A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Scales - Part 2

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In Scales - Part 1 I introduced the chromatic scale and the pattern for the major scales. I also showed how this pattern creates the scales of C, G, D, and A. These are the most common keys in Bluegrass.

In this section, we look at two other useful scales, the minor scale and the blues scale. Armed with these, there isn't a bluegrass song you should not be equipped to tackle.

The Minor Scales

First, a formal definition and then an easier way to get there.

Remember that the pattern for a major scale is 2 wholes and a half, 3 holes and a half. One way to build a minor scale is to follow a different pattern, one that goes like this:
1 whole, 1 half, 2 wholes, 1 half, 2 wholes. If we followed such a pattern starting on E, we would get a scale that looked like this.

E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

Take a moment and play that scale. It's kind of sad and pensive. And that's what minor keys are great for. There aren't a lot of happy toe-tappers in the minors.

But you might be feeling a little put off right now. For one thing, that's a lot harder pattern to remember than 2 wholes and a half, 3 wholes and a half. And what's with suddenly being in a key of E Minor, what happened to C, G, D, A?

Good points, and there is an easier way to remember how to build a minor scale, one that lets us stay in our familiar scales of C, G, D, and A.

Do you notice anything familiar about the notes in the scale of E Minor? Here's a hint, there is only one sharp--F#. This scale has exactly the same notes that are in the key of G, except it starts and ends on E. E is the 6th note in the key of G Major and that sets up a very useful pattern:

For every major scale, there is a relative minor scale that starts on the 6th note and uses all of the same notes. So:
  • If you know the scale in the key of G Major, you also know the scale in the key of E Minor.
  • If you know the scale in the key of C Major, you also know the scale in the key of A Minor.
  • If you know the scale in the key of D Major, you also know the scale in the key of B Minor.
  • If you know the scale in the key of A Major, you also know the scale in the key of F# Minor.

Here are our four major keys and their relative minors:
C Major
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
A Minor
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A

G Major
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
E Minor
E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

D Major
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
B Minor
B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B

A Major
A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
F# Minor
F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#

I'll talk more about musical notation and key signatures in a later post, but for now I will just point out that a major scale has the same key signature as its relative minor. And that makes sense, they share the same notes (including who is sharp and who is natural).

Even if you do not play songs in these keys, knowing their scales will help you find runs in the chords of E minor, A minor, B minor, and F# minor--and these chords occur a lot in the regular keys of C, G, D, and A.

Every time I practice a scale in a major key, I practice its relative minor right afterwards. Why not? The notes are free!

The Blues Scales

Slide guitar is a natural for playing the blues. One thing that gives the blues its distinctive sound is that it uses its own scale pattern. Here is the blues scale in the key of G (I've tabbed it on the reference page for G scales):

G, Bb, C, C#, D, F, G

This is technically referred to as the blues hexatonic scale (because is has six tones--versus the major scale which has seven).
I find it easier to build this scale by thinking of how it modifies the major scale.

  • First, it flattens the 3rd and 7th notes of the major scale. B went to B flat and F sharp went to just plain F. Those two notes are the "money" notes of the blues scales. Be sure to hit those notes if you want to sound "bluesy."
  • Skip the 2nd note of the major scale.
  • Add an extra half step between the 4th and 5th note of the major scale. (BTW, if you leave this out, you get what is called the blues pentatonic scale.)
The blues hexatonic scale is easily played in G, and you should make it part of your standard practice repertoire. I include the blues scale for all the keys I practice, but the G is the one that comes up the most in jams.


  1. Michael, thank you for these helpful posts. I'm trying to wrap my classically-trained brain around these scales. The blues scale above is the G minor blues scale, right, because of the Bb? I saw somewhere that the major blues scale is: G, A, B, C#, D E (G). Can that be right?

    Thanks for your help with this.

  2. I've not come across that version of a G blues scale, Liz, so I can't say. There is a lot of commonality between the blues scale and the minor scale, because of the flatted 3rd is in both.

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