What Scales Are Used in Sweet Child O’ Mine?

slash lead guitar solo scales in sweet child of mine

What Scales Are Used in Sweet Child O’ Mine?

Sweet Child O’ Mine Guitar Scales

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses is a classic rock song released in 1987 as part of their debut album Appetite for Destruction. The song features prominent guitar work by Slash, including the iconic opening riff and memorable solos. The song uses D Mixolydian mode, E Aeolian mode, and E harmonic minor. I explain each scale and its use in this quintessential rock anthem in this lesson. 


E Flat Guitar Tuning

The guitars and bass in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are tuned to E♭. In E flat tuning (also known as half-step down tuning), each guitar string is lowered by a semitone or half-step. This means that the pitch of each string is lowered by one fret. Eb tuning is commonly used in rock, metal, and blues music. Lowering the pitch of the strings can give the guitar a heavier, darker, and more aggressive sound, plus make guitar strings slinkier and easier to bend. Eb tuning also makes it easier for vocalists to hit the high notes. Many bands and guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix and Guns N’ Roses, have utilized Eb tuning in their music. When tuning your guitar to Eb tuning, your electronic tuner may display the notes as flat (♭) or sharp (♯). For example, Eb is the same as D#, Ab is G#, and so on. 

  • Standard Guitar Tuning (Strings 6-1)
    E A D G B E
  • E♭ Guitar Tuning (Strings 6-1)
    Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb
  • E♭ Guitar Tuning (Using sharps)
    D# G# C# F# A# D#

When E♭ tuning is used, guitarists typically refer to notes on the fretboard as if they were in standard tuning. I do this throughout this article.


Guitar Riff Scale

The iconic riff that begins Sweet Child O’ Mine (0:00) uses D, E, F#, G, and A notes. They are the first five notes of the D major scale, so for now, you can think of the music as being in the key of D major. You see the D major key signature with its two sharps, F#, and C#, used in the official sheet music available at Sheet Music Direct. Even though the pitch of the music is technically Db because of the tuning, we guitarists think of the note names on the fretboard as if we were in standard tuning.

The key signature for Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses is D major in this guitar tab at Sheet Music Direct.

The riff is based on D major and Dsus4 chords. D, F# and A notes form a D major chord. The intervals are 135, which makes it a major triad. The G note is a 4th interval and creates the suspended fourth sound. This concept is transposed to A and C in the upcoming chorus.


Verse Chords and Scale

Once the rest of the band enters (0:15), the chord progression played during the song’s introduction, verses, and first two solo sections uses the chords D, C, and G. The C chord does not fit into the key of D with its seventh degree, C#. What’s happening here is Mixolydian mode.

D, C, and G are chords 5, 4, and 1 in the key of G major. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” uses chords from the key of G but centers on the G scale’s fifth degree, D. In music, this is called D Mixolydian mode. Since this mode uses D major as its tonic chord, the music is considered in the key of D major, and the key signature for D major is used. Since the key of D has a C# note, a natural sign (♮) is placed before any note in the music that needs to be played as C natural. This isn’t necessary during the opening riff because the riff doesn’t use any C notes, but you see C naturals in the music for the rhythm guitars playing the chords.

  • D Major Scale Chords
    D Em F#m G A Bm C#mb5
  • G Major Scale Chords
    G Am Bm C D Em F#mb5
  • D Mixolydian Mode Chords
    D Em F#mb5 G Am Bm C

Chorus Scales

The chorus (1:16) features the chords A, C, and D. Chords A and D fit together in the key of D, and chords C and D fit together in the key of G, so you can think of this as mixing chords from the parallel scales of D major and D Mixolydian. Slash treats these chords as key changes and plays over each chord by focusing on its major triad and 4th as he does on D in the introduction.


Scale Used in the First Two Guitar Solos

The first two guitar solos in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are played over the same chord changes as the verses. The first solo (1:31) is a new melody, but it’s based on the same notes used in the intro, D-E-F#-G-A. These are the first five notes in the D major and the D Mixolydian scale.

The second solo (2:32) is twice as long and touches on the notes C and B, the b7th and 6th from the full D Mixolydian mode. Overall, both solos are in D Mixolydian mode. Even though the first solo never touches on the notes C and B, C is part of the underlying C chord, and B is part of the G chord, so the music is in Mixolydian mode. It’s no wonder Slash eventually landed on the notes C and B. He either knows his modes, thought to draw from the chords, or his ear led him there.


Scales Used in the Main Guitar Solo

At 3:35, the music shifts gears and changes the key for the main guitar solo. You see the key signature for G major used at this point in the sheet music reflecting the tonality of G’s relative minor, E. Other names for this are E Aeolian mode or E natural minor. The chord changes here start on E5 (taken from Em) and include chords from the key of E minor. All the notes in the lead line are straight out of the E minor scale except that D# is used at times in place of D natural. D# is from the E harmonic minor scale. D# is usually played over the B5 chord, creating the sound of B major (B-D#-F#).


Parent Scale

The jump from the key of D to the key of E minor makes sense when considering how the D segment of the song operates in D Mixolydian mode, which, like E Aeolian mode, is derived from the G major scale. So, the music stays in the same parent scale and key signature throughout and changes the note used as the tonic pitch. However, conventional music practice dictates using a major or minor key signature corresponding to the tonic chord, disregarding the mode. This decision necessitates adding natural signs before all the C# notes to convert them to C naturals. Alternatively, employing a G major key signature for the entire score could have alleviated this issue.


Conclusion

The scales used in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses include a portion of the D major scale, all of the D Mixolydian mode, all of the E natural minor (Aeolian mode), and temporarily, the E harmonic minor (E natural minor with a raised 7th). The main scales in use, D Mixolydian and E Aeolian, are modes of the G major scale, so we can think of G major as being the parent scale to the whole song.

Some guitarists might think of D major pentatonic and E minor pentatonic scale patterns as shells with other notes added. After all, all the notes of D major pentatonic are found in the Mixolydian scale. Likewise, the notes of E minor pentatonic are contained in the full E minor scale.

The scales used in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” bring the song to life with memorable riffs, infectious melodies, and dynamic solos that showcase Slash’s musicality and virtuosity.


Sweet Child O’ Mine Guitar Scales Video


Sweet Child O’ Mine Guitar Scales Audio Podcast

Listen to a discussion of Slash’s guitar scales in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. Hear demonstrations of D Mixolydian, E Aeolian, E harmonic minor, and E minor pentatonic.

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