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Music Theory for Guitar - Introduction to scales

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Lesson 1 - Introduction to Scales

Scale-stairThis is an introduction to the musical concept of a scale, not on how to play scales. Some time in the future I will write some lessons on how to play scales.

The word scale is derived from Italian, and means stair. I tend to think of it more as a ladder than a stair, but they are both climbing devices with steps. The scale is a climbing series of notes. It is the series of notes that climbs from one note to the note one octave above, which is when the notes start to repeat themselves. In purely physical terms, the note one octave above has the double frequency of the one below. If we start from the standard A of a tuning fork, is swings with 440 Hz (swings per second). The note one octave above is another A, with the frequency 880 Hz, and the note one octave below is 220 Hz.

The scale divide the octave into various steps. It is divided into 12 equal steps. These steps are labeled half steps. On your guitar, one step is one fret. If you play one of the strings from open string, and go up one fret at a time up to 12th fret, then you have played every half step up one octave. But you will notice that this does not sound very musical. This is the Chromatic scale. Chromatic is derived from color, but the scale does not sound very colourful.

We could divide the scale into six equal whole-steps, which will give the whole note scale. I does not sound more musical. What makes the scale interesting, is that it is not divided into equal steps.

Having said that: In contemporary music one can hear both the chromatic 12-tone scale and the 6-tone whole note scale. But we will not look into how to apply these scales.

Major-stairThe major scale consists of five whole steps and two half steps. The sequence is You would probably not pay you carpenter if he made the stairs in your house like a major scale. But we are going to play these stairs, not walk them. It is this combination of whole steps and half steps that gives the scale it's character. If we lay it out horizontally, it will be like this:

It has whole step - whole step - half step - whole step - whole step whole step - half step.

You should also know the scale degrees expressed in numbers. The root - the C in a C-scale, is 1. Then the rest is simple counting: D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7 and the high C=8, and at the same time 1 of the next scale starting from this note. ("The stair to the next floor"). We use this numbering when naming intervals intervals, chord degrees, etc. So you better learn them.

Notice the half steps, and listen to their effect.

Finally we can look at the C-major scale in notation and tab:

C-major

If you do not read standard notation. Notice the simple logic of the notation of the scale: One step up in the "grid" for each step of the scale.

There are many more scales, not only the major, and of course not only the C-major. But we will come back to that later.

As a guitar player, you should learn to play and practise scales in all keys an over the entire fingerboard. This mechanics of guitar playing is covered in my series Navigating the fretboard, a series I will suggest that you work with in parallel with these theory lessons. [This is a series that is still in the old section of my site.]

Some General Scales - books

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Basix! Scales And Modes For Guitar (Book & Cd)
This book is a fast and fun way to learn how to use scales and modes from day one, and provides a strong foundation upon which to build. Contains 14 essential scales and modes, licks in the styles of famous guitarists, and guitar TAB, neck position and standard music notation. The CD includes accompaniments for songs and exercises.
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Go here for full list of General Scales books

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Modes Demystified
Unlock the secrets to turn scales and modes into amazing solos! Designed for all skill levels by renowned guitarist John McCarthy, This program starts with learning Major Scale Theory and how to play the Major scale in every key. Easily find the relative Minor key for each Major scale and create master charts that are the source of leads, chord progressions and songs.
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Guitar Grimoire-Scales/Modes-DVD
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Ultimate Guitar Techniques - Scale Shapes
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