Hexatonic: The Whole Tone Scales

Whole Tones scales are under-used in rock music, but their lack of tonal center provide great opportunities for a progressive sound.

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The whole tone scale is easy enough to learn, but is rarely found in rock music. There are only two whole tone scales, each consisting of six notes per octave (hexatonic), and each note is evenly spaced with no half tones. The entire scale is built on whole-step intervals. A triad built on this scale would be, Root, Major Third, Raised (#) Fifth, which is an augmented chord ( Aug. or + ). Here is a two-octave view of the whole-tone scale layed out on the piano:
| |B| |B| | |B| |B| |B| | |B| |B| | |B| |B| |B| |
| | | | | | |X| |X| |X| | | | | | | |X| |X| |X| |
| |_| |_| | |_| |_| |_| | |_| |_| | |_| |_| |_| |
|X | X | X|  |   |   |  |X | X | X|  |   |   |  |
|__|___|__|__|___|___|__|__|___|__|__|___|___|__|_
 C   D   E   F#  G#  A#  C   D   E   F#  G#  A#
PIANO
B=Black keys    X=scale note

| |B| |B| | |B| |B| |B| | |B| |B| | |B| |B| |B| |
| |X| |X| | | | | | | | | |X| |X| | | | | | | | |
| |_| |_| | |_| |_| |_| | |_| |_| | |_| |_| |_| |
|  |   |  |X | X | X | X|  |   |  |X | X | X | X|
|__|___|__|__|___|___|__|__|___|__|__|___|___|__|_
   C#  D#  F   G   A   B   C#  D#  F   G   A   B
You see on the piano that the scale altenates between groups of black and white keys. On the guitar, using Standard tuning, the scale pattern looks like diagonals mostly, or diamonds, with the exception being the G and B strings. Guitar fretboard:
                   5th                         12th
e|O---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|-
B||-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-
G||-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|--
D|O---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|--
A||-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|--
E|O---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|---|-x-|-
X=scale notes Whole-tones fit well over augmented chords.
e|---2---4---6---|---2---6---10---|-----------------|
B|---3---5---7---|---3---7---11---|---2-------8-----|
G|---3---5---7---|---3---7---11---|---2---6---10----|
D|---2---4---6---|---4---8---12---|---3---7---11----|
A|---------------|----------------|---4---6---10----|
E|---------------|----------------|-------7---------|
Whole-tone isn't strictly for augmented chords. In our song Hard Hard (c), we play the whole-tone scale over this type of progression in the instrumental break:
    G  C# A  D#    B        C    C#      D      D#
e|---------------|-------------|--------------|-----|
B|-----6-----8---|-7-------8---|-9-------10---|-11---
G|--4--6--6--8---|-8-------9---|-10------11---|-12--
D|--5--6--7--8---|-9-------10--|-11------12---|-13--
A|--5--4--7--6---|-9-------10--|-11------12---|-13--
E|--3-----5------|-7-------8---|-9-------10---|-11--
    /  /  /  /     /  /  /  /    /  /  /   /    /  / ...
Listen to the song Insomnia on mp3. Our song Insomnia (c) was written entirely for the whole-tone scale:
e|-----------------|---------||
B|-----------------|---------||
G|-5---3-----------|---------||
D|---4---2-4---2---|---------||
A|-----------3---1-|-3---1-3-||
E|-----------------|---2-----||
   / . / . / . / .   / . / .

e|-----------------|-----------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|
G|-----------------|-----------------|
D|-----------------|-------------4/6-|
A|-----------------|-------------5/7-|
E|-0-0-2-0-0-4-0-0-|-6-0-0-8-0-0-----|
   / . / . / . / .   / . / . / . / .

e|------------------|-----------------|-------------------|
B|------------------|-----------------|-------------------|
G|------------------|-----------------|-------------------|
D|-6-4--------------|-----------------|------------4------|
A|-----7-5-9-7------|-7-5-----5-3-----|---5p3--3-5---3h5--|
E|-------------10-8-|-----6-4-----4-2-|-4----4------------|
   / . / . / . /  .   / . / . / . / .   / .  / . / . /  . etc
(sample) The whole-tone scale fits well into impressionistic compositions. Two renown classical composers who used the whole-tone scale: Bla Bartk, Claude Debussy Voiles - Prelude 2 , Book 1. Whole tones do give the feeling of restlessness, due to its lack of tonal center and absence of leading notes or half tones. Insomnia is a good example of the possibilities of the whole tone scale. Listen to Insomnia. The Hexatonic was one of the earliest scales I learned, mainly because of my pal who got me into the progressive sound of King Crimson.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    dantheguitarist
    I think a better example for some stuff would be Rob Jarzombek and/or Spastic Ink. He does some crazy shit with whole tones. Overall, great listen, I liked how tabbed out some riffs.
    Thereisnotry
    Great lesson, I was curious about whole tones and this explained it perfectly. I also wouldn't consider your examples "advertising." Using your own material as an example is just as effective as using someone else's, so why not?
    bigsuit
    cool stuff, good examples of how to actually use the scale. Don't forget to mention the tritone (#4 or b5) in the olden days people thought the tritone interval could raise the devil from hell
    Mehtabb
    FYI, blotted science makes frequent use of whole tone scales.
    e=related
    Skamez
    i aggre with blas3 because ure unsigned and people could possibly steal ure stuff =] but also it was only ure stuff really with a few other diagrams
    fvanschoor
    I think its awesome to advertise yourself. Confidence in playing the riff you are teaching is never a bad thing. Thanx for the info, will give it a go tonight. Also, I am not disagreeing with the others, its just, if you know you can do something and have done it well, then use the example, maybe others learn? I dunno. Anyway, thanx
    rockdive
    Blas3 wrote: not a bad article, but I think it would be nicer if you don't advertise yourselves as examples
    Yeah, I kinda agree, except I haven't seen much other examples of this, especially in rock. I know Thelonius Monk use to improvise sometimes in whole tone.
    progrock
    Pretty good examples and riffs, but as the first guy mentioned, it's best not to advertise yourselves.
    Blas3
    not a bad article, but I think it would be nicer if you don't advertise yourselves as examples