The Crusade. Part 4: Scales

date: 12/08/2007 category: features
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What do Julie Andrews and shredders have in common? They both have bad haircuts, and they both use scales. Ha ha, just kidding about the bad haircuts! While I currently look like a marine, I had an extraordinarily tasteful style that went halfway down my back, and looked classiest when pumped up with aquanet. (Hey, how do you think I earned the nickname Poodleman?) High stylin', indeed. But back to the lesson... Today, we'll be examining the construction of the Major Scale, and how to play it on the guitar. Even if you already know this, keep on readin'. I'm sure you'll find something useful. Are you ready, brave crusaders? Onward, and upward, then! Wait! I think I hear a doubtful voice asking why the heck do I want to know a scale that Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music? I want to shred, bro! Ah, a valid question. So much music theory rests on a solid understanding of this pillar of western music, you've gotta know it. Plus, you can make it rip, believe it or not. First, let's check out the formula for a major scale. W W H W W W H Hmmm...Could this be What Would Harry Winters Want With Hats? Nope! W refers to Whole as in Whole Step. A Whole Step is a melodic Major 2nd. In plain English, this means two frets. Playing an A on the 5th fret, and then moving up a whole step gives us B on the 7th fret. H means Half Step, a melodic minor 2nd, or one fret. This is the recipe for creating a major scale. Instead of adding sugar and oatmeal for a cookie recipe, we add whole steps and half steps for a scale. For example: Josh Urban's Brainiac Theory Geek 1st Fret Major Scale Recipe Start on the 1st fret of any string. Add a note a Whole step above that. Add a note a Whole step above that. Add a note a Half step above that. Add a note a Whole step above that. Add a note a Whole step above that. Add a note a Whole step above that. Finally, finish off with a note a Half step above that. Bake at 350 bmp for two hours, garnish with arpeggios, and enjoy. Ta Da, you've just played a major scale. If you've started it on the 1st or 6th strings, using the 1st fret as the launching pad, the first note, (technically called the root note of the scale) would have been F, yielding an F major scale. If you chose the 5th string instead, starting on the 1st fret, the root note would have been Bb, creating a Bb major scale. Now, this particular fingering is slightly inconvenient. Scales are usually seen in box patterns, and not along one string. However, they're exactly the same notes. As you've seen before, there are different ways to play a major scale across strings instead of along them. The layout of the guitar makes it possible to play the same note in several different places. So, we have our recipe: W W H W W W H Translated into frets, we get: 2 2 1 2 2 2 1 Here's a third way to picture the construction of a major scale, with the numbers in the table being the degrees, or notes, of the scale: Adding letters to the mix So far we know how to build a major scale, and most of you have probably already played versions of it a million times. However, we're after the guts of the thing, the why. What are the notes of a Bb major scale? This is something that's very useful to know (really!) Before we can do that, we need to look at this: The order of the letters Steppin' into the piano section of our virtual music school, we notice a funny fact. The white keys on a keyboard aren't equally spaced. There's black keys between some, but not all, of the keys. But why the heck am I talking about keyboards? While our aim is to play guitar, using this keyboard visual can help us understand elements of music theory. Besides, the notes are the same on any instrument, and the keyboard gives us an especially logical and visual way of viewing things. Here's a chart of the notes in the system of western music. (Note that the musical alphabet doesn't go to H, it starts again at A): Notice that the distance from A to B is a whole step (2 boxes), while B to C is a half step (one box.) Putting this into the context of the fretboard, A to B is two frets, while B to C is one fret. Each box represents one fret. Hey Josh, what are the blank spaces? Sharps and flats. The empty boxes in the above chart are the Black Keys on the keyboard. Here's the chart with the sharps and flats. We notice that A# occupies the same square as Bb, and while it's a different name, it's the same note. A# and Bb are said to be enharmonic, meaning they are of the same pitch but have a different name. You could think of this as calling me Josh, or Mr. Urban. I'm the same person, but those are very different names. (And nobody ever calls me Mr. Urban...) Why the heck do they do this? Doesn't it needlessly complicate matters? While it appears to at first, we'll see later on down the line just why having two names for a note can come in handy. The main point to get here is: All the notes have sharps and flats in between them, except for B-C, and E-F. Applying it Now that we have our recipe, and our map of notes, let's start generating some Major Scales. Let's start with C Major. Why not A? Read on. First, our chart, the same as above, with our starting note changed to C (the notes are in the same order, and have the same spacings. Note that the half steps are still between B-C and E-F): Our recipe: W W H W W W H Starting with C. A Whole step (2 boxes, or 2 frets) above C is D. A Whole step above D is E. A Half step above E is F. A Whole step above F is G. A Whole step above G is A. A Whole step above A is B. A Half step above B is C. Done correctly, we should always start and end on the same note. Let's try that A major scale you were wondering about. Our map, the same as the one above, but starting on A: Starting with A: A Whole step above A is B. A Whole step above B is....C#! Watch out to make sure you're going two boxes, a whole step. A Half step above C# is D. (One box.) A Whole step above D is E. A Whole step above E is...F#. (Stay on your toes.) A Whole step above F# is G#. A Half step above G# is A. We see that we need to alter some notes (add sharps in this case) in order to make them fit the formula for a major scale. C major is the only major scale that doesn't have any sharps or flats. The A major scale has three sharps. By the way, the key signature of A major is three sharps. More on that later. Notice how we could have said A Whole step above B is Db. This would have been the correct pitch, and looked the same on the guitar, but it's not the correct name for the note. We want to say each letter name once, and not repeat any, or leave any out. (They might get their feelings hurt!) In the case of a six or eight tone scale, this wouldn't be possible, but with a seven tone scale such as the major, it's a rule we want to stick to. That's why it's important to have two different names for the note. B to Db skips C#. And poor little C# might start to cry, because it's excluded... Homework A dirty word at most institutions of learning, but not at The Crusade! It's how we sharpen the edge of our knowledge to slay the ignorance inside our musicianship, and any non-believers who happen to be listening...! Here's your to-do list:
  • Play the major scale starting at different notes on your guitar. Start by playing along one string, and then check out my article Soloing, Part II for further major scale shapes.
  • Write down, on paper, as many major scales as you can stand! Start with a random root note, and follow the recipe of WWHWWWH. Write scales starting from every note, and don't forget to double up on the sharps and flats. In other words, write both a C# Major and a Db major scale. They'll look exactly the same on the guitar, but will be spelled differently on paper. Doing this will not only help your theoretical grasp of scale construction, but will also be vital when we get into building chords from scales. (Harmonizing scales, to be exact.) Do it. All of them. NOW. Log off instant messenger, and do something for your career, soldier! Call me Sergent DeWalt, because I'm in that frame of mind.
  • As a bonus, I'll grade your homework! Send your written major scales along to
  • The catch? Leave a nice comment on my Blog. See ya next time, and learn on! Don't forget to check out my blog. Copyright 2008 Josh Urban - All Rights Reserved Josh Urban (photo) is a musician with a unique perspective on music. Always a thinker, he gains insight wherever he can find it, be it in the clubs as a working musician, busking on the city streets, or teaching in the classroom. A naturally enthusiastic fellow, Josh is always fired up about bringing the lessons he's learned to his readers. Maintaining a website, a blog, and a monthly newsletter, he aims to make musicians stop, think, and play with a little more intensity, integrity, and inspiration. You never know who's listening.
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