Scales for the Acoustic Guitar

March 7th, 2010

Despite what some may say, the acoustic guitar is still alive and well. Sure, it may seem like 75% of the guitar content online is related to the electric guitar, however the acoustic guitar still have a special niche audience. Several of the beginner guitar lessons and information posted online can cross-over regardless of whether you play on electric or acoustic guitar. However, there are a few minor differences (JamPlay and Jamorama both do a very nice job of explaining the differences).

A question that is commonly asked about acoustic guitars is what guitar scales are suited for the beginner player?

The best way to understand musical scales is to learn them in the context of keys. Learning the keys will allow you to see how everything works and fits together in this special little universe we call music. The most popular musical scale for beginners to learn is called the pentatonic scale.  The pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five pitches per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale. The scale is very popular and widely used in pop music, rock music and especially in blues.

Major Pentatonic Scale

The shape of the scale is symmetric, and therefore very easy to visualize. Anhemitonic pentatonic scales, do not contain semitones and can be constructed in many ways. One example of the scale takes five consecutive pitches from the circle of fifths; starting on C, these are C, G, D, A, and E. Transposing the pitches to fit into one octave rearranges the pitches into the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, A, C. This common scale is found in the opening bars of “My Girl” by The Temptations.

C major pentatonic scale

Another construction works backward: It omits two pitches from a diatonic scale. If we were to begin with a C major scale, for example, we might omit the fourth and the seventh scale degrees, F and B. The remaining notes, C, D, E, G, and A, are transpositionally equivalent to the black keys on a piano keyboard: G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat, and E-flat.

G-flat major pentatonic scale

Omitting the third and seventh degrees of the C major scale obtains the notes for another transpositionally equivalent anhemitonic pentatonic scale: {F,G,A,C,D}. Omitting the first and fourth degrees of the C major scale gives a third anhemitonic pentatonic scale: {G,A,B,D,E}.

Minor Pentatonic Scale

Although various hemitonic pentatonic scales might be called minor, the term is most commonly applied to the relative minor pentatonic derived from the major pentatonic, using scale tones 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the natural minor scale. The C minor pentatonic would be C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat. The A minor pentatonic, the relative minor of C, would be the same tones as C major pentatonic, starting on A, giving A, C, D, E, G. This minor pentatonic contains all three tones of an A minor triad.

A minor pentatonic scale

Songs on the minor pentatonic scale include the popular Canadian folk song “Land of the Silver Birch”. Because of their simplicity, pentatonic scales are often used to introduce children to music.

As with all scales, you must first practise slowly and then gradually progress after you have memorised the scale. If you find that acoustic guitar scales are difficult and quite challenging at first, please understand that learning acoustic guitar scales are challenging and difficult in the early stages, but become entirely normal over time. You are trying to unlock the ability to express yourself musically through a scale and this process is always a challenge at first.

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Other Acoustic Guitar Scales recommended for beginners: The Major Scale, Harmonic Minor, and Melodic Minor

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