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June 2021

Your First Three Guitar Scales

We could have called this post "Your First Three Blues Scales" or "Your First Three Metal Scales" or "Your First Three Classic Rock Blues Metal Scales." These are the three scales you need to learn first and for some people, this may be enough. Heck, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour built a whole career around the Pentatonic scale, so maybe one scale is plenty.  

The first thing to make clear here, is that you don't need to worry about Phrygian Dominant scale, tapping the Lydian mode and the Hungarian Minor scale until later and maybe never! Both theoretically and practically, these exotic, filthy sounding beasts are always described in terms of, and related back to, the more standard major and minor scales. For one thing, you need to nail the basics first, and for another, don’t overlook the wealth of serious rock sounds you can generate with the 3 basic scales below. 

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

It’s extremely likely that this is the very first scale you learned or will learn. It’s the quintessential scale of guitar - rock, blues, pop, folk -- whatever. And not least, metal. The Minor Pentatonic scale is made up of 5 notes, (hence the ‘Pent’ part of the word - think pentagon) and is usually played across 2 octaves. Here are the intervals that make up a minor pentatonic scale:

1 b3 4 5 7

The "b3" means the flattened third note of the scale. So the notes are the first, the flattened third, the fourth, fifth and seventh. So, in the key of G, the minor pentatonic notes are:

G Bb C D F

If this is starting to freak you out, don't worry. You don't actually have to understand how the formula for the scale works or even know the names of the notes. But it is important that you understand where the pattern starts (on the "root" note, which is G) and that you memorize the visual pattern of the notes.

On the guitar fret board, you can play the G minor pentatonic from the third fret of the E string as shown below. This is known as the first position of the scale. This pattern is one you want to memorize. If you move up the fretboard to the 5th fret, you can play it in A. Move down two more to the 7th fret and you can play it in B. The pattern across the strings stays the exact same.

Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 7.52.35 PM

The formula, of 1, b3, 4, 5, 7 is always the same. Any minor pentatonic scale is formed by jumping those intervals. It is just the specific notes that change, depending on where you’re starting from.

Which leads to the next important point. There are 5 patterns for the minor pentatonic scale on guitar. The patterns connect to each other and can be used to move further up or down the fretboard. It will take some time to practice and memorize these patterns. But it is time well spent. Once you are able to play the scale patterns with confidence you can explore creating riffs that go up and down the fretboard, moving between portions of the scale. 

Here are diagrams of the additional patterns in G.

G-minor pentatonic

You might notice that the right hand side (lower) part of each pattern connects to the left (upper) part of the next scale. For example Position 1 connects to Position 2 which connects to Position 3 and so on.  

This next diagram shows how the five patterns are connected. 

When you're first learning, focus on learning each pattern in turn rather than trying to connect all five patterns at once. But after you've got them memorized, you can start to see how you can easily go from from one pattern to the next creating tasty riffs. 

G-minorpentatonicfretboard

Once you know the minor pentatonic scale in G, you can solo alongside almost any rock, blues or metal song that is in the key of G ("Evil Ways" by Santana or "Charlie" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the notes will sound good. You can even stick primarily to one or two of the patterns and you'll do ok.  Similarly, once you know the pattern in A (from the 5th fret) you can jam along to classics like Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" or "Black Dog" or "Angie" by the Rolling Stones.

Be sure to practice the scale in a few different ways:

  • With a totally clean sound, nice and slow, to highlight your accuracy levels and develop clean smooth picking and articulation, while learning the scale pattern of course
  • With an authentic, distorted heavy metal sound, varying your levels of palm-muting and speed to develop a bit of rock inspiration, sound and authenticity.
  • In both its lower octave (beginning somewhere on frets 0-12) for heavy, chugging riffs, and in its higher octave for soaring, sweeping solos!  
  • Once you've mastered the pattern in G, try moving up two frets to play the pattern in A. Or down two frets to play it in F.  

The Blues Scale

I know not everyone digs the blues. In fact, you might consider it antithetical to prog rock or modern metal. But there’s a bit of a hidden secret in the way that a blues scale can be effectively used in any guitar playing. So, first thing’s first: what is the blues scale?

The blues scale is the minor pentatonic scale, plus one additional note - Which is the b5 (flat 5, or flattened 5th). This is where playing style and articulation need to take hold. If you pass through this interval in a bluesy lick, on a crunch sound, then yes, it’s going to sound like blues. But if you stick it in a heavy palm-muted riff on a high gain sound, then it’s going to create some glorious metallic filth!

So here are the intervals that make up a blues scale:

1 b3 4 b5 5 7

So, in the key of G, that would be:

 G Bb C Db D F

Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 8.21.08 PM

Again, this formula, of 1, b3, 4, 5, 7 is always the same. Any minor pentatonic scale is formed by jumping those intervals. It is just the specific notes that change, depending on where you’re starting from. As an exercise now, test yourself by trying to write out what the blues scale or minor pentatonic scale would be in another key, maybe the other guitar friendly keys of E or D if you’re new to this. If you’re a bit more advanced, you could try the keys of G# or Db as a bit of a test. Then you can look up those scales afterwards to check your answers.

Here are diagrams of the full blues scale in each of the 5 positions for G.  Note that 5 of the notes are the same as in the minor Pentatonic scale. The root note (in black) is also the same. The only thing that's new is the "blue note" which gives the scale its blues tone. That note is marked, as you might have guessed, in blue. So think of the blues scale as the same as the pentatonic with an extra bonus note. 

G-bluesscalepositions

Again, practice playing this blues scale in different ways:

  • Clean and slow for accuracy, learning and picking
  • Distorted and heavier, using palm-muting as you work on timing
  • Low down the neck and higher up, working towards both riffs and solos.

If you want to stop here with just the Minor Pentatonic Scale and the Blues Scale that's fine. Plenty of guitar solos can be covered with just those two scales. But for the more adventurous, here's the third scale we'll cover. It's a bit more advanced and has even more notes! 

The Natural Minor Scale

This is the ‘full’ or ‘complete’ minor scale (made up of 7 notes) from which the minor pentatonic and blues scales are extracted. The minor pentatonic is a kind of all-purpose, inoffensive, reduced form of the full minor scale for heavier, less melodic playing. For more melodic playing you’re likely to need the full version - The natural minor scale. This will give your riffs a more melodic appeal and additional possibilities and give your solos more melody and longer runs.

Here are the intervals that make up the Natural Minor scale:

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

This time let's try it in A. This would mean the following notes:

A B C D E F G

Aminorscale-3nps

Once again, this formula remains the same - every natural minor scale in existence is created using this formula. If you start this formula from B, it will yield the B natural minor scale, if you start it from D# it will yield the D# natural minor scale. Can you see the pattern here? Every scale in guitar playing is just a formula - It’s where and what the root note, or tonic, is that’s what is important, what gives the scale its name.

As always, remember that like everything else, practicing in a variety of ways from a variety of different angles is needed to really cement your technique, knowledge and ability.

  • Clean and slow for accuracy as you build your confidence
  • Add some distortion or palm-muting as you work on timing
  • Extend your range low down on the neck and higher up, for flexibility in building riffs

Have fun getting to know these scales, and make sure you also take a bit of time to notice how these scales all fit inside each other. They’re all versions and variations of the same thing. The Natural Minor is the full, melodic version, the Minor Pentatonic is the simplistic, heavy version, and the Blues Scale is the Pentatonic plus that extra note -- originally blues-intended, but perfect for re-appropriation in heavier rock and metal!

Go forth and shred!

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitar Tricks