Bedrock Guitar Theory of the Pros Lesson #2: What Guitar Scales To Learn


Guitar Scales

Welcome back to Bedrock Guitar Theory of the Pros!

Today you’ll learn the “2-Scale Secret” that will have you sounding like a guitar pro in no time.

Here’s the thing:

A musical scale is just a series of notes that you play one at a time, in ascending and descending order, to play melodies, riffs, solos, and bass lines.

In theory, there are countless types of scales you could play on the guitar, based on different combinations of notes, but did you know that most popular music is based on just two types of patterns?

I think of this as the “2-Scale Secret” to playing popular music.

That’s right — music genres like pop, rock, blues, and country all use scale patterns based on two basic scales you’ll want to learn:

  1. the pentatonic scale
  2. the major scale

You might be thinking, “What a minute. Surely there are other types of scales and sounds that guitarists produce?”

There are, but here’s the deal…

Using the pentatonic and major scales as base patterns, you can produce the sound of other scales by making simple adjustments. For example, you can change just one note and create the sound of the harmonic minor scale.

I’ll explain exactly how each of these scales work in a little bit, but for now, just know that if you want to be successful at playing popular styles of music, then you only need to focus on these two types of scale patterns.

Famous Guitar Scales

If it sounds too good to be true that you only need two types of scale patterns most of the time, let me prove it to you!

Below is a list of famous guitar solos, ones that frequently make “Top Guitar Solos of All Time” lists, and the scales they use.

Pentatonic scale patterns
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (Jimi Hendrix) – Jimi Hendrix Experience
“The Thrill is Gone” (B.B. King) – B.B. King
“Wish You Were Here” (David Gilmour) – Pink Floyd

Major scale patterns
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Kurt Cobain) – Nirvana
“Reelin’ in the Years” (Elliot Randall) – Steely Dan
“Light My Fire” (Robby Krieger) – The Doors

Pentatonic and major scale patterns
“Stairway to Heaven” (Jimmy Page) – Led Zeppelin
“Johnny B. Goode” (Chuck Berry) – Chuck Berry
“Cliffs of Dover” (Eric Johnson) – Eric Johnson

Pentatonic and major scale patterns with added harmonic minor
“Sultans of Swing” (Mark Knopfler) – Dire Straits
“Hotel California” (Don Felder, Joe Walsh) – The Eagles
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Slash) – Guns N’ Roses

Amazing, right?

The solos in these songs all sound amazing, but the scales are nothing exotic, out of the ordinary, or overly advanced.

For that reason, the best way to start playing like a pro is if you practice pentatonic and major scale patterns, and master the ways you apply them in popular music.

About Scale Patterns

Typically, a scale includes a fixed number of notes, like 5 or 7, and you can play these notes in more than one position on the neck.

When you play scales that ascend and descend, you can repeat their notes in higher and lower registers until no more pitches are available.

All this to say that the notes of a 5 or 7 tone scale are actually scattered all over the fretboard with multiple occurrences of each note, and higher and lower versions of each pitch found everywhere.

In order for you to learn the notes of a scale across the neck, you can break up the fretboard into sections called “positions”. The scale notes in each position form a “scale pattern”.

If you rehearse and memorize these scale patterns until you’ve covered all areas of the fretboard, then you’ll be able to freely use any scale anywhere.

The Pentatonic Scale

Of the two main types of scale patterns that you need to learn, the pentatonic patterns are the simplest and easiest to play.

“Penta” means five and “tonic” means tone, so the pentatonic scale is a five-tone, or five-note, scale.

It produces two types of tonalities, major and minor, with the sound dependent upon how you use it.

(Some versions of the pentatonic scale add chromatic passing tones in between the scale steps. One example of this is the so-called “blues scale”.)

When learning to cover the neck with the pentatonic scale, you’ll have an easier time if you break the fretboard up into five positions, and learn the placement of all the notes by playing through five patterns.

You’ll find that there are many great guitar riffs, solos, and bass lines that you can play based on pentatonic patterns. For example, listen to sample pentatonic scale songs by clicking the audio link below:

Pentatonic Scales Songs Audio Samples – Click To Download

Guitar pentatonic pattern one

Perhaps the most widely known and used scale pattern on guitar, the “pentatonic pattern one” works as either E minor or G major in this open position, but you can move it around the neck to play in other keys too. To master this popular scale patten, try playing through these notes one at a time from lowest pitched note to highest pitched note, then reverse your direction.

The Major Scale

The major scale features seven notes, which is two more than the pentatonic scale. Like any scale, its notes are scattered all over the fretboard and you need to learn them one position and one pattern at a time. Because of the additional notes, major scale patterns are more complex than pentatonic scale patterns, and they necessitate the use of more fingers. As a result, making your way around the neck with the major scale requires more work. There are also more possibilities when it comes to forming patterns. You usually see the major scale taught as either five or seven patterns. Either way, the patterns are still the major scale.

Any one of the major scale’s seven degrees can be used as the primary pitch in a piece of music. The structure and sound of the scale changes depending on which note is used. This means that major scale patterns are used to play any one of seven types of scales called modes. The two most common modes are named Ionian and Aeolian, which stem from the 1st and 6th degrees, and are better known as the relative major and the relative minor scale.

Major scale patterns are used to play many familiar guitar songs. Listen to the audio track below to hear some examples.

Major Scale Songs Audio Samples – Click To Download

guitar major scale pattern

In this fretboard diagram you see where all the notes related to the G major scale are located in one position. The numbers here represent scale degrees, not fingerings. To play G to G, start and end on 1.

The Harmonic Minor Scale

Another type of scale that you’ll occasionally hear in popular styles of music is the harmonic minor scale.

Typically, a piece of music isn’t solely based in the harmonic minor scale, but instead, the music uses the scale temporarily to produce a certain type of harmony. (And the harmonic minor is really just a slightly modified minor scale, with one pitch raised to fit with a specific kind of chord change.)

When it comes to learning the harmonic minor scale and its patterns, I believe you’re better off if you make easy adjustments to the minor scale rather than working at covering the whole neck with new harmonic minor scale patterns. That said, the latter is an option and can serve a good purpose at some levels of playing.

One variation on the harmonic minor scale that comes up every so often is the melodic minor scale, which itself is an easy adjustment.

As for all other types of scales (which I won’t bother mentioning here because I don’t want to confuse you), you rarely, if ever, hear them used in popular styles of music. You start to come across other types of scales as you venture into less familiar and often more complicated genres of music like bebop jazz and neoclassical. That said, skilled guitarists in these genres still rely on the fundamental scales outlined here (namely, the pentatonic and major scale patterns), so be sure to have the same groundwork in place if you want to play like them.

Writing and Composing with Scales

Learning how to play scales is useful for more than just playing lead guitar. You can also use scales to:

  • Identify intervals
  • Build chords
  • Chart progressions
  • Play by numbers
  • Compose vocal melodies and harmonies

So even if you’re strictly a rhythm guitarist or songwriter, you can still benefit from learning scales. Other instruments, such as keys, horns, and strings, use pentatonic and major scales too, which can be of interest to composers who prefer to arrange on guitar.

Pentatonic Scale Patterns Preview

You get to know scales in depth in the Fretboard Theory guitar theory video series. In Chapter 2, you begin working with pentatonic scale patterns. This involves fingering the patterns, covering the whole fretboard, playing in major and minor keys, and of course, learning which familiar riffs and solos are based in the scale. Watch the free video promo below to get a better idea of what this whole process is like, then visit the Fretboard Theory page to learn how you can get access to the full video.

Fretboard Theory

To get the full pentatonic scale video lesson above plus the rest of the Fretboard Theory video series, click on the link or the image below.

guitar theory lessons

Coming Up Next in Lesson #3: CAGED System Chords

Coming up in lesson #3, we’ll take a deeper look at chords, and how to easily master the system used to play rock’s most iconic rhythm guitar parts.