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We are about to learn THE most important scale in all of music:
THE MAJOR SCALE
Why is this scale so important? Well, because the vast majority of music you hear comes directly from it. And when musicians talk about other scales, they still use the Major scale for comparison.
Like all scales, The Major scale has a formula. In other words, it has a specific pattern that it must adhere to. You can measure the Major scale or any scale’s formula by measuring from note to note to note, etc. In music we measure these using half-steps (1 fret) and whole-steps (2 frets). (Later on we’ll experiment with others).
The Major scale uses 7 different notes to produce a “happy” sound. The eighth note is the same as the first, and in traditional theory you should start and end a scale on the same note.
The formula for ALL Major scales is:
This means that you play a note on any given fret. We’ll call this number (1), then go up a whole step to land on number (2). Count up another whole step and you end up on number (3). Next count a half-step to reach number (4). Another whole step to find number (5), and another to get to (6). A final whole step will take you to (7). Count up one more half-step to find your octave.
Here is the Major scale formula on your guitar neck:
You can start this formula on any fret or string and play a Major scale. Try a few (make sure to stick with the formula!). Does it sound happy yet? If not try again…it should start sounding like the “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti/Si, (Do)” that we all remember from childhood.
We just learned the Major scale up one string. It works fine, but the linear shape requires a lot of movement up and down the neck. But NO WORRIES!!! One of the coolest things about the guitar is the fact that you always have the option to play something with a different fingering. Let’s try a more condensed version of this scale:
Most common scales use seven notes to give their specific sound, but we can also play “diet” FIVE note versions. A PENTATONIC SCALE is just a five note version of a full seven note scale (penta=five tonic=tone). Pentatonic just means omitting two notes from a given 7 note scale (there is also such a thing as a MAJOR Pentatonic scale that uses only five of the seven Major scale notes. We’ll learn all about this scale later). If you think of a full 7 note scale as a human body, the 5 note pentatonic version would be the skeleton. These skeletal notes give us the general outline of the full scale.
But why would I want to play a truncated version of a bigger scale? If I have 7 notes at my disposal why don’t I use them all?
Good question. The answer is simple-“less is more“. The more notes a scale has, the smoother it sounds (the space between notes is shorter). But when we play a pentatonic scale with less notes, it sounds more open and immediate. Pentatonic scales cut out the fat and get right to the meat of the scale. Think of them as “bullet points” for a scale-they give you just the highlights.
Because they sound so direct, they are used in several styles of music. Straight ahead R&R, Country, Rhythm & Blues, Folk, World Music, etc. all use these simple yet intimate scales in their respective genres.
Do you remember the FOUR FRET BLOCK that we learned earlier?
The Minor pentatonic scale incorporates this fingering but doesn’t use the middle (2nd) finger.
QUIZ TIME!!! HOW MANY MINOR PENTATONIC SCALES ARE THERE???
Twelve. Remember that minor pentatonic is just a scale formula or shape. We can start this shape on any of our 12 chromatic notes to produce 12 minor pentatonic scales. The same is true for other scales. For each type of scale, there are 12 possible starting places-meaning there are 12 of every kind of scale.
If, for example, we wanted to play an F# minor pentatonic scale, we would start on the letter F# as our tonic. Since our circled tonic is on the LOW E string, we need to find an F# on that string. From there, just follow the orange line for direction. Here is how you would play an F# minor pentatonic scale. Just remember that your index always plays the second fret, your ring (3rd finger) plays the fourth fret and your pinky plays the fifth fret in this example:
Follow the blue arrow to play the scale backwards (descending):
Here is the F# minor pentatonic scale ascending and descending: