So… You’ve learned your chords. Your technique is improving. You’re invited to a jam session with a few friends. They start playing in G and ask you to improvise a solo. You feel you should have learned a few guitar scales by now, but you didn’t know where to start or how to use them! The intro of the song is whizzing by, you start to wonder “Is it hot in here?!”, it is your turn to play, your time to face the music. And… you wake up in a moment of panic, horror-movie-style.
This is a recurring nightmare for most guitar players at the beginning. The good news is that this is an easy predicament to solve! We’re going to cover the 5 most essential beginner guitar scales. Practicing these scales will not only help with your sense of freedom and command of the guitar, but with your technique as well.
When all else fails, every guitar player should have these scales up his or her sleeve ready to go. We will be moving in order of complexity. Let’s get cracking!
Minor Pentatonic Scale
This is the most versatile scale out there by far and the one most people learn at first. You can think of this scale as the one that will be your safety net for any kind of improvisation you need to perform at any given time. If you get lost with the song, if you suddenly don’t remember the solo you’ve been practicing, if all else fails, the minor pentatonic scale goes with (almost) everything and will save the day, 95% of the time. The minor pentatonic is the swiss army knife of guitar scales.
For most scenarios all you need to know is the key you are playing in, and how to find that note on the 6th string of the guitar. To follow our nightmare example, G is found at the third fret of the 6th string. So, you place your index finger on fret 3 and start playing the scale from that spot. Here’s a diagram of the first position of the minor pentatonic scale in the key of G:
G Minor Pentatonic Scale
The red note stands for where G (the root note of this scale) is found. If you need to change keys, you can just translate the entire shape up and down the guitar, lining up the red note on the 6th string with the root of the key you want to play in. If you need it to be A, you just move to the 5th fret of the 6th string and start playing from there.
Major Pentatonic Scale
The brother of the minor pentatonic scale, the major pentatonic scale will work as well as its minor counterpart for most situations. Here’s a diagram of the G major pentatonic scale:
G Major Pentatonic Scale
This scale has a very different sonic flavor. You’ll notice this as soon as you play it. When practicing, always start on the root note and work your way from there when playing up and finishing on that note when coming back down. Compare it to its minor counterpart. Once you do this you’ll notice major scales tend to sound happier than minor scales (which tend to be darker). This is a great way to figure out which scale to use when jamming: if the song sounds dark and rocky try the minor pentatonic scale, and if it sounds bright and happy try the major pentatonic scale.
Another excellent choice for beginners, this scale consists of the minor pentatonic scale plus an extra note (and its repetitions) called a blues note. It adds a bluesy sound of course, but really it’s that gritty sound you can hear on a lot more than just blues music. Do you like Oasis? It’s there in a lot of solos. Metallica? Black Sabbath? You guessed it. Stevie Ray Vaughan? Clapton? John Mayer? A staple of those players. From traditional blues, all the way to pop, funk, metal, and jazz this scale with that extra note can get the job done with style. Here’s a diagram in the key of G, with the added note in blue:
G Blues Scale
It is inevitable that as we move to more complex scales, they will require a bit more control and knowledge. You should be careful with this scale when playing your solos. The added blues note is a passing note – something to play occasionally, but not too long or too often. When improvising, you’ll want to play mostly the regular minor pentatonic scale, and save that extra note for when you need more flavor. Be sure not to linger too much or end your phrases there!
The mother of all the other scales in music theory, this one is the logical next step for our journey. This scale consists of seven notes and can be a bit more complicated in its usage; it is not as versatile as the minor and major pentatonic. Why? Because the major scale adds two notes to the major pentatonic scale, and those notes can sound tense so they’re harder to use! Here’s the major scale in the key of G. Notice the differences (marked in blue):
G Major Scale
As you can tell, the shape of the scale is mostly the same except for two notes (and the repetitions of those two notes). Those are a bit tricky to use and don’t always land well in solos, which is the reason the major pentatonic is always a safer bet.
Having said that, those notes do add character to the scale, and the risky notes always tend to be a bit more interesting for the listener. Playing those notes and landing them in a rewarding way demands control of the guitar. For now, just be mindful of them when using the scale, try them out, and know that if at any time something sounds “wrong”, all you have to do is react and move to the closest note that is common to both the major scale and the major pentatonic scale.
Minor Guitar Scale
This scale, like its major counterpart, is the base for all other minor scales. As with the earlier example, you can think of this one as the minor pentatonic with two added notes. The same warning applies: those two notes are not always safe bets but are worth the risk and time it takes to master them. Here is a diagram of the scale in the key of G:
G Minor Scale
As before, notice the root note in red and the differences with the minor pentatonic in blue.
For all these scales practice slowly, up and down, in different keys and always starting and ending on the root note. Once you memorize them, get a backing track, and start playing on top of it with each scale. If you find a backing track in C minor, try playing over it with the C minor pentatonic, the C blues scale or the C minor scale. Likewise, if you find a backing track in G major that you enjoy, try playing over it with the G major pentatonic or the G major scale. Have fun with it and don’t disregard the practice of improvisation, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day. A typical guitar solo is 30-40 seconds, so 5 minutes of practice are worth 7 to 10 guitar solos!
These scales are only the beginning of the journey of improvisation. Scale shapes can be difficult to memorize at first and using them in a real-world scenario can be overwhelming. But stick with it and learn them in the order presented here to maximize your effort and understand the relationship between the shapes. The excitement that comes from being able to navigate the guitar with freedom and confidence can only come from the focused practice of these and more advanced scales, always looking for the similarities and differences from the scales you already know, building one on top of the other.
To your success!