Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists

As you start studying any musical instrument, you will quickly realize that scales are a topic that shows up frequently when discussing composition and improvisation.

Understanding and mastering scales is essential if you want to be able to create interesting melodies and improvise freely.

This KillerGuitarRigs guide will go over the most commonly used scales for guitarists, as well as some that maybe not all players will use frequently, but that you should at least be aware of.

General Knowledge and Common Questions about Scales

What is a scale?

A scale is a set of notes organized in a sequence that either ascends or descends in pitch. The number of notes can vary (although the most common is 7), as well as the intervals that exist between each note (also called scale degrees). Their names describe key features that define their sound.

What are scales used for in music?

The vast majority of music is written around a defined key center, which is connected to a scale. Scales represent the group of notes that you can use to compose melodies, improvise on top of a chord progression, and more. Knowing more about scales opens doors to creating more interesting music.

What are the best scales to learn on the guitar?

If you are just starting, you should focus on the major scale and the natural minor scale first, since they are accessible and can be used in millions of different contexts. After those, the major and minor pentatonic scales are a great choice. Then, depending on what kind of music you want to play, some scales might be more worth your time than others.

How do I know if a scale is major or minor?

Generally, the note that defines whether a scale is major or minor is the 3rd. Major scales have a major third (2 whole tones from the root) and minor scales have a minor 3rd (1,5 whole tones from the root). For instance, the C Major scale has an E natural (major third from C) and the C minor scale has an E flat (minor third from C).

How do I know what scales I can use on a chord progression?

Your first step should always be figuring out the key of the song. You can do this by looking at the key signature on the staff, if you have the sheet music. The sharps or flats there will indicate what key you’re in. Check the Circle of Fifths if you need to double check how many accidentals each key has. 

Then, you can use the notes of the corresponding major or minor scale to compose melodies on top of that harmony, and improvise. This is a very simple approach meant for beginner players. As you deepen your understanding of harmony, you will be able to use a wider variety of scales throughout a song. 


Most Frequently Used Scales – Overview and Guitar Patterns

If you’re a beginner, it would be wise to start by learning the scales listed in this section. They cover a lot of ground and allow you to understand other concepts later on.

Major Scale or Ionian Mode

The first scale of most players. The major scale is defined by its “formula” or the distance between each of its notes/scale degrees. 

It can be described numerically as “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7”, or by “W – W – H – W – W – W – H”, which represent “whole tone” and “half tone”.

In the key of C, its notes are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

It can also be called “Ionian Mode”, since the notes are the same for both.

Here are the two most commonly used shapes on the guitar. There are more, but you should start by getting acquainted with these two since they have the root note on the 6th and 5th strings, which makes it easier for you to find them quickly while playing.

Note: these examples are in the key of C, but the key isn’t what matters – by shifting this shape throughout the neck, you can play any major scale, as long as you can find its root on the 5th or 6th string.

Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Major Scale or Ionian Mode
Pattern with root note on the 5th string
Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Major Scale or Ionian Mode
Pattern with root note on the 6th string

For more, check out these articles we have on major scales

Natural Minor Scale or Aeolian Mode

The natural minor scale (also called Aeolian Mode) can be represented numerically as “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7”.

In the key of C, this corresponds to the following notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.

Below, you’ll find the shapes that you should start by memorizing, since the root is located on the 5th and 6th strings, making it easier to locate these patterns on the neck while you’re playing.

Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Natural Minor Scale or Aeolian Mode
Pattern with root note on the 5th string
Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Natural Minor Scale or Aeolian Mode
Pattern with root note on the 6th string

For more, check out these articles we have on minor scales

Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is one of the favorite scales for most guitarists. Its patterns are easy to play, and it sounds good over a large number of chords.

It is a 5 note scale based on the natural minor scale. Remove the 2nd and 6th degrees of the natural minor, and you’ve got it.

This means its formula is “1, b3, 4, 5, b7”. In C, this gives us the notes “C, Eb, F, G, Bb”.

Check below for the two most common scale shapes – these two are a must know for every guitarist.

Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Minor Pentatonic Scale
Pattern with root note on the 5th string
Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Minor Pentatonic Scale
Pattern with root note on the 6th string

For more, check out these articles we have on minor pentatonic scales

Minor Blues Scale

The minor blues scale is another staple of most guitarist’s arsenals. It is essentially the same as the minor pentatonic, but with an added note, called “blue note”. It is the #4 of the scale.

This translates to the formula “1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7”, which in C corresponds to the notes “C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb”.

In the diagrams below, you’ll see the blue note (F#) in a different color. This is the note you must play if you want to get the bluesy character from the scale.

Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Minor Blues Scale
Pattern with root note on the 5th string
Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Minor Blues Scale
Pattern with root note on the 6th string

Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale uses the same concept as the minor pentatonic. In this case, it removes the 4th and 7th degrees from the major scale.

This gives us the following formula: “1, 2, 3, 5, 6”. In C, this corresponds to the notes “C, D, E, G, A”.

Removing the two notes that form a tritone interval gives this scale a more open sound that works great in many different scenarios.

Here are the two most common shapes of this scale on the guitar:

Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Major Pentatonic Scale
Pattern with root note on the 5th string
Complete Guide to Scales for Guitarists - Major Pentatonic Scale
Pattern with root note on the 6th string

For more, check out these articles we have on major pentatonic scales


Scale Terminology: What do their names mean?

As you start exploring scales deeper and deeper, you will notice that their names usually describe one of their defining aspects.

This section is meant to give you an introduction to some of the most important terms you should know, which will allow you to infer what some scales look and sound like just by reading their name.

Major

Usually refers to a major third interval between the root and the third degree. The most common example is the major scale itself, but there are other instances where this knowledge is useful (for instance, in “major minor chords”).  

Minor

Generally refers to a minor third interval between the root and the third degree. This can be observed in every minor scale (natural minor, melodic minor, etc.).

Augmented

In a chord/scale context, “augmented” refers to a note that is sharpened, usually a fifth. For instance, an augmented chord has its 5th raised by a semitone. The augmented scale has an augmented second (#2) and an augmented fifth (#5).

Diminished

Simply put, it is the opposite of augmented. Diminished chords have a diminished fifth (one semitone lower than a perfect fifth). 

Dominant

In harmony, “dominant” implies a seventh chord containing a root, major third, perfect fifth and a minor seventh. These are usually the fifth (V) degree of a key center. In a scale context, it means that you will find at least a minor seventh in it.

Chromatic

This term means that a scale moves one semitone at a time. The chromatic scale includes every note there is between its root and its octave.

Pentatonic

The word “pentatonic” tells us that a scale has 5 notes, instead of the usual 7. However, some scales have more than 7 notes.

Whole-tone

In a way, it is the opposite of “chromatic” when applied to the best-known scales associated with these concepts. The whole-tone scale always moves in whole tones, there aren’t any notes separated by a semitone.

Auxiliary

The concept of “auxiliary” in a scale context refers to a relative scale. For instance, C Major and A minor are relative scales. It can also be used as an alternative name for some scales (some people refer to the half-whole diminished scale as the auxiliary diminished blues scale).

Symmetrical

Scales that divide an octave in two equal parts. Some of the examples you can find are the whole-tone scale, augmented scale and diminished scales.

Modes

You will inevitably come across modes as you study music, especially if you get into jazz. In summary, they are scales that are obtained by starting to read on a note which isn’t the root note.

It is easier to understand with a practical example:

If you take the C Major scale, but read it from D to D instead of C to C, you obtain the D Dorian mode. If you read it from E to E, you will obtain the E Phrygian mode.

The modes that musicians generally stumble upon first are the “Greek modes”: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.


More Frequently Found Scales you should know

The scales listed in this section should be your priority after you are comfortable enough with the most common scales to compose melodies and improvise over simple chord changes.

Greek Modes:

You can check out the modes after you’re comfortable with the scales that were discussed previously.

You get the following modes from the C Major Scale:

Mode NameScale FormulaExample in C
C Ionian (same as major scale)1 2 3 4 5 6 7C D E F G A B
D Dorian1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7D E F G A B C 
E Phrygian1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7E F G A B C D
F Lydian1 2 3 #4 5 6 7F G A B C D E
G Mixolydian1 2 3 4 5 6 b7G A B C D E F
A Aeolian(same as natural minor scale)
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

A B C D E F G
B Locrian1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7B C D E F G A

Notice how every mode that comes from the C Major scale uses the same notes, only starting from a different root note

Harmonic Minor

You can think of the harmonic minor scale as a natural minor scale with a raised seventh.

Its formula is “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7”.

The interval between its 6th and 7th degrees is what gives it such a characteristic sound.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor scale has the following formula “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7”.

You can think of it as a major scale with a minor third, but don’t use it over major chords.

Major Blues

This scale follows the same principle as the minor blues scale discussed previously, but with a major scale.

Take the major pentatonic scale and add a flat third between the second and third scale degrees, which gives you the following formula “1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6”.

Diminished Half-Whole

This is a symmetrical scale that some people call “dominant diminished scale”, because it is frequently used to improvise over 7b9 chords (for example, playing A diminished half-whole over an A7b9 chords).

Its formula is “1, b9, #9, 3, #11, 5, 13, b7”. To represent it, we use tensions such as 9, 11 and 13 instead of 2, 4 and 6.

Diminished Whole-Half

This scale uses the same concept as the previous one, but it starts with a whole step instead of a half step. Therefore, its formula is “1, 9, b3, 11, b5, #5, 13, 7”. 

It is typically heard over diminished 7 chords (for instance, playing E diminished whole-half over an Edim7 chord).

Altered

The altered scale is the seventh mode of the minor melodic scale. It is frequently found in a jazz improvisation context, since it has an “outside” sound that many players like to use.

Its formula is “1, b9, #9, 3, b5, b13, b7”. It is generally played over altered chords.

Some people also refer to this scale as “Super Locrian”.


Less Common Scales Worth Learning

The scales listed in this section are not heard as frequently as the ones that were discussed before (major, natural minor, major/minor pentatonic and blues), but they’re still worth investigating.

Harmonic Minor Scale Modes

The concept of “modes” seen before can also be applied to other scales, such as the harmonic minor. Doing so gives us the following modes:

Mode NameScale FormulaExample in C
C Harmonic Minor1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7C D Eb F G Ab B
D Locrian Natural 61 b2 b3 4 b5 6 b7D Eb F G Ab B C
Eb Ionian #51 2 3 4 #5 6 7Eb F G Ab B C D
F Dorian #11/Dorian #41 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7F G Ab B C D Eb
G Phrygian Dominant/Mixolydian b9b13
1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

G Ab B C D Eb F
Ab Lydian #21 #2 3 #4 5 6 7Ab B C D Eb F G
B Super Locrian bb7/Ultra Locrian1, b9, b3, b4, b5, b6, bb7B C D Eb F G Ab

Melodic Minor Scale Modes

Applying the same concept to the melodic minor scale gives us the following modes:

Mode NameScale FormulaExample in C
C Melodic Minor1 2 b3 4 5 6 7C D Eb F G A B
D Dorian b9/Phrygian #131 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7D Eb F G A B C
Eb Lydian Augmented1 2 3 #4 #5 6 7Eb F G A B C D
F Lydian Dominant/Lydian b71 2 3 #4 5 6 b7F G A B C D Eb
G Mixolydian b13/Aeolian Dominant
1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7

G A B C D Eb F
A Aeolian b5/Locrian #21 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7A B C D Eb F G
B Super Locrian/Altered Scale1, b9, #9, 3, b5, b13, b7B C D Eb F G A

Additional Less Common Scales to Learn

Here are a few more scales that don’t come up as often as the ones discussed at the beginning of this guide.

Scale NameScale Formula
Diminished Whole Tone1 b9 #9 3 b5 b6 b7
Augmented1, #2, 3, #4, #5, 7
Auxiliary Augmented1, 2, 3, #4, #5, #6
Auxiliary Diminished1, 2, b3, 4, #4, #5, 6, 7
Auxiliary Diminished Blues1, b2, b3, 3, b5, 5, 6, b7
Bebop Dominant1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 7
Bebop Half Diminished1, b2, b3, 4, b5, 5, b6, 7
Bebop Major1, 2, 3, 4, 5, #5, 6, 7
Bebop Minor1, 2, b3, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Chromatic1, b2, 2, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, #5, 6, b7, 7
Dominant Pentatonic1, 2, 3, 5, b7
Double Harmonic1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7
Enigmatic1, b2, 3, #4, #5, #6, 7
Half Diminished1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7
Half Diminished (Variant)1, 2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7
Leading Whole Tone1, 2, 3, #4, #5, #6, 7
Major Locrian1, 2, 3, 4, b5, b6, b7
Mixo-Blues1, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, b7
Nine Tone1, 2, #2, 3, #4, 5, #5, 6, 7
Octatonic (H/W)1, b2, b3, 3, b5, 5, 6, b7
Octatonic (W/H)1, 2, b3, 4, b5, b6, 6, 7
Overtone1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7
Phrygian Major1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Six Tone Symmetrical1, b2, 3, 4, #5, 6
Whole Tone1, 2, 3, #4, #5, b7
Pentatonic Neutral1, 2, 4, 5, b7
Lydian Minor1, 2, 3, #4, 5, b6, b7
Lydian Diminished1, 2, b3, #4, 5, 6, 7
Blues (Variation #1)1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, 7
Blues (Variation #2)1, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, b7, 7
Blues (Variation #3)1, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, 6, b7, 7
Pentatonic Blues1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7

Exotic Scales: Examples of Scales Found in Specific Contexts

Some scales are generally associated with the music of a specific country, culture or genre, and using them can get you very close to the overall sound of that context.

Here are some examples of this type of scale:

Scale NameScale Formula
Algerian1, 2, b3, 4, #4, 5, b6, 7
Arabian #11, 2, b3, 4, #4, #5, 6, 7
Arabian #21, 2, 3, 4, #4, #5, b7
Balinese1, b2, b3, 5, b6
Byzantine1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7
Chinese1, 3, #4, 5, 7
Chinese #21, 2, 4, 5, 6
Chinese Mongolian1, 2, 3, 5, 6
Egyptian1, 2, 4, 5, b7
Eight Tone Spanish1, b2, #2, 3, 4, b5, b6, b7
Ethiopian (A Raray)1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Ethiopian (Geez & Ezel)1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Hawaiian1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Hindu/Hindustan1, 2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Hirajoshi1, 2, b3, 5, b6
Hirajoshi #21, 3, 4, 6, 7
Hungarian Gypsy1, 2, b3, #4, 5, b6, 7
Hungarian Gypsy Persian1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7
Hungarian Major1, #2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7
Hungarian Minor1, 2, b3, #4, 5, b6, 7
Japanese #11, b2, 4, 5, b6
Japanese #21, 2, 4, 5, b6
Japanese (Ichikosucho)1, 2, 3, 4, #4, 5, 6, 7
Japanese (In Sen)1, b2, 4, 5, b7
Japanese (Taishikicho)1, 2, 3, 4, #4, 5, 6, #6, 7
Javaneese1, b2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Jewish (Adonai Malakh)1, b2, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Jewish (Ahaba Rabba)1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Jewish (Magen Abot)1, b2, #2, 3, #4, #5, #6, 7
Kumoi1, 2, b3, 5, 6
Kumoi #21, b2, 4, 5, b6
Iwato1, b2, 4, b5, b7
Mohammedan1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7
Moorish Phrygian1, b2, b3, 3, 4, 5, #5, b7, 7
Neopolitan Major1, b2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Neopolitan Minor1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Oriental #11, b2, 3, 4, b5, b6, b7
Oriental #21, b2, 3, 4, b5, 6, b7
Pelog1, b2, b3, 5, b6
Pelog #21, b2, b3, 5, b7
Persian1, b2, 3, 4, b5, b6, 7
Prometheus1, 2, 3, b5, 6, b7
Prometheus Neopolitan1, b2, 3, b5, 6, b7
Romanian Minor1, 2, b3, #4, 5, 6, b7
Spanish Gypsy1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, b7

How to Learn and Practice Scales

Practicing scales should be done methodically. You should start by knowing the scale’s formula, or its intervals.

Then, find those notes and their patterns throughout the fretboard.

Practice each pattern slowly with a metronome to build muscle memory of each one individually. Increase the speed gradually as you stop making mistakes.

Finally, you should work on connecting those patterns, and trying to apply them in a musical scenario, such as writing a melody or improvising a solo. Be patient and focus on making progress slowly.

Glossary of Scale Terms

Here are a few terms and concepts that you are expected to understand as a musician capable of using scales as a useful resource:

  • Whole Tone: same as a full step, it is the same as 2 half tones/semitones.
  • Half Tone: same as a half step, or one semitone.
  • Scale Degree: synonym of a note within a scale.
  • Interval: distance between two notes, it can be melodic or harmonic.
  • Octave: the interval or distance between a note (for example C) and the next C that exists above or below it.
  • Chord: several notes (3 or more) played simultaneously, its type varies depending on the intervals it contains.
  • Accidentals: sharps or flats of a certain key. Sharps (#) raise the pitch by a semitone and flats (♭) lower it by a semitone.
  • Natural: when a note is not sharp or flat.

Fret Number/Interval Quality Relationship on the Guitar

The guitar is a very visual instrument, and you can use this in your favor.

You can quickly figure out the interval between two frets by memorizing how many semitones are in that interval. Remember, each fret equals one semitone.

Here’s a table that illustrates this relationship:

Number of Frets / SemitonesInterval
1Minor 2nd
2Major 2nd
3Minor 3rd
4Major 3rd
5Perfect 4th
6Aug 4th / Dim 5th
7Perfect 5th
8Minor 6th
9Major 6th
10Minor 7th
11Major 7th
12Octave

Final Thoughts on Scales for Guitarists

By now you have surely realized that there are enough scales to keep you entertained for long years to come. However, you should also be able to filter out the ones that interest you the most.

Being able to use your resources tastefully is a valuable skill you can develop by studying scales and how to apply them in your playing. 

Gustavo Pereira

Gustavo is a Portuguese musician based in Barcelona, where he’s studying jazz & modern music interpretation on the electric guitar. Favorite genre: blues, jazz, funk, soul

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