Practicing scales helps you to develop strength in your fingers, it helps you improve coordination between the hand that is fretting notes and the one that is picking or strumming strings, and learning scales is the first step to improvising on guitar.

In this article, you will

  • Explore five different scale types
  • Play the scales over backing tracks
  • Get tips on how to learn scales
  • Learn about the purpose of scales

Scales to learn on guitar

There are a lot of scales to choose from and throughout this article, we’ll dive into a few different ones that are easy to learn for beginners:

  • Pentatonic
  • Major
  • Minor
  • Chromatic

But before we get lost in the theory, let’s give you a taste of what a scale sounds like in action.

  • One of the purposes of a scale is to be able to improvise while “coloring within the lines”.
  • If you pick the right scale to play over one or more chords, you can play any note within the scale and it’ll sound pretty good.
  • A scale will narrow down the available notes to the ones that fit together.

Your first scale on guitar

If you’ve never learned a scale, today is the big day. We’ll dive right into making music.

Don’t worry about what this scale is called or what the numbers mean in the fretboard graphic below – we’ll get to that later.

If you need help deciphering the diagrams in this article, check out this one first: How to read chord diagrams.

First, grab your guitar and follow these steps for improvising a melody.

  1. Focus on the three lowest strings.
  2. You can play the open strings.
  3. And you can add the three notes from the diagram below (3rd fret on the lowest string, and 2nd fret on the two strings above).
  4. This gives you a total of five notes.
  5. Play the backing track below and make up a melody using the five notes. (Just play, don’t judge what you come up with.)

E minor pentatonic scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

Now that you’ve explored the notes in the scale a bit, see if you can learn these super simple riffs and play them over the backing track.

Riff 1:

Riff 2:

What is a scale?

A scale is a group of notes that musicians use as a building block for melodies, chords, and chord progressions.

  • In Western music, the total of notes we can group together is 12.
  • There are a lot of different scales but they are all different groupings picked from the same 12 notes.
  • We also refer to these 12 notes as the chromatic scale.

Below is an example of the chromatic scale on guitar:

Chromatic scale starting on the note C (Credit: Pickup Music)

The chromatic scale

We won’t use this to improvise today but let’s take a brief look so you get a bird’s-eye view.

The chromatic scale includes all the 12 notes we can use to build other scales.

  • Every note in the chromatic scale is the same distance apart.
  • On guitar, that would be one fret apart aka a half step.
  • Once you’ve played the 12-note sequence, it repeats just in a higher or lower register.
  • For example, the note one fret below the 1 is 7 again.

The numbers in the graphic above (1, b2, 2, etc) refer to how far away the note is from the root note.

  • The distance between two notes is called an interval.  
  • Sometimes we need to add a ‘b’ (flat) to intervals, which means the note is one half step lower than the number – example: b2
  • Sometimes we need to add a ‘#’ (sharp) to intervals, which means the note is one step higher than the number – example: #4

We count the distance in half steps (one fret apart) or whole steps (two frets apart).

🎉 Now comes the fun part: Let’s try out some popular and easy scales to learn on guitar.

The pentatonic – easy and versatile beginner scale

This five-note scale is tied to the blues but it’s also the basis for many other music genres like soul, r&b, rock, and pop.

  • “Penta” is the Latin word for five.
  • The pentatonic scale comes in two flavors: major and minor.
  • This scale works best when you spice it up with expressive techniques.
  • Perhaps it’s a bend, hammer on, pull off, or slide.

If you’re not sure how to use bends and vibrato, blues guitarist Seth Rosenbloom breaks down the technique in this video:

A simple shape for the major pentatonic scale

When you think back to the 12 notes we have, this scale is made up of only five. The question is which ones…

First, we need to pick a key.

  • The note you pick as your first note of the scale will determine the key.
  • We call the first note the root, the key center, or the 1.

Let’s go with A.

  • Now, we add four more notes.
  • The major pentatonic is made up of these intervals: 1-2-3-5-6.

We have a few choices on where to play these notes on the fretboard. Here’s the one we’ll use for now:

A major pentatonic scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

If you run up and down the A major pentatonic scale in isolation, you may find yourself thinking “Is this music? There isn’t really a melody here, huh?”.

  • While potentially bland on its own, the magic lies in building melodies and riffs out of just two or three notes.
  • We often practice scales from the bottom up with consistent note lengths.
  • When improvising, try to vary the note you start on, note lengths, and the direction (up or down the scale).

There ends up being a lot to create with.

Improvise with the major pentatonic scale

Below is a riff and a backing track.

  • First, play the scale up and down a few times so it becomes more familiar.
  • Then, learn the riff.
  • Lastly, fire up the backing track and see what kind of melodies you can make up using the five notes of the A major pentatonic scale.

A simple shape for the minor pentatonic scale

The minor pentatonic scale also has five notes, but the intervals are a bit different.

  • The sequence for the minor pentatonic is 1-b3-4-5-b7.
  • Let’s play it in the key of E.

Below is one possible way to play those five notes:

E minor pentatonic scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

Oh hey, that’s the first scale you started with at the beginning of this article!

If you’re not convinced yet that the pentatonic scale is the one scale you should really learn, check out this article from Splice with song examples from Avicii, Bon Jovi, and Drake.

The simplest way to learn the major scale

You might know this scale without knowing it because it’s so ingrained in pop music. This makes it one of the most practical scales to learn on guitar.

  • The major scale has seven notes.
  • The interval sequence is 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
  • There are half steps between 3 and 4 as well as 7 and 1.
  • All other notes are a whole step (or two frets) apart.

Let’s look at it in two different ways.

Play the major scale horizontally

Here’s the C major scale laid out on the A string. This way you can easily see the distances between each note:

C major scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

You can play this scale over any song that is in a major key.

Feel free to try this one out over the jazz backing track below:

Play the major scale vertically

Here’s a more compact version of the C major scale:

C major scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

Session guitarist Jamey Arent talks about this shape a bit more in the video below.

How to play the minor scale

We’ll leave you with one more shape and that is the minor scale.

  • The minor scale also has seven notes.
  • The sequence is: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7
  • You can use this scale over any song that is in a minor key.

Let’s start this shape with the 1 on the 5th fret on the lowest string. That’s an A, so you’ll be playing the A minor scale:

Minor scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

Give it a try over this backing track:

Learn less scales

Yes, we just gave you a bunch of scale shapes and now we’re telling you to learn less scales.

Here’s the thing. The more you understand, the less you have to memorize. 💡

For example, you can turn any major scale shape into a minor scale and vice versa.

  • The major and minor scales are related.
  • They have the same notes, they just start on a different note.
  • All you need to know is that there are three frets between the starting points.

Let’s illustrate this with two octaves of the almighty, ever-so-popular pentatonic scale shape below.

E minor or G major pentatonic scale (Credit: Pickup Music)

Start the scale on the lowest string.

  • In this case, the first note is the open E string.
  • That makes the 1 an E.
  • The E minor pentatonic has the notes E, G, A, B, and D.
  • You already know the bottom of the shape from earlier.

Now, start the scale from three frets up.

  • The note on the 3rd fret on the lowest string is a G. Make that your 1.
  • You’re playing the same scale but because you’re starting three frets up, you’re playing the G major pentatonic.
  • The notes remain the same: G, A, B, D, and E.

E minor is the relative minor of G major, A minor is the relative minor of C major, and so on – you can translate this relationship to any key.

How to learn scales on guitar in 5 steps

Whenever you learn a new scale, you’re confronted with a new diagram.

If you learn scales without a plan, soon enough all those shapes will become one hell of a soup in your brain – that’s useless.

Follow these steps when you’re first learning scales:

Step 1: Choose one scale shape and stick with it at least for seven practice sessions.

Step 2: Break the scale into small chunks, for example, you can learn the notes on one string at a time. Make it really easy for yourself to memorize the patterns for each string.

Step 3: Learn where the root notes are. They’re your anchor points to shift the shape to different keys. (If you don’t know the note names, take a look at our article “How to know the notes on your guitar fretboard – The ultimate guide”.)

Step 4: Put on a metronome at a slow and comfortable speed. Play the whole scale from different starting points: the lowest note, the highest note, or pick a random note in the middle.

Step 5: Apply the scale. Choose three or four notes and improvise a melody over a backing track. Repeat with different note clusters.

Why should you learn scales on guitar?

Learning scales is only boring if you don’t know why you’re learning them. Let’s change that.

  • Improve the connection between your left and right hands.
  • Improve your picking hand technique.
  • Learning scales will make improvising easier.
  • Chords are built from scales and knowing which chords belong to one key is useful knowledge when you’re learning songs by ear or you’re writing songs yourself.
  • If you dive deep into the intervals of each scale, you will train your ear to recognize those intervals.
  • You might even get to the point where you hear a melody in your head and you can play it without hesitation on guitar.
  • When you learn chords and scales in the same position on the guitar neck, you’ll see how they overlap.
  • This is great news when you want to combine chords with single note lines.

Learn scales faster with the CAGED system

The guitar isn’t as conveniently laid out as the piano where all notes are visible in a linear fashion. This makes learning scales on guitar a bit of a challenge because there is more than one way to play each scale.

The CAGED system divides the fretboard into five different parts and will help you visualize chord and scale shapes in different keys.

Our CAGED Learning Pathway is a step-by-step program that guides you through learning the most commonly used scales.

Check out a 14-day free trial to explore the daily lessons, guided jam sessions, and performance pieces that will help you turn theory into playing music.

Author: Julia Mahncke