Some of you beginning guitarists may have the misconception that guitar playing is all about chords. The reality is that knowing and playing chords is only half of it. The other half is knowing your scales. Why? Let me explain…
Scales really are the backbone, or DNA, to everything in music. Scales are used for melodies, improvising and forming chords. That’s right, scales are the fundamental elements for chords. You may have thought up until now that chords are just random notes that sound good together. The reality is that chords are very specific notes that are pulled from scales. Take a look below to see for yourself.
Let’s take a look at the C major scale, in open position:
Now let’s look at all of the chords that come from the C major scale. As you look at these pictures, notice that the notes are taken directly from the scale. The blue dots are the notes in the chord. The faded orange dots are the notes in the C major scale.
Hopefully, this illustrates how scales really are the DNA of chords. What I did above can be applied in all keys.
But that isn’t the only reason to know scales. As guitarists, we have two responsibilities: we have to be able to play melodies and harmonies. In a very basic sense, we play melodies with scales and we play harmonies with chords. Most songs require the guitarist to play a sequence of individual notes as well as a sequence of chords. Understanding which key the sequence of notes is coming from is an important part of really understanding the song you’re playing.
Lastly, if you want to improvise — i.e., play a solo — knowing scales is a must. To improvise really means to create a melody off the top of your head. As I mentioned earlier, melodies are played with scales. But you can’t use just any scale. You have to use the scale that matches the harmony, or chord, that is accompanying you at the moment.
So learn your scales. They’re everywhere. In your melodies, in your harmonies, in your solos and in your head every time you whistle a tune. I suggest starting with the C major scale shown above. From there, learn a pentatonic scale. That gives me an idea for my next post…
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