Building Scales

To really understand how music works on the guitar you’re going to need to understand scales and how to build them.


What is a scale?

A scale is any series of notes that rises or falls in pitch.

The character of a scale is determined by the gaps between the notes.

Tones and semitones

The smallest gap between two notes, in terms of pitch, is a semitone.  If I play a note on the guitar on any string at any fret and then move up or down one fret, I have moved a semitone from the first note to the second note.

For example if I play a note at the 1st string 7th fret and then move up to the 8th fret, I have moved up a semitone.

If I move two fret, I have moved up a tone.

The major scale

The most important scale is the major scale.  When we study chords and scales of any sort, we always look at them in comparison to the major scale.  Chords and arpeggios, tunes and licks are all built from the major scale.

Building a major scale

To build a major scale you simply start on any note and then go up in a set pattern of tones and semitones.

The pattern is:

Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone

So let’s say you play a note at the first fret on a string and then build a major scale up from there.  You would get notes at frets 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 13.

That would look like this:

Now you can play the major scale starting from that lowest note and play up and down the string to make tunes.

If your lowest note were a C, you’d be playing a C major scale and would be making tunes in C major.  If you started on an F you’d be playing in F major.  If you moved the whole thing so that you started from the 2nd fret of the 3rd string you’d be playing in A major.

A better way to play these notes

You will notice that it’s very difficult to get any speed up if you’re having to slide up and down the neck all the time and it can tend to make your finger a bit sore.

So it’s better to just play a few notes on one string and then move to the next string and play a few notes on that string.

The best way to do this for beginners, and most of what you need to do to play rock and pop, is to use 3 notes per string.

Sharps and flats

Now that you’ve built some scales you’ll see that if you start a scale from a particular note it determines all the other notes that will occur in the scale.  So for example if you start from C you don’t need any sharp or flat notes to form the scale – it’s just C D E F G A B C.  Look at the notes when you start from the C on the 1st fret on the 2nd string and work up the pattern – have a look at this chart to help you if you don’t know the names of the notes along that string yet.  But if you start from B you’ll get B C# D# E F# G# A# B.