Quick Guide on Learning Guitar Scales and How to Play Them

Anyone can quickly learn how to play scales on guitar by spending some time studying and practicing the basic scales. This guide breaks down and simplifies everything you need to know to make it easy for you to learn guitar scales.

A scale is a group of notes distinguished by different distances between notes, depending on the type of scale. The note of the scales are separated by half-steps, whole-steps or other intervals.

One of the most common scales in occidental music is the major scale. From that scale we can get a lot of relative scales, like the natural minor and the modes.

Going through and practicing each of the core scales is the best way to learn guitar scales.

How to Play the ‘Major’ Guitar Scale

This scale is also called the Ionian Mode, it’s one of the diatonic scales, meaning that it has five whole steps or tones and two half steps and is a must to learn if you want to understand how to play scales on guitar.

The intervals between the notes of a major scale are:

whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (w-w-h-w-w-w-h)

The most simple scale is the C major, which is the only major scale that doesn’t have any sharps or flats.

C major scale has these notes: C D E F G A B

Scale degree formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The Minor Scale

The natural minor scale is also known as the Aeolian Mode and is a core component to properly learn guitar scales. It´s a diatonic scale with intervals as follows: W, H, W, W, H, W, WIf we take the major scale and we play it starting from the 6th note, we will get a natural minor scale. This is because major scale has a relative minor and minor has a relative major, which starts from the 3rd note. Let’s look at it more graphically:

C major scale has the notes:
C D E F G A B
Notes or degrees:
I II III IV V VI VII
A minor scale (Relative minor)
A B C D E F G
I II III IV V VI VII
C major scale (Relative major)
C D E F G A B
Scale degree formula:
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Learn Pentatonic Scales

This is a 5 note scale, hence its name “Penta” and is the next most useful component for fully understanding guitar scales.

Diatonic scales have 7 notes, but if you take off the 4th and the 7th note you get a major pentatonic scale. So let´s compare the C major scale with the major pentatonic.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B
C major pentatonic:
C D E G A

 

For the minor scale it is the same, but starting from the 6th degree or note of the C major scale.

C major scale:
C D E F G A B
A minor scale:
A B C D E F G
A minor pentatonic:
A C D E G

 

Blues Scale:

This is a 6 note scale. Basically it’s a pentatonic scale with the add of an augmented 4th or diminished 5th (minor) or minor 3rd for the major scale so once you learn pentatonic scales, you should be able to pick this up pretty quick.The blues scale is the most used scale in blues music. So let´s compare it with the diatonic scales and pentatonics:

C major scale:
C D E F G A B
C major pentatonic:
C D E G A
C major blues scale:
C D Eb E G A
A minor scale:
A B C D E F G
A minor blues:
A C D Eb E G

Other scales used in blues are the natural minor or major and its modes.

Learn Guitar Scales: Greek Modes

Dorian Mode:

This is a minor scale with a major 6th but still an important guitar scale to learn. A good way to see the structure and from where it comes from is by checking it from the C natural major scale.

Dorian mode starts on the 2nd note of the major scale.

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D
D dorian:
D E F G A B C D
Dorian structure is:
W – H – W – W – W – H – W –
(w= whole tone, h=half tone)
C dorian:
C D Eb F G A Bb
W – H – W – W – W – H – W –
Scale degree formula:
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

The Dorian mode is perfect for minor blues progressions, especially for playing over minor 7th chords.

Phrygian Mode:

This is a minor scale with a minor 2nd. Let’s check its structure. Phrygian mode starts on the 3rd note of the major scale.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E
E phrygian:
E F G A B C D E
Scale degree formula:
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

 

This mode can be also used as Dominant. This is the 5th mode that comes from the harmonic minor scales.

Besides having a minor 2nd, it has a major 3rd.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E
E phrygian dominant:
E F G# A B C D E
Scale degree formula:
1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

 

Lydian Mode:

This is a major scale with an augmented 4th. Let’s check its structure.The Lydian mode starts on the 4th note of the major scale.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E
F lydian:
F G A B C D E
Scale degree formula:
1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

 

Mixolydian Mode:

This is basically a major scale with a minor 7th. Let´s check its structure.The Mixolydian mode starts on the 5th note of the major scale.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E F G
G mixolydian:
G A B C D E F G
Scale degree formula:
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

 

The Mixolydian mode is perfect for major blues progressions, especially for playing over dominant 7th chords.

Aeolian Mode:

(We already learnt this scale earlier)So this another diatonic scale, also known as the natural minor scale.

It has a minor 3rd, 6th and 7th.

The Aeolian mode starts on the 6th note of the major scale.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E F G A
G aeolian:
A B C D E F G A
Scale degree formula:
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

 

Locrian Mode:

This another minor scale, but it includes a minor 2nd a diminished 5th. This mode is not used often.

The Locrian mode starts on the 7th and last note of the major scale.

 

C major scale:
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B
B locrian:
B C D E F G A B
Scale degree formula:
1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

 

Understanding Guitar Scales: Harmonic Scale – Modes

Harmonic minor scale has the same notes as the natural minor scale, except for the 7th degree or note, which is raised by a semitone. This is slightly more advanced but will really help in understanding how to learn scales on guitar.

Let’s use A minor as the root note.

Harmonic minor scale:

This is the first mode – Chord: Am/maj7

Scale degree formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

2nd Mode is called Locrian 6# –

Locrian 6#:

As the name indicates, it’s a locrian mode with a major 6th.

Chord: Bm7b5add6

Scale degree formula: 1 b2 b3 4 5 #6 b7

3rd Mode is called

Ionian 5#:

So this is just like a normal Ionian or major scale, but it has a sharp or augmented 5th.

Chord: Cmaj7#5

Scale degree formula: 1 2 3 4 #5 6 7

4th Mode is called

Dorian 4#:

Again, it’s just a dorian mode with a sharp 4th

Chord: Dm7#4 or Dm7#11

Scale degree formula: 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7

5th Mode is called

Phrygian major or Dominant:

Actually we already learnt this mode when we reviewed the Greek modes. Naturally, this mode is minor, but it’s pretty common to use it as major.

Chord: E7b9

Scale degree formula: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

6th Mode is called

Lydian 2#:

It’s a lydian mode with an augmented 2nd.

Chord: Fmaj7

Scale degree formula: 1 #2 3 #4 5 6 7

7th Mode is called

Altered dominant bb7 or Superlocrian bb7:

It’s a lydian mode with an augmented 2nd.

Chord: Fmaj7

Scale degree formula: 1 #2 3 #4 5 6 7

Melodic Minor – Modes

1st Mode is called

Melodic Minor:

It’s a minor scale with a major 6 and 7th. If you get this, then you’ll be learning how to play guitar scales in no time.

Chord: Am/maj7

Scale degree formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7

2nd Mode is called

Dorian b9 scale:

Chord: Bsus4b9

Scale degree formula: 1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7

3rd Mode is called

Lydian Augmented Scale:

Chord: Cmaj7#5

Scale degree formula: 1 2 3 #4 #5 6 7

4th Mode is called

Lydian Dominant Scale:

Chord: D7#11 or D13#11

Scale degree formula: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7

5th Mode is called

Mixolydian b6 scale:

Chord: E7#5 or E7b13

Scale degree formula: 1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7

6th Mode is called

Locrian natural 9 scale:

Chord: F#m7b5nat9

Scale degree formula: 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

7th Mode is called

Superlocrian or Altered scale:

Scale degree formula: 1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7

Chord: G# alt

Diminished Scale

This is an 8 note scale that is built by all whole and half tones. Basically, there are 2 ways of use it. Over diminished and over dominants chords. The one used over diminished chords is also known as Whole-Half diminished scale.
And the one used over dominant chords as Half-Whole diminished scale.

Whole-Half scale formula is:
1 2 b3 4 b5 #5 6 7
W H W H W H W H
Half-Whole scale formula:
1 b2 #2 3 #4 5 6 b7
H W H W H W H W
Whole-Half scale:
Chord: G dim or Gº

Half-Whole scale:

Chord: G7b9

How to Play Scales on Guitar: Whole Tone Scale

This is a symmetrical scale built by 6 notes which are separated by whole steps. This is what we recommend for learning how to play guitar scales for beginners.

The whole tone scale is mainly used to solo over dominant 7#5 chords

Let´s see the 4 most common scale shapes: Chord: G7+5

Shape 1:

Shape 2:

Shape 3:

Shape 4:

Exotic scales

Arabian Guitar Scale:

This is an 8 notes scale, actually it’s the same scale as the diminished scale.

 

Arabian scale formula:
1 2 b3 4 #4 #5 6 7
W H W H W H W H

Chord:

Persian Guitar Scale:

This is Major scale.

Persian scale formula: 1 b2 3 4 b5 b6 7

Chord: A

Byzantine Guitar Scale:

This is Major scale.

Byzantine scale formula: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7

Chord: A

Oriental Guitar Scale:

This is Dominant scale.

Oriental scale formula: 1 b2 3 4 b5 6 b7

Chord: A7

Japanese Guitar Scale:

This is a pentatonic scale, it doesn’t have a 3rd so it can work as major or minor.

Japanese scale formula: 1 2 4 5 b6

Gypsy Guitar Scale:

This is a minor scale, also known as Hungarian minor.

Gypsy scale formula: 1 2 b3 #4 5 b6 7

Chord: Am

Romanian Guitar Scale:

This is a minor scale.

Romanian scale formula: 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7

Chord: Am

Jewish Guitar Scale:

This is a dominant scale also known as the Spanish gypsy scale (or Dominant Phrygian).

Jewish scale formula: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

Chord: A7v

You’ve Learned the Core Guitar Scales, Now What?

Learning guitar scales is just the first step. From here it simply takes lots of practice.

Even if you won’t be needing to use each and every scale for your purposes, it is good to practice and be familiar with each of them, at least to strengthen our understanding of guitar scales.

With a solid week of practicing these scales each day, it should start to become second nature, and before you know it, you’ll have mastered how to play scales on guitar.

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