How do I play a scale?

“I thought a scale was a something I stand on to check my weight.” While that may be true, a scale is also a pattern of notes that can be used to build chords, melodies, riffs, and leads.  Powerful stuff.  How do we go about playing them?  First let’s talk about the kinds of scales there are.  There are major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, modal scales, exotic scales… Yeah… there are a lot of scales.  Because scales are also the building blocks for chords, they sound great when they’re played against the right kind of chord.  How do I know which scale to play with which chord? 

Let’s take a quick peak at the key of C major.  If we’re in the key of C major, we’re generally dealing with the C major scale: C D E F G A B C.  We’ll talk about building chords in another section, but for now, just go with me on the idea that the notes C E G when played together form a C major chord and will sound great in the key of C major.  If you have a C major chord playing in the background and you play the notes C D E F G A B C over that chord, they’re all going to sound great.  Why?  Because of the relationship these notes have to the chord.  The C note is the root; think of that as the tonal foundation of the chord.  All of the other notes are going to add some color to that root note and some are going to have a stronger, more pleasing sound than others. 

In this scale, the E and G notes are going to sound particularly great over that C major chord because they are key chord tones.  They highlight some of the strongest sounds in that chord and are great places to be in the scale when played over that chord. 

When you’re first learning a scale, I think it’s super helpful to just generally establish the sound and feel of the notes in that scale over the chord we’re talking about.  How do I do that?  Playing the scale up (ascending) and down (descending) on the fretboard slowly over the chord will help you do this.  There are different ways to finger a scale up and down the fretboard.  Many guitarists are fond of 3 note groupings on each string as a way of doing this.  If we take this scale starting on the C note found on the 8th fret of the 6th string, it would look something like this:















Trying playing it just ascending.  Try playing it just descending.  Try playing it ascending then descending.  You’ll start to get a feel for how different notes in the scale sound over that chord.  When you’re done with that you can start to select certain notes from the scale to play over the chord.  Try this:







Here you’re playing the root, major third, and fifth notes and moving that pattern of three notes in octaves up the fretboard.  This will also show you that scales can be played in different positions along the fretboard.  You’ll start to learn how to navigate these patterns of notes in different places as you go along.

Now let’s look at a C minor scale played over a C minor chord.  A C minor triad is made up of the notes: C Eb G.  A C minor scale is made up of these notes: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C. 

So the exercise is going to be the same… play the scale ascending, descending, then ascending and descending over a C minor chord. 



B|———————————————————–9–11- 13———————————————————–|












Here’s the other pattern but for C minor:







This time you’re playing the root, minor third, and fifth intervals ascending in octaves up the neck.

Notice that this scale has a few notes that are different from the C major scale.  The third interval is a semi tone lower.  The sixth and seventh intervals are also a semi tone lower.  Minor scales generally have a sadder, darker feel to them than major scales.  You’ll hear that in the way these notes relate to one another. 

Listen to some of your favorite solos and trying to see if you can pick out whether or not you think the scale being played is major or minor based on how it sounds.  Listen to ‘Ode to Joy’ by Beethoven then listen to ‘Say the Word’ by Radiohead.  Which one is major or minor? 

To wrap it all up… if you want to learn a scale, it’s really helpful to know which chords it can be played over and to explore the relationship that each note in the scale will have to the root note of the chord that you’re playing it over.  In the beginning take time to play each note slowly and get accustomed to playing the scale pattern up and down the neck.  Then as you get comfortable, have some fun and play different sequences and patterns within the scale to get different 

melodies and ideas. 

Cheers and keep on rockin’!!!

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