You’ve developed a basic understanding of major scales, but have yet to get them completely under your fingers across the neck—or apply what you’ve learned toward the natural minor scale.
Study the major scales in each position, then use that knowledge to systematically approach the minor scale.
This lesson expands on last month’s introduction to the major scale, which is a great foundation for understanding and learning every other mode. Your mission was to take the concepts discussed and discover your own scalar shapes. If you haven’t done this already, I can’t stress enough how helpful the process is. Having the shapes be an outgrowth of your understanding ensures a host of benefits: You strengthen your knowledge of the fretboard and put it to practical use, you reinforce your understanding of major scales through having to form them, and you develop the ability to reconstruct scales and shapes on the fly through your grasp of the theory.
We live in an era that places a premium on immediate gratification, which can be detrimental to deeper learning. Let me invoke your patience. After all, if you’re going to spend any time learning scales, why not really learn them? Why not own them? In the long run it’ll be a much better use of your time than glossing over an opportunity to grow as a musician.
Check in With the Major Scales
After all the cautionary words about why you should figure these out for yourself, Example 1 shows some useful fingerings for the major scale. Remember: 1 = first (index) finger, 2 = second (middle), 3 = third (ring),
4 = fourth (pinky), and 0 = open string. Use these fingerings as a reference to compare with your independent study.
As you go through each pattern, don’t let your mind get lazy and lapse into purely mechanical thinking. Really know each note and how it relates to the scale. Play the patterns descending as well as ascending. Isolate sections and create melodic lines within them. Jump between scale degrees and strings.
See the Connections
The beauty of being familiar with both the theory and the fretboard is that you’ll be eligible for a 12-for-the-price-of-one deal: Learn the fingerings for C major, and you’ll know all 12 keys. All the scale shapes (with the exception of the first shape, in open position) are moveable; in any other major key, these same patterns will apply. You’ll just have to transpose them, reorienting around your new key center. Example 2 uses the F major scale to get you started with this concept. First, find the notes in F major by applying the pattern of half and whole steps (W W H W W W H) to get the following note collection: F G A Bb C D E F.
Then go to the F on the first fret of the E string and spell out the scale. Does it look familiar? Compare it to C major starting on C of the E string. This is your form for a major scale starting with the root on the E string. Now try it starting on the second degree (G), as shown in bars 3–4 of Ex. 2, and then moving up the fretboard (not shown in notation). As you connect the F major scale in various positions, you should find that you already know the shapes.
Want to play an A major scale starting on the root? No problem. Find the A on your E string, use the major scale fingering you now know, and there you go. In looking at scales this way, I would strongly urge you to resist the temptation to think exclusively in terms of finger patterns. Instead, maintain active focus by saying the notes aloud as you play them. Skip between notes, deepening your knowledge of both the scale and fretboard. And always remember to engage your ear by really hearing what each note sounds like within the context of the key.
Know Your Key Signatures
As you start exploring keys with more sharps and flats, you’ll see why key signatures are so useful. In conventional notation, a key signature is displayed at the beginning of each staff of music, just to the right of the clef and to the left of the time signature. A key signature indicates which notes are to have sharps or flats, unless otherwise indicated with an accidental (sharp or #; flat or b, or natural or n sign). Key signatures alleviate the burden of needing to input every sharp or flat inherent to a given key, and also allow you to easily identify the key of a piece.
Figure 1 shows the various sharp and flat key signatures, both major and minor. Notice that for every major key, there is a minor key with the same key signature. That is not to be confused with being the same key—they each have their own tonal center and associated chord progressions (more on that in a future lesson), but the fact that they share all the same notes makes them relative keys.
Here’s a quick way to know which major key is associated with a key signature: For sharp keys, the key is a half-step up from the last sharp. So if the last sharp in the key signature is C#, go up a half step to get the key of D major. For flat keys, the key is the second to the last flat. Using this method, the only two key signatures you have to memorize outright are C major (no sharps or flats) and F major (one flat).
Get Into the Minor Mode
Just as the characteristic sound of the major scale comes from its pattern of half and whole steps, so does that of the natural minor scale, often called just the minor scale. In this scale, the half steps occur between degrees 2–3 and 5–6. So if you start on A, you get A B C D E F G A. Look like the same notes of any other scale you know? No sharps or flats means it shares the same notes as C major, which is the relative major of A minor. With that big clue to fuel you, I encourage you to work out the minor scales the same way you approached the major scales—you should now be able to get started on your own. We will add one slight variation to tune your ear: play the tonic minor chord before and after each scale. This will help you hear the minor key, rather than the relative major.
The process is laid out below.
1. Pick a scale—start with A minor.
2. Write down the scale pattern with scale degree numbers and corresponding half and whole steps. Then input the note names above each scale degree.
3. Transfer the note names to notation on a standard staff. The Acoustic Guitar Notation Guide, available as a free PDF download at store.acousticguitar.com/collections/freebies, includes a blank, printable sheet of staff paper if you need one.
4. Grab your guitar and play an A minor chord. Then, starting on the low E string, map out all of the notes in the A minor scale in the open position using two or three notes per string. End by playing an A minor chord again.
5. Once you’re sure of the notes, find comfortable fingerings.
6. Move up to the next note in the scale—in this case, the sixth scale degree of A minor, the first-fret F on string 6. With your first finger on F, go through the notes of the scale across the strings, again using two or three notes per string, and no open strings.
7. Continue to find the patterns starting on each note of the scale, moving up the neck so you cover each position. Notice how they are the same patterns as the C major scale, but with a different tonal center: What was C major starting on the sixth scale degree now becomes the A minor scale starting on the root, and what was C major starting on the root is A minor starting on the third.
If, as you diligently familiarize yourself with the minor-scale shapes, you find yourself considering throwing in the towel and sneaking a peek at fingerings or shapes someone else has worked out for you, turn to this proverb for strength: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”
Put in the time and mental effort and devote your attention to the task at hand. It will be well worth it.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!