The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter II: 2 Scales - Diatonic Scales In Practice

author: ZeGuitarist date: 12/08/2008 category: the guide to
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Part II - Chapter 2

"Scales - Diatonic Scales In Practice"

Welcome back all! More music theory is upon us! Last week, we took a deep plunge into scales theory, and we have learned very much already! You now all know how to construct scales, both Major and Minor, using the correct intervals. We learned that both Major and Minor scales are defined by the intervals between the notes used, and that every Major scale is "related" to a certain Minor scale because they are constructed of the same notes.

What you don't know yet, though, is how to convert all this theoretical information into practice... How do you play a scale on the guitar? What are the fretboard shapes for Major scales, and for Minor? And how do you use scales to improvise over songs? You know all the theory already, so it's time to answer all of the above questions is this article, and put our scales to practice!

So, a little overview of what we're going to learn today:

1. The scale shapes: the 7 positions of the Major (and relative Minor) scales!
2. The caged shapes: memorizing the scale positions made easier: the CAGED system!
3. Improvisation: how to play solos in Major and Minor songs!

So let's get started! You've got a lot of memorizing to do...

The Scale Shapes

We learned last time how scales are formed out of notes with certain distances between them, or "intervals". Today, we are going to localize those notes on the fretboard. You will find that intervals will, again, play a very important role in the scale shapes!

I'll start off with showing you the entire fretboard, and indicating the positions of the notes in the Major scale. Take a look at the image below!

This image shows all the notes in the F Major scale (and relative D Minor scale) all over the fretboard. However, the title of the image says "Major and Minor Scale Shapes"... That's right, the shape provided can be used for every Major and related Minor scale!
How does that work? Well, like we learned in the previous chapter, scales are defined by the intervals between the notes in it. So, we take a certain root, and from there we can construct the entire scale using the intervals we learned... In the picture, the root is F: you can see that the note on the 6th string at the 1st fret, which is F, is used as the root. The positions of all the other notes are then found relative to the chosen root. But, suppose we just moved the root note from the 1st fret to the 3rd fret? The root would now be G... If you just move all other notes up 2 frets as well, you have all the notes in the G Major scale: you'd be playing in G Major!

So, if you memorize this shape you'll be able to play both the Major and the Minor scales of every single root note! Just move the entire shape up and down the fretboard, depending on the root you choose... For example, in the picture the key is F (root at the 1st fret on the 6th string), but we can move the entire shape up 7 frets to the key of C (root at the 8th fret on the 6th string). Remember that when you do this, every note past the 12th fret can be found 12 frets lower as well. So, if a note is located at the 13th fret, it will be on the 1st fret as well. A note on the 14th fret can be found at the 2nd fret too, and so on...

Of course, you're all looking at this scheme right now and thinking: holy crap, how the hell am I going to memorize all these positions? The answer: divide and conquer! The scheme I provided can be divided into 7 separate shapes or "positions": one for every note in the scale. It's much easier to memorize the positions of the notes using these shapes, than memorizing the whole fretboard at once! Below, I'll summarize the 7 positions for you.

A. Position I: the Ionian position

The first position is a very useful position: the first note in it is the Major root note. Here's the shape of Position I, also called the "Ionian position"...

As you can see from the picture, the first note is the Major root... This makes the Ionian shape a very useful one! You can choose any root, locate it on the 6th string, and voila, you know where the Ionian shape is located... And therefore, all other shapes too! The Ionian shape can also be called the "Major" position, because it defines where the root is.
Let's move on...

B. Position II: the Dorian position

The second position is 2 frets higher than the first. It's called the "Dorian" shape and it starts from the second note in the scale (that's why it's the second position!). Here it is:

As you can see, some of the notes from the previous position are in this one as well, and some of the notes from the next position too. All the positions overlap! On to the next...

C. Position III: the Phrygian position

The third position is called the "Phrygian" position and starts with the 3rd note in the Major scale. It's 2 frets up from the Dorian position, and 4 frets from the Ionian (root) position. The shape:

D. Position IV: the Lydian position
The "Lydian" position is the 4th position and it starts with the 4th note of the Major scale. It's only 1 fret up from the Phrygian position, because the 4th note in the Major scale is only 1 semitone up from the 3rd note. It's 5 frets up from the Ionian (root) position. Here is the shape:

E. Position V: the Mixolydian position

The fifth position or "Mixolydian" position, starting on the 5th note of the Major scale, is positioned 2 frets higher than the Lydian position (7 frets from the Ionian). The shape:

Two to go still...

F. Position VI: the Aeolian position

The Aeolian shape is 2 frets up from the Mixolydian shape, and 9 frets from the Ionian shape. This position is, along with the Ionian position, a very important one. You may have noticed (read: should have noticed) by now, that in every scale the root notes for both Major and Minor keys are indicated. The Ionian shape was the one that started with the Major root... Well, the Aeolian shape is the one that starts on the 6th note of the Major scale: the Minor root! So, you can use the Aeolian position just like the Ionian position, as an orientation point: choose a Minor root note, find it on the 6th string, and you know the position of the Aeolian shape, and therefore all the other shapes too!

Note: Notice how this shape resembles a shape that is already very familiar to you: the Minor Pentatonic shape! That's right, the shape of the A Minor Pentatonic is based on this shape... If you take A, which is at the 5th fret on the 6th string, as a Minor root, you are playing in A Minor. If you then leave the 2nd and 6th notes of the Minor scale out of the shape, you have the A Minor Pentatonic!

G. Position VII: the Locrian position

The last of the 7 positions is called the "Locrian" position, and starts from the 7th note in the Major scale. It's 2 frets up from the Aeolian position and 11 frets from the Ionian position.

And voila! You now know all 7 positions in which you can play solos! For some practical tips on how to use them for soloing, see the last paragraph of this article... But first, a second method of memorizing the positions of all the scales' notes on the fretboard. This method uses 5 "boxes", based on the position of 5 important chord shapes...

The CAGED Shapes

A second method of memorizing the positions of the notes all over the fretboard, is by looking at the Major root note, and the possible Major chords that can be formed with that root note. This may be difficult to understand at first, but if you follow this paragraph step by step, you should be able to understand the theory, and this will make memorizing the scales pattern a lot easier! First, I'll explain you what the CAGED system is. Then, I'll teach you how to use this system to find the notes in the Major scale easier!

A. How the CAGED system works

First, I'm going to skip ahead a little bit and tell you something I'm going to elaborate on next week. For now, all you need to know is this:

"Every Major chord is made out of the root, 3rd and 5th notes of its Major scale"

In the next article, we will discuss basic chord construction, but for now it's enough to know that a Major chord is constructed of the notes 1-3-5 of the Major scale.

Next, I want you to browse back to my lesson on chords and check out the "chord diagrams" I gave you (over here: Chord Diagrams). Search for all the Major chords that are open, i.e. the Major chords that have open strings in them. Which ones did you find?

The answer: the chords A, C, D, E and G Major are the 5 open Major chords. All other Major chords are based on these shapes: the F Major chord is actually the E Major shape moved up 1 fret (F is 1 semitone higher than E), the B Major chords is the A Major shape moved up 2 frets (B is 2 semitones higher than A), and so on... Take note of the terminology I'm using here: the "shapes" of the chords A, C, D, E and G Major can be moved up and down the fretboard, to form different "chords" for every position. I'll be using this terms often in the following paragraph, so don't confuse "shape" with "chord"!

Now, the following diagram shows the entire fretboard again, but this time with only the (Major) root, 3rd and 5th notes in it.

Again, the root note is F (1st fret on the 6th string), so the notes in the diagram are the 1st, 3rd and 5th note in the F Major scale (being F, A, and C). Now, notice the 5 rectangles in 5 different colors I've drawn over the fretboard. Each rectangle contains a couple of notes forming a familiar shape... Do you recognise the 5 open chord "shapes"? Each of the shapes is in a certain position on the fretboard, where it forms an F Major "chord". Got that? (I've added a diagram of the open chord that matches the shape I indicated for each rectangle, to make it easier for you...)

In fact, using the notes 1-3-5 from any Major scale from all around the fretboard, you could create 5 Major chords of the root note, using the 5 open shapes provided: in the image, the E shape is the first one, then the D shape if you go higher up the neck, then the C shape, followed by the A shape, and finally the G shape. If you go even further up, past the 12th fret, you will get the E shape again.

So, there are 5 possible Major chord positions for every root, and going up the fretboard they are in the following order: C shape, A shape, G shape, E shape, D shape, C shape again, and so on... This system of localizing the notes of the Major scale is therefore called the CAGED system, after the order of the Major open chord shapes.

Before you go to the next paragraph, try to memorize the pattern of chord shapes on your guitar's fretboard! Take your guitar, play a Major chord, and try to find all 5 possible shapes of the chord, using the diagram I provided above! Note that the "open G shape" and "open D shape" are very hard to play practically, but just try to find their location... When you can find these 5 locations easily, you can use them as orientation points for all the other notes!

B. Box positions based on the CAGED system

OK! When you have the above down, you should be able to find the root, 3rd and 5th notes of any Major scale on the fretboard, grouped into 5 positions based on the 5 open chord shapes. Got that? Then we can start adding the missing notes to each of those 5 positions! So, instead of learning 7 scale shapes, you are going to learn only 5 this time...

Go back to the diagram with the 5 rectangles, showing the positions of the 5 chord shapes on the fretboard. Under each rectangle, I have placed the matching Major chord diagram, and under the diagrams I added Roman numerals indicating "Box positions". Each chord shape (notes 1-3-5) corresponds with a scale shape (all 7 notes). The scale shape corresponding with the C chord shape is called "Box I", the one corresponding with the A chord shape is "Box II", and so on... Below are the 5 box shapes based on the CAGED system!

Box I: the C Major shape

Try to recognise the chord shapes in each of these boxes. This box is based on the C Major chord shape... Note that it's the same as the "Phrygian" shape from the first section of this article!

Box II: the A Major shape

3 frets up from Box I is the second Box, based on the A Major chord. This one is the same as the "Mixolydian" shape you already know! Try to find the A Major open chord shape in this Box...

Box III: the G Major shape

The third Box, based on the G Major chord shape, is 2 frets up from Box II. Can you find the open G Major shape? Again, this is a scale shape you are already familiar with: the "Aeolian" shape or the Minor scale shape!

Box IV: the E Major shape

2 more frets up, and we're in the Box IV position, based on the E Major chord shape... Try to find it! This one is in fact the "Locrian" shape you already know. That leaves us one more position...

Box V: the D Major shape

This Box is another 2 frets up from Box IV. It is similar to the "Dorian" shape, but not the same; some notes have been replaced with other positions, just to make it easier to remember. Look for the D Major open chord shape...
And the circle is complete: 3 frets up from this shape is Box I (C Major shape) again...

Et voila! We finally know all the note positions of the Major and relative Minor scales, and we know 2 different ways to find them! Now we can start using them for our very own solos... But first, you need to make sure that you have all the scales down, that you know where to find the notes of the key you are playing in! So, some practical pointers on how to practice the scales:

  • Try and memorize the separate positions first. It doesn't matter if you want to use the 7 scale shapes, or the 5 CAGED boxes, because both cover all the notes on the fretboard. I do, however, recommend you to learn all 7 scale shapes, because you will be needing them later on in the Advanced section of this guide! You can relate the 7 scale shapes to the CAGED chord shape positions as well, because the 5 CAGED boxes are, in fact, part of the 7 scale shapes...
  • After you successfully memorized all the shapes, just pick a root note and play the Major scale of that root in every shape. For example, you take root note F, and play the first position (Ionian) up and down, then go 2 frets up to the Dorian position and play it up and down, and so on... This will help you memorize the sequence of the shapes. It's ok if you learn this for one root note first, e.g. you only learn where all the shapes are located for the F Major scale. Then, when you can blindly find all the notes in every shape, just move everything up or down the fretboard when you want to play in a different key.
  • Try to say the names of the notes you are playing. This will help you remember the notes used in the scale. This isn't necessary or vital, but it may prove very helpful once you get it down! Note, however, that learning all the notes on the fretboard takes a LOT of time...
Once you practiced this enough and are able to find all the positions of the notes in the scale for yourself, it's time to put our knowledge of scales to use: we are going to play our own solos in Major and Minor!


OK! Assuming you now all know where to find the notes of any Major and Minor scale, it's time to learn to put them all to good use... In this paragraph, I'm going to teach you how to play solos using the notes of the key you're playing in! This is a lot easier to learn than you might think, but at the same time, a lot harder thank you might think to completely master...

Like in the previous scales article, I'm going to give you a couple of example solos, both Major and Minor, played over a backing track that you can use yourself to make your own solos. After the examples, I'll give you some pointers on how to make your own solos with the backing tracks that I presented to you...

A. Example of solo in Major

First, I'll show you an example of a solo in a Major key. Of course, if we're going to solo, we're going to need a backing track to solo over! So, to start with, here's the tab of the backing track we're going to play over! It's in F Major...

We're going to use this backing track later on, so you can download it track here: F Major Backing Track

This is a slow (70bpm) 4 chord progression in the key of F Major: the chords used are F-Dm-Bb-C. These chords all fit in the key of F Major because they are all constructed with notes from the F Major scale... I'll go more into detail on that topic in the next article. For now, all you need to know is that we're going to use the F Major scale to solo over it!

To give you an example of how to solo over a backing track like this, I created my own solo and tabbed it for you. Here it is:

You can download it and listen to it here: F Major Solo

Let's take a closer look at this solo example, to see which positions of the scale shapes are used... The first 2 bars are in the Ionian position, which is at the 1st fret in the F Major scale. Then there are 2 bars in the Phrygian position, which is at the 5th fret. After that, there are 2 bars at the Mixolydian position which is at the 8th fret... And finally, 2 bars in the Aeolian position at fret 10, before concluding the solo with a root note. So as you can see, I played the F Major scale in 4 different positions over just 8 bars! This makes the solo sound more interesting, because you don't use the same notes all the time. This is a very important thing to remember when soloing; I will point it out later as one of the practical "rules" to follow when improvising.

B. Example of solo in Minor

The next solo example will demonstrate the use of the Minor scale shapes to solo in a Minor key. For the backing track I made, I chose the D Minor scale, because it's the relative scale to the F Major scale. Here's the backing track:

Download it here: D Minor Backing Track

This backing track is faster (120 bpm) and uses the chords Dm-C-Gm-F. Again, I made a solo example so that you can see how I use the scale shapes for my improvisations.

Download and listen to the solo example here: D Minor Solo

First, let's analyse this solo like we did with the last one. The first two bars are in Phrygian position (5th fret). Then, there are 2 bars in Mixolydian position (8th fret), followed by 2 bars in Aeolian position (10th fret). The last 2 bars are in the Ionian (1st fret) position, before concluding the solo with a root note.

Now, there's a very important thing you should notice. I chose my 2 example solos to be relative Major and Minor keys on purpose... Why? To demonstrate that you are using the same notes, the same positions, in 2 different solos in different keys! When you play over the F Major backing track, you are soloing in F Major, but when you play over the D Minor backing track you're soloing in D Minor, even though you are using the same set of notes... So you might be wondering, what's the difference?

Well, the difference is that you use the same notes in a different way. When soloing in F Major, the "F" is the root note, the most important note in the scale, because the scale starts and ends with it. F is the "tonic" of the scale you are using: the note that it's all about, the note that your playing will always "revolve" around. Your solo will "resolve" (sound "complete" and finished) when you end on the note F, because at the end of the day, F is the note that it all comes down to... The same goes for the D Minor solo, where you use the same set of notes, but with D as the "tonic" note. Try ending a solo in D Minor with the note F; it will sound like the solo is unfinished, like something's missing... End it on D and it will sound "complete"!

In musical theory terminology: a piece of music is in "dissonance" (i.e. sounds incomplete, an unstable sound) as long as no "resolution" is provided by a certain "tonic" note or chord. When that resolution is provided, the piece of music moves to "consonance" (i.e. completion, stable sound). The concept of "resolution" is based purely on human perception of music. For example, in classical music the "need" for a resolution is much stronger than in some modern genres, where resolution is less important.

This may all sound like Chinese to some of you, but remembering all these terms and theory is not very important. It's good to know that when soloing in a certain key, some notes of the scale will sound "better" to the human ear than others. Take the F Major and D Minor solos as an example: they use the same set of notes, but they both "focus" on different notes out of that set.

C. Improvising in Major and Minor

OK! After this small chunk of nasty music theory, we have arrived at the last paragraph of this article! I'm going to give you a couple of tips for improvising your own solos over Major and Minor progressions! Like I said in my previous article on scales, I can't possibly teach you how to improvise... Because improvising is taking the notes that are provided to you (the notes in the scale you're in) and mould them into your OWN piece of music. You have to be creative... But here's some pointers on how to make everything more interesting!
  • Try to use as many positions as you can, and switch regulary. This will make your solo sound more interesting, because you alternate higher treble notes with lower pitch notes that way.
  • Try to skip strings from time to time too, instead of only going from one string to an adjacent one. Out of personal experience, I know that people learning the scale shapes tend to only go from one string to an adjacent one. You'll only play notes that are close to each other if you do that, and this will make your solo sound monotonous. Try skipping strings to "jump" a relatively larger distance between two notes, to make it sound more interesting...
  • And, of course, use your expression techniques! Bends, slides, palm muting... Anything will bring more variation into your playing!
I have incorporated these 3 elements into my example solos as well: I used a lot of different positions in a short span of bars, I used a couple of string skips, and there are some expression techniques in both solos as well. Hopefully, these 3 tips will get you started on your way to become a great soloist!


Phew! The end of one huge article! You'll have a lot of work practicing all this... But it'll be worth it once you get progressively better and better at soloing, to the point where you can improvise solos over your favourite songs and make them sound even cooler! That's when you close your eyes and pretend you're on stage in front of a cheering crowd...

Anyways! Hope you enjoyed this lesson... And I hope that you allow me to entertain you some more the following weeks, with more Novice theory chapters coming up! In the meantime, keep on practicing... Practice makes perfect!

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