Whether you’re self-taught or already in a guitar lesson program, you already know that learning your scales (or at least some) will help you better understand your guitar and develop as a player. But where should you start? Let’s take a look at some of the first guitar scales you should learn.
The Top Guitar Scales to Learn
Before we jump into which specific scales you should focus on, it’s important to address a question that a lot of self-taught guitarists have: how do I learn and use scales? After all, staring down a scale diagram for the first time can be intimidating.
One of the most helpful things you can do is break the scale into smaller parts, or “boxes.” Focus on mastering one box at a time. You may find that a lot of repetition helps here — the goal is to be able to play without thinking.
But even if they’re incredible at playing scales, plenty of guitarists don’t know how to use them to improvise. And with improvising, the best way to get better at it is to practice it. A lot.
The catch is that you need to practice with someone else (or a backing track). You can easily find backing tracks online. For example, this acoustic rock backing track (this video) is in the key of C major. So you could practice using the C major scale to improvise over it. You also could use the A minor pentatonic scale to improvise over it, as A is the relative minor of C.
Of course, if you live close to other musicians, practicing with them can be a lot more fun. Playing in live settings can do a whole lot for both your abilities and your confidence in guitar.
1. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
Most guitar teachers ask their students to start out learning the minor pentatonic scale. This scale tends to be easier to start memorizing because there are five “boxes,” or pentatonic patterns. And learning this scale gives you a strong foundation as a player — the minor pentatonic is part of many blues and rock songs.
Some resources recommend learning the minor pentatonic scale in a specific key or two. However, if you want to be a well-rounded and versatile player, it’s a good idea to be able to play all five minor pentatonic boxes in as many keys as you can. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Once you get a feel for the location of root notes within each box, you’ll be able to instantly know where you need to go on the fretboard.
It’s helpful to know that the five pentatonic boxes repeat as you go down the neck. After the 12th fret, they start to repeat again. Once you’re comfortable with the pentatonic boxes, you can start to connect them. This can be an especially difficult skill to master, so don’t feel bad about spending time improvising within each individual box before attempting to connect them.
Of course, learning other players’ approaches to learning the scale can support your own learning. Check out this useful video where guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe breaks down her approach to the minor pentatonic scale. If this is the first scale you’re learning, don’t give up! Your first scale is almost always going to be the most difficult to master.
But once you’re more familiar with the fretboard and with thinking in terms of scales, learning other scales should be easier.
2. The Chromatic Scale
The chromatic scale probably isn’t the most exciting one to learn on the list. However, it can help make you a better improvisational guitarist. This scale moves from one octave to another. So if you start on a low G, you would end on a G that’s an octave higher (or vice versa).
It’s not terribly interesting, but it serves the very important purpose of helping you learn the location of notes on the fretboard. Many guitarists struggle with truly understanding the fretboard — that’s why so many of us seem limited to memorized licks and chord progressions.
The chromatic scale is also helpful when it comes to learning the musical alphabet. The scale goes continually through the alphabet. So if we start on an A, it goes in this order: A, A# (or B flat), B, C, C# (or D flat), D, D# (or E flat), E, F, F# (or G flat), G, G# (or A-flat), A. If you haven’t yet learned the musical alphabet, you might be surprised to see that there are no sharps or flats between B and C or between E and F. Practicing the chromatic scale (and naming the notes as you do) can help you internalize these nuances.
So how do you actually practice the chromatic scale? As this resource shows, playing it in the open position isn’t too difficult. You play frets 1-4 one at a time on the low E string and then do the same with the A string and the D string.
Only play up to the third fret when you drop to the G string. On the B and high E strings, go back to playing frets 1-4. Especially if you’re a beginner, you can work on playing with musicality (and even building your speed) with the chromatic scale.
Though the chromatic scale isn’t the most musical on the list, it does have another use that makes it especially valuable — it’s a great warm-up tool or dexterity exercise. Playing the chromatic scale serves as a warmup for your right and left hands. And if you ever struggle with coordinating your hands, running through the chromatic scale a few times each day should help you improve.
3. The Blues Scale
Remember when we said that learning scales gets easier after you master the minor pentatonic scale? That holds especially true with the blues scale. In fact, the blues scale is identical to the minor pentatonic scale except for one thing — it includes a flattened fifth.
The flattened fifth can add considerable tension to a piece. Don’t think that you only need to learn this scale if you’re a blues player, though. After all, rock and later styles of music arose from blues.
Once you have a handle on the minor pentatonic, it’s a good idea to work on the blues scale. This scale is a great intermediary before you start jumping into the more complex patterns of the major scale and its modes. It lets you practice adding one more note to a pentatonic before you start practicing scales that usually incorporate three notes per string.
Although there’s only one note of the difference between the blues scale and the minor pentatonic scale, the flattened fifth has a noticeable impact on the scale’s overall feel. This great video lesson (below left) takes you through both the blues scale and the minor pentatonic scale.
It’s important to note that the tonic of each pattern in both the minor pentatonic and blues scales is exactly the same — the flattened fifth added to each one is truly the only thing that changes.
The blues scale can be a lot of fun to play once you’re reasonably comfortable with it. You can technically play it over any type of music, but playing over 12-bar blues is where the blues scale really shines. Even if the phrase “12-bar blues” is unfamiliar to you, you’ve almost certainly heard this shuffle-like rhythm in blues or old rock songs.
Check out this helpful 12-bar blues backing track (video above right) in the key of A. Once you’re ready to start improvising with the blues scale, this jam track (and other 12-bar blues tracks) are a lot of fun to play with!
4. The Major Pentatonic Scale
Depending on the exact guitar program you follow, you may have been asked to learn the major pentatonic scale before the minor pentatonic. But just learning the difference between the two can be a challenge at first. After all, when you look at scale diagrams of each, the notes look the same.
That’s because they are! The difference between the major and minor pentatonic scale changes depending on what key it’s being played relative to. The primary pitch of the scale you’re using is called the tonic. This is the same concept as a root note in a chord.
The concept of the major and minor pentatonic scale having the same patterns can still be a bit confusing, but understanding the concept of relative minors can help. Every major scale has a relative minor scale. The relative minor scale will have the exact same notes. They just resolve in different places. As an example, the relative minor of the C major scale is A minor. So we know that the C major pentatonic scale is the same as the A minor pentatonic scale. So how do we know what to call it?
If you are playing the scale over a chord progression that’s mostly C major, you would call it the C major pentatonic scale. But if it’s being used over a mostly A minor progression, it would be the Am pentatonic scale. Sometimes, it can be clearer to hear something explained in video form — this video lesson tackles the difference between major and minor pentatonic scales.
The real challenge here is understanding and remembering where the tonic is when playing over a major or a minor chord. This can take some time to learn. But the good news is that plenty of guitarists — even accomplished players — primarily work within the pentatonic scales. That’s not to say you shouldn’t learn more, but mastering both the minor and major pentatonic scales is a huge accomplishment.
5. The Major Scale (The Ionian Mode)
Some music teachers view the pentatonic scales as being what are effectively skeletal forms of the major scale. And even though the major scale looks like a real challenge, it’s well worth the time it takes to understand. When you have a grasp of the major scale, you’ll have a much better understanding of music theory.
The major scale differs from the chromatic scale in that it only includes 7 notes instead of the 12. So the C major scale would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The major scale can be played in several different modes, some of which you may have heard of.
The Ionian mode is the first mode of the major scale, and the names “Ionian mode” and “major scale” can be used interchangeably. The Ionian mode/major scale can also be played in different keys using patterns similar to those used for the pentatonic scales. Check out this video lesson for a demo and an introduction to playing this useful scale.
6. The Mixolydian Mode
The Mixolydian mode is another of the modes of the major scale — specifically, the fifth one. And just like with the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale, the Mixolydian mode is very similar to the Ionian mode. However, the Mixolydian mode has a minor (flattened) seventh note, giving it a blues-influenced feel.
It’s commonly used in jazz, blues, and even pop songs. Like the Ionian mode of the major scale, the Mixolydian mode is more complex than the pentatonic scale. This website lets you get a look at the fretboard diagram for playing the Mixolydian modal scale in the key of G. For a visual guide to playing this modal scale on the guitar, check out this video lesson.
7. The Natural Minor Scale (The Aeolian Mode)
Not to be confused with the minor pentatonic scale, the natural minor scale (also known as the Aeolian mode) is one of the most commonly-used scales in rock and pop music, but you can also find it used in a decent portion of metal music.
It has a character that’s less distinct than that of the Mixolydian or minor pentatonic scales, but that also makes it a highly versatile scale. To get the natural minor scale, you simply take the major scale and start it at the sixth degree.
It’s worth noting that the natural minor scale is the easiest of the three main minor scales: the other two are the harmonic minor and melodic minor.
Like the major scales, the natural minor scale involves five different patterns. However, those patterns are somewhat more complicated. This video lesson shows you some iconic rock and metal riffs that were largely built around the melodic minor scale. Let those riffs inspire you to dive into this remarkable scale!
8. The Melodic Minor Scale
Minor scales bring a dark yet nuanced character to just about any style of music. And among the minor scales, the melodic minor is one of the most versatile. However, it isn’t typically used in your standard pop song. But if you’re ready to make your playing especially expressive, this is a great scale to add. The melodic minor scale also has the advantage of being compatible with a wide range of chord types.
It will work with dominant seventh chords, minor seventh chords, and more. As this video lesson teaches, the melodic minor scale only differs from the major scale by one note. It has a flattened (minor) third.
That flattened third is largely responsible for its somewhat dark sound. It can sound downright eerie and unsettling depending on how you use the scale. So how do you start learning it? Like most scale types, the melodic minor scale has seven patterns you’ll need to master. This sample guitar lesson shows them to you.
As a general disclaimer — if you’re looking for new scales to add to your repertoire, make sure you have a thorough knowledge of the pentatonic and major scales (or at least the major scale) and how to use them. Many of the melodic minor patterns have three notes per string, and that can make it harder to improvise with them and/or to connect patterns.
Need Some Help?
Even if you do learn to play some of the guitar scales on your own, you may find that moving from scales to improvising on the fretboard is a real challenge. That’s where experienced instructors come in. And you don’t even need to leave your home to get top-quality instruction! Signing up for an online guitar course (or several) can make a big difference in your playing and keep you moving forward.
We hope that now you have a better idea of where to start with learning (or continuing to learn) guitar scales. Do you have any valuable insights? Is there a scale we left out? Please tell us in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!