Video Lesson: How to Use the Whole-Tone Scale

The scale is known for its ambiguous, dreamlike quality and has been used to great effect by composers such as Claude Debussy and jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk.

One of the most interesting scales to play on guitar is the whole-tone: a symmetrical collection of six notes, in which each pitch is a whole-tone (major second) apart. The scale is known for its ambiguous, dreamlike quality and has been used to great effect by composers such as Claude Debussy and jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk.

The whole-tone scale might not appear too frequently in roots music like blues, folk, and country, but it’s great to have at your fingertips. In this Weekly Workout, you’ll learn how to visualize the scale on the fretboard and get it under your fingers—and, most important, how to use the scale in context.

Weeks One and Two

Example 1 depicts the scale ascending and descending in one octave, starting on the open first string. Play this example using any fretting finger. Notice that, due to the scale’s symmetry, all of the notes are two frets apart—an easy way to remember how it’s built. Move everything in Ex. 1 up by one fret, from the first- to the 13th-fret F, and you will have played all of the whole-tone scales. As opposed to scales like major and natural minor, there are essentially only two different whole-tone scales—again, due to the symmetrical construction.


Example 2 shows you one way of playing the whole-tone scale across the fingerboard, rather than on a single string. It might be harder to visualize the scale this way, but it’s more efficient on the fretting hand, especially if you use the fingerings suggested here. Example 3 mixes things up a bit by arranging the scale in pairs of thirds, and Example 4 kicks it up a notch by grouping it in a series of eighth-note triplets. Practice these exercises slowly while getting them into your muscle memory—and while soaking in the sound of the whole-tone scale. Play the patterns up and down the fretboard, and, for extra credit, try coming up with your own fingerings, for example, four notes per string.

Beginners’ Tip #1
Learn to visualize the whole-tone scale up and down the fretboard, as well as across it

Beginners’ Tip #2
Be sure to get the sound of the whole-tone scale—dreamlike and without a tonal center—in your head. Listen for examples in the work of Claude Debussy, Thelonious Monk, and others.


Weeks Three and Four

Now that you understand how the whole-tone scale is built, play around with harmonies derived from the scale. In Example 5a, play each double stop with either your first and second, second and third, or third and fourth fingers—or, better yet, all three groupings. Examples 5b and c show you how to play
Ex. 5a on different strings sets. The fingerings here are just suggestions, so feel free to experiment to see what feels most natural for you. If you stack notes within the major or natural minor scale in thirds, you get three different triad types: major, minor, and diminished. But since the whole-tone scale is built only from whole steps, chords derived from the scale are all augmented, as shown in the three- and four-note voicings in Examples 6 and 7. Remember, keep your fingers close to the fingerboard and use as little movement when switching between these chords.


Though it might at first sound strange, you can easily apply the whole-tone scale to some familiar contexts, like the blues. Example 8 is a 12-bar blues in the guitar-friendly key of E. Check out how the scale changes whenever the chord does. Bar 1 (I chord) contains the first five notes of the whole-tone scale starting on E, while bar 2 (IV chord) does the same, starting on A. Now try using the whole-tone scale as a warm-up exercise, and also in your own tunes and solos.

Beginners’ Tip #3
You can play the whole-tone scale on any chord with a major third—a major triad, dominant-seventh chord, major-seventh chord, etc. Choose the whole tone scale starting on the root or third of the chord.

Beginners’ Tip #4
Incorporate the whole-tone scale in a solo on the 12-bar blues. Remember to start the scale on the root of each chord.



Take it to the next level

Here’s a personal favorite whole-tone idea, where I add chromatic passing notes for a jazzy sound. For instance, in bar 1 the C# connects the notes C and D, and the D# bridges D and E. Play this using only your first, second, and third fretting fingers, and use alternate picking. Then, experiment with approach and chromatic passing tones on your own.


This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Ron Jackson
Ron Jackson

New York City-based jazz guitarist Ron Jackson has performed and recorded in over 30 countries, with artists such as Taj Majal, Jimmy McGriff, and Ron Carter.

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