Learning how to play the guitar is a strange combination of being extremely satisfying and infuriating at the same time. A certain euphoria is felt when you can finally strum along to Oasis’ Wonderwall in time or when the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge no longer seems like an unattainable feat.
And yet any beginner will know the uncomfortable feeling when someone else wants to jam with you. It’s all very well learning famous guitar parts from songs, and it’s certainly a good way to get familiar with the neck and for timing. But it doesn’t explicitly teach you about the music. The scales and chord progressions are what makes any piece of music sound good. And while playing them verbatim from sheet music or tabs is useful, learning about the music is what will allow you to add your own creative touches to pieces of music and eventually write your own.
In this article, we are going to talk about some of the best scales to learn on guitar. We’ll explain what they are, what they look like on a guitar, and how to use them when playing.
What is a Scale?
In music, a scale is defined as any set of notes which are ordered by their fundamental frequency. Scales that are increasing in frequency or pitch are called ascending scales, and scales decreasing in pitch are called descending scales. There are many different scales depending on how many notes they contain per octave. But since this is an article about the best scales to learn on guitar, we will focus on the minor and major scales. These scales are the basis of most modern-day music, including blues and rock. They’re simple to learn, and it will mean you can jam along with other musicians if you learn them!
In the following section, we will look at some of the most common and useful shapes for what we think are the best scales to learn on guitar. All of the following is assuming your guitar is in standard tuning from fattest to thinnest string EADGBE.
Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale a very important one we are going to look at in this article because of it’s versatility and simplicity.
The A minor pentatonic scale has its root note on the 5th fret of the low E string, the A note. The next note in the scale is on the 8th fret of the low E string. Then the 5th fret of the A string, then the 7th fret of the A string. And finally, the 5th fret of the D string. The scale then starts again with the root note on the 7th fret of the D string. Then the 5th fret of the G string, then the 7th fret of the G string. Then the 5th fret of the B string, then the 8th fret of the B string. Finally, the 5th fret of the high E string and the 8th fret of the high E string.
The beauty of this is it’s a very comfortable position for your hand to play in. The 5th fret of every string is in the scale. Then from fattest to thinnest string, it’s the 8th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 8th, 8th. So you play all the 5th fret notes with your index finger, the 8th fret notes with your pinky, and the 7th fret notes with your ring finger. And you can jam along for hours and sound really good just using those 12 notes!
This works anywhere on the neck, not just for A minor. The shape of your hand is essentially a bar over every string with your ring finger. Then on the low E string 3 frets down from the bar. On the A string 2 frets down. Then on the D string 2 frets down. On the G string 2 frets down, on the B string 3 frets down. And on the high E string 3 frets down.
The exception to this is when you are playing the E minor pentatonic. It’s the same concept, but the root note is the open E string. So everywhere you would bar with your index finger for any other key, you just play the open strings. Then the relative positions of your ring and pinky fingers are the same as for any other key.
Minor Harmonic Scale
Next, let’s look at the E minor harmonic scale. Its shape looks very similar to the pentatonic scale but with a few notes added, as you can see in the diagram provided. Although often used in jazz and classical, the minor harmonic scale can do wonders in soloing over blues or rock music. For lack of a better word, it adds a certain depth, almost sadness to what may seem to sound a little unemotional using just the minor pentatonic scale. Next time you’re playing around with the E minor harmonic scale in the open position, try adding in a few notes from the same scale but down by the 12th fret and prepare to melt hearts and faces.
Major Scales (Shape 1)
Now we move onto the major scales. There are two common and easy shapes to use for the major scales. The first is the shape made when playing the F major scale, starting with the A note on the 5th fret of the low E string. Much like the minor pentatonic scales, this can also be played in the open position at the top of the neck. In this case, that would be C major. And the notes you would usually play with your index finger are just played as open strings.
Major Scales (Shape 2)
Another common shape for playing the major scales is the C major shape starting on the A note on the 5th fret of the low E string. We mentioned above that the F major scale also starts on the same note. But if you look at the diagrams, you will notice that you have to play different notes. And once again, you can play this scale in the open position at the top of the neck, which will, in this case, be G major.
One final thing to note, which is quite interesting, is to consider the G major scale in the open position. You will notice it looks a lot like the E minor pentatonic scale in the open position and even more like the E minor harmonic scale in the open position. G major’s relative minor key is the key of E minor. And this means you can play the G major scale over an E minor chord progression and vice versa. Playing the minor harmonic scales over their relative major chord progressions can sound incredibly warm and emotional. Try and not be brought to tears by some of the Derek Truck’s solos that utilize this phenomenon!
How to Learn and Use Guitar Scales
Scales are generally used to solo or to play over a chord progression. The A minor pentatonic scale will sound great over any of the chords in the key of A minor. These are A minor, B diminished, C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major. Which are interestingly also the chords in the key of C.
Generally speaking, people aren’t just playing random chords; they are playing some kind of progression. A common one is the i, iv, v progression. In the key of A minor, these chords are A minor, D minor, and E minor, respectively. Often playing together in the 12 bar blues, over which the minor pentatonic scale sounds lovely.
As mentioned above, you can play relative major scales over their corresponding minor chord progressions for some interesting sounds. It certainly adds another level of sophistication to your playing. Especially if you can switch between the two in one solo or jam session.
Learning scales is far less daunting than it initially seems. And learning the basic major and minor scales are a great way of sounding very confident on the guitar even if you aren’t particularly advanced. If you are looking to take your playing to the next level, then you should check out our Guitar Tricks online course review! They can provide you with the skills and knowledge you need to progress your playing and confidence.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our article on what we think are the best scales to learn on guitar. Familiarising yourself with these scales will really help develop your skills, get used to where different notes are, and eventually be able to play along with other people just by ear!