An Introduction to Guitar Scales

Now that we have looked at the basic layout of the notes on the guitar fretboard, it’s time to dig a little deeper into how these notes are used.

As we begin to peel back each layer of guitar theory, you will begin to see the bigger picture of how music works and you will start to have those “ah ha” moments.

In most styles of music, you will find that not all notes sound equal.  Certain notes in songs sound stable, while other notes have a more active quality.

Music can be broadly defined as being organized sound.

Sound can be organized on many different levels.  One way that notes are organized is in scales.  A scale is a specific ascending and descending arrangement of notes.

singer sings

When you hear a singer sing, the notes that he or she sings come from a scale.  In some songs, the melody actually comes from multiple scales.

When you hear a guitar solo, the notes being played come from one or more scales.

guitarist solos

The chords that accompany a singer or guitar solo come from one or more scales.

Just as a painter will select and mix certain paint colours to create a desired mood, a musician will pick certain notes or combinations of notes to produce a desired affect.

Scales in Songs

Now let’s take a look at some examples of scales used in songs.

The Major Scale

First we will start with the folk song “Lark in the Morn”.  To get the sound of the melody in your head, play through the melody line a couple of times.  If you can’t read music—don’t worry about the standard notation—simply read through the tab. If you need a refresher on how to read tab, here is a short article on how to read guitar tab and fretboard neck diagrams -> Guitar Music Notation Primer

As you play through the melody, listen to the overall sound.

Here is the tab and sheet music for Lark in the Morn ->

Lark in the Morn Guitar Tab Sheet Music Lark in the Morn

So what do you think?

What does Lark in the Morn sound like to you?  What overall mood does it evoke?

I’m sure you’ll agree that it has a “happy” sound to it.  This song uses the major scale.  Songs that are built from the major scale tend to have overall “happy” sounds.

The Minor Scale

Now let’s compare this to the popular Christmas song “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.  Here is the link for We Three Kings of Orient Are ->

We Three Kings of Orient Are Guitar Tab Sheet Music We Three Kings of Orient Are - Guitar Tab Sheet Music

This song uses the minor scale.  Notice how different We Three Kings sounds from Lark in the MornWe Three Kings sounds somewhat darker and sadder than Lark in the Morn.  This is a general characteristic of songs in minor—they generally have a sadder sound than songs in major.

Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

There are many different types of scales.  Both the major and minor scales are scales that are built from seven different notes.  Another very popular scale type is the pentatonic scale.  Pent means five and so the pentatonic scale is built from five different notes.  There are many different types of pentatonic scales.  The two most popular pentatonic scales in the West are the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales.

Now we will take a quick look at an example of a song in major pentatonic.  Since pentatonic scales use only five notes, this means that when you compare a pentatonic scale to a major, or minor scale, the melody lines will often have more melodic gaps in them.

Now play through “Thistle of Scotland”. Here’s the link for the PDF guitar tab sheet music ->

Thistle of Scotland – Guitar Tab Sheet Music

Thistle of Scotland - Guitar Tab Sheet Music


Notice how different the melody sounds when you compare it with Lark in the MornThistle of Scotland uses the major pentatonic scale, so it still has a happy sound, but the pentatonic major scale gives it a different flavor.

For the final example, play through the folk song called Edward.

Edward – Guitar Tab Sheet Music Edward - Guitar Tab Sheet Music

This song uses the minor pentatonic scale.  Compare Edward with We Three Kings.  Notice the difference in sound.  Edward is in minor pentatonic, while We Three Kings uses the minor scale. Both have a sort of sad, melancholy sound, yet they both sound quite different.

Now that you have a better understanding of what some of the basic scales sound like, you may be starting to wonder how these scales are constructed and how you can play them on your guitar.

In our next article, we will start our look at how the major scale is built and applied to the guitar.