrees for accents. For instance if you have a dominant seventh chord being played in the progression, then try to accent that b7th scale degree in your melody to really harmonize well. Anyhow, that's all for now. See ya later pickers and grinners.

19 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I'm not a guitar player, I play bass. But I stopped by to see if I could learn something from it. And I'd like to give you my thanks for doing this. I'm guessing you spent alot of time on it, and you deserve appreciation. Don't listen to the griefers. As a general rule, don't listen to people who have numbers in their nickname. I.e. shadowmaster036 and myshadow46_2. Actually, stay away from poeple who uses the word 'shadow' in their nickname
    (sorry for double posting)Oh but still regardless. I think you did a good job. You made the theory you explained fairly accessible. and I have to admit I learned a few mnemonic tricks from this article. Plus to anyone who says this article has been done so many times. If people still have trouble with it then there's nothing wrong with having it done again. sometimes having things explained in a slightly different way can help.
    hey man, good lesson I just started with theory myself and I don't care if I see this a 100 times over and over I think this is valuable for every beginner guitarist myself included! Don't worry about all the rude comments I get them all the time, keep it up!
    You guys are still thinking intervals and scale degrees are the same...that's just interval is the distance between two perfect fifth....there are twelve of them...there are only seven scale degrees in any diatonic guys are just to simple minded....go to college.
    lesbian seagull
    but what if you are trying to find the flats in Emaj , from my calculations? it makes the Emaj an Ebmaj? help am very confused there
    the lessons quite good and i found it helpful but it was slightly confusing as you kept mentioning things and saying you'd explain them later, it would have been better if you had just explained the terms at the time or maybe had definitions at the top of the lesson. your work is appreiciated
    You are quite welcome...that's just about everything I know...except harmonization, which is hard to explain, and I'm not a very good teacher...there are some good lessons on here for it though. And again...intervals are what a scale is derived from, scale degrees are derived from the scale. Don't let these ppl confuse you...if they had such a good grip on guitar theory, they wouldn't be reading these lessons in the first place.
    Thanks. I havn't seen this a thousand times like everyone else because I'm teaching myself. With internet assistance of course.
    Now that's fine, but your original argument was that the notes were natural, not perfect right? But you just said, and I quote,"I was talking about the 4th, and 5th notes in the major scale. In the major scale they are always perfect." Perfect, and natural are pretty much interchangeable, but intervals and degrees are not. Someone has misinformed you. An interval is the distance between the root, and the tone you are using, like the tritone, a minor second, or the major seventh. Degrees are usually scale degrees, used in chord construction mostly. The degrees are derived from the scale you are using. You should stop commenting and start need more lessons.
    In g maj the f is sharp....and they are stated both ways...if not, explain the difference...The chord construction is a b7 based on the major scale from the root note of the chord...not the key signature...and a c7 does not fit into the key of're just an idiot looking to down someone because you don't get the material...try learning, not critisizing...
    your statement "perfect and natural are pretty much interchangeable" in your last comment is what shows me you really don't understand this stuff very well. the lesson itself was good, i didn't see much that was incorrect (though i confess i didn't look very hard). also, there's no b7 scale degree on a dominant seventh chord. that thing you know as a b7 is actually the 4th scale degree. don't believe me? C major: C D E [F] G A B C G7: G B D [F] shit brix? if you wanted to emphasize the F in the G chord, you'd call it the chordal seventh - the seventh degree is something else entirely that depends on the key, rather than the chord. in the major scale, the 4th and the 5th are always perfect. shadow is completely correct.
    slowlybilly wrote: Thanks for the tips. I like feedback...Myshadow you may be right. I have taught myself all of this in two months, and have read it both ways in books, and wrote both ways in the lesson just in case. But you should still read through it, and see if you could learn anything. Also, the fourth, and fifth degrees are not always perfect....Nor are the 4th and 5th I'm not even sure what you're talking about.
    Degrees\Intervals are sort of interchangeable. Essentially I was talking about the 4th and 5th notes in the scale. In the major scale they are always perfect i.e not diminished or augmented. That is not to say that you cannot use those altered notes when playing in major, they would be accidentals. I've read the rest. In the applying the major scale section you show how to build chords, and you do it correctly for each chord, but personally, I would have discussed harmonising the major scale. That would help explain why different chords built off the major scale are major, minor, diminished. Rather than some thing just 'off the top of your head'. You do touch on this in the key signatures section, but you don't explain why. Also you mention playing modally, surely that is outside of the scope of the article and does more to confuse the reader, if they are a beginner. Other than those points, the info is solid. I've not seen your method of working out key signatures before, so I did learn something. The article itself reads like you just wrote it down as you were thinking. I would have suggested re-drafting to make it more cohesive. I hope you can take my criticisms as constructive. I'm not trying to be rude, just trying to help.
    though I agree the 4th and 5th degrees aren't always perfect degrees since the perfection depends on the interval from the root of the chord or arpeggio you're using, and the 4th can be used as a stylistic dissonance (like in sus4 chords) I can't really think of any situations with an imperfect 5th (as an interval)
    Thanks for the tips. I like feedback...Myshadow you may be right. I have taught myself all of this in two months, and have read it both ways in books, and wrote both ways in the lesson just in case. But you should still read through it, and see if you could learn anything. Also, the fourth, and fifth degrees are not always perfect....Nor are the 4th and 5th I'm not even sure what you're talking about.
    The C major scale is all natural, not all perfect. The only notes in the major scale that are perfect are the 4th and 5th degrees. Because you'd already got terminology mixed up I stopped reading.
    Thank you for this, it is something I have been struggling with and I appreciate your hard work and please ignore the lesser comments on here :