Updated: Jun 18, 2018
A big part of learning guitar is learning things in the right order. A beginner looking to learn Jimi Hendrix songs should not be dissuaded from doing so but would do well to be guided towards it through learning and mastering easier pieces first and developing the techniques and understanding in other ways. It would make the whole process much easier. Believe me as I've been there...
A big part of understanding music and guitar playing is the use of scales. Scales are a collection of notes that give a certain sound when played in a certain way. From scales you can create chords, harmony, melody and build your understanding upward from there. In western music (i.e. music that originated from Europe and places where Europeans have colonised and conquered) the major scale is seen as the ultimate starting point for this. Here is an example of a 2 octave major scale that is commonly used in when teaching guitar.
This scale in itself is quite complicated with 15 notes over 6 strings crammed into the space of 4 frets. To an experienced guitar player then this shouldn't present a problem to use to create melodies, chords etc.. but to the beginner, someone who is simply just starting out learning about scales and wants to be able to use them to make and enhance their understanding of music it's a little daunting.
So, I present (in my humble opinion) the most useful scale you will ever need for guitar, the minor pentatonic scale.
This should not be much of a revelation for some, knowing that this scale is quite commonly used. It's the basis for blues, rock, some jazz and country and it's sound is quite well known. Why is it such a big deal and why is it so important? Firstly there is an incredible wealth of music written for guitar that is already based on this scale and the selection of notes that it brings. Shakin' All Over, Rumble, Born Under A Bad Sign, Sunshine Of Your Love, Whole Lotta Love, Black Night, Iron Man.... the list of riffs that use this scale goes on, not to mention of course the countless classic guitar solos that have been played using this scale.
Needless to say as a reference point for guitar players the minor pentatonic scale is very useful. However it is more than this and can be used as a stepping stone to learning about scales as a whole.
To make use of this we need to take a small detour from our learning and look at the concept of intervals. An interval is how a note sounds in relation to another. Therefore it gives you information about the sound of the note in question in context. The note itself is just a note, a sound, a specific frequency. But if you have notes played together or in a sequence you can begin to hear their relevence and importance and, most importantly, if they produce a sound that you like. Here's an example that you will have probably come across before.
As you probably know, this is a chord box for a D major chord. The fretted notes are marked with numbers (please ignore the triangle and the 'p' for the moment). These numbers are the intervals. The 'R' indicated a root note which we will come onto in a moment. These intervals refer back to the 7 note scale system that is the basis for western music. The root note is always the reference note and the rest follow in succession; 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th. In the case of the D chord above you can see that the notes are made of the Root, 3rd and 5th. This is a very common pattern in music and you can always expect major and minor chords to be made of these pattern of intervals.
More advanced musicians will know the difference between major and minor chords. We will touch on this later.
Here is an example of another chord, this time a barre chord.
Again you can see the common occurences of intervals this time with the Root and 5th happening in multiple places.
Intervals are important for guitar players, and indeed any stringed instrument because they give you a way of identifying sounds. I would go as far as to say that learning intervals is more important to guitar players than learning the note names.
Disclaimer! I am not saying don't learn the note names on the guitar. Learning note names is vitally important for your development in ways that I won't go into in this article. If you were a pianist for example, it's very easy to learn the names of the notes because there is a strong visual reference to help you in the form of black and white keys. For guitarist we have a bit of wood with some frets and strings (feel for the poor violin player who has no frets!).
However this can be an advantage (as an ex student of the piano I know this well). When it comes to learning chords on a piano the piano player must learn the notes needed for those chords. As a guitarist all we need to do is to move the chord shape up and down the neck till. In the example of the barre chord above the guitarist can use it to play any major chord (ask Johnny Ramone). Yes you do need to know the note names in order to reference the chord but only on the thick E string rather than on every string. The pattern of notes in the chord stays the same.
The same is true for scales. Using the minor pentatonic scale you can move this shape around the neck and always get the same sort of sound, albeit with a different reference (or Root) note. This means that you can recreate the sound of this widely used scale anywhere. For example, here is Sunshine Of Your Love in it's original key.
Also, here is the scale pattern that it's used for, the lighter dots representing the notes that are used and a diamond shape representing a passing note that is not part of the scale but is still used but sounds good anyway.
There are of course 4 other positions of this chord that you can use so that you can play a scale in a single key all the way up the neck.
The mish mash of dots above can look very daunting at first and I must stress that you don't need to learn all of these right away. However by looking carefully you can see that one scale shape leads on to another. For example the 1st position which has it's root note on the 3rd fret has it's higher frets on the 5th and 6th frets. The second position starts on the 5th and 6th frets with the same pattern of notes that the 1st position finishes with. The diagram below shoes all the smaller scale patterns joined together in this way.
It's also worth noting a few other things too.
All the root notes (red dots marked with an R) are all the same note, in this case the notes marked in this scale set are G.
The interval set used in the scale set are all the same: R 3 4 5 and 7
This means that if the root notes are the same note then the intervals used in different scale shapes are also the same, e.g. a 3rd is a B flat note and this will also be a B flat note in every other shape.
Therefore, all the diagrams above give the same sound and give a way of creating the sound of the scale all over the neck.
Grab a guitar and let's take the example of Sunshine Of Your Love. This time we'll play the riff in G. Therefore we'll use the same first position shape that we played earlier but it will be found at the 3rd fret rather than at the 10th fret as in the original way the song is played.
By playing this you can hear that the riff sounds the same Not with identical notes but with an identical pattern of intervals that replicate the sound of the original riff but in a new key. Next let's work out the pattern of intervals used to make this riff.
R R 7 R - 5 f5 4 - R 3 R
So, you can see that the riff uses the above set pattern of intervals. A couple of things that are worth mentioning as the text above doesn't explain is that the riff starts high in pitch and moves down so that the Root notes at the start are higher pitched versions of the ones used at the end.
Let's now take a the riff and use it to explore another scale shape. As we now have an idea of what intervals are present in the riff we can replicate it in another part of the neck in another scale pattern. Let's look at the 4th minor pentatonic scale shape.
You can take the same pattern of intervals and create the same tune.
All of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to be able to play anything you like anywhere on the neck. True that this does take a bit of time, practice, persistence and most importantly patience but you can soon begin to apply this to your playing.
So, to summarise......
Learn your minor pentatonic scale positions
Learn the locations of the root notes in those scales
Learn the pattern of intervals in the minor pentatonic scale
Take a riff that you know well in the first position, figure out the intervals in it and then work out in a new position on the neck.
In the next article I'll talk about how you can turn the minor pentatonic into a major pentatonic for added versatility and fun!