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How to use scales

Most scales you hear in rock fall into 2 broad categories:

  • pentatonic: 5-note scales ("penta" = 5)
  • diatonic: standard 7-note ("do-re-mi...")scales *

* diatonic includes minor scales (do-re-"flat-mi"...), more commonly heard then the standard major scale, which often sounds too "happy" for rock.


It's easiest to start with the pentatonic scales:

  • most common
  • fewer notes (5, not 7)
  • commonly broken into five generally recognized "box shapes" *
  • same box shapes used for both major and minor pentatonic; only the placement is different

* everyone agrees on the standard pentatonic shapes, but this is not true for diatonic shapes; compare for example the different definitions from Guitar Grimoire, Fretboard Logic, Metal Method, etc.


What are scale shapes?

They're like chord shapes, except the notes in the shape are:

  • possible note choices (not required)
  • usually played sequentially (not simultaneously)

* Sometimes you'll see chord or scale shapes oriented vertically instead of horizontally. This should make perfect sense to you if you normally play your guitar at a 45 degree angle, pointed towards the ceiling.

chord shape: usually your fingers are on each note, and usually you're playing those notes simultaneously (at the same time). scale shape: usually your fingers are on just one note at a time (or maybe 2-3 at the most); and usually you're playing those notes sequentially (one after the other).
Often they're not moveable (above is an open D chord, for example). They can usually be moved up and down the neck, to any fret.


next: the most common scale shape