Chord / Scale Relationships


Once you have developed a basic understanding of chord theory, we can begin to explore the relationships between chords and scales. Understanding how scales relate to chords is the basis behind improvisation. When improvising over a group of chords there are a few considerations. The first thing we need to ask ourselves is what key are the chords in? Are all of the chords in the same key allowing us to solo with one scale? Or are there chords from a number of different keys? Since there is often more than one scale choice for a given chord progression, next we think of the type of sound we wish to create in a solo and make scale choices based on that. Beyond that, consider the movement from chord to chord. Often, it is possible to enhance the motion of a chord sequence by choosing scales that function within the chords. In this lesson, we’ll begin looking at how chords and scales relate. Like chords, scales are either major, minor or dominant. First, we’ll look at the these scales and explore some ways to play them. Later, we’ll expand on this and work on ways to enhance the sounds of the chords rather than just to “survive” our way through the changes. Scales follow the same rules for construction as chords. Like chords, major and dominant scales have a natural 3rd. and minor scales have a b3rd..

  Pictured below is a pentatonic scale. This scale is very often the first and last scale guitar players learn. To blues players everywhere, this scale is the holy grail of scales; however, it is often misunderstood. It has only five notes which define it as major or minor but can serve as the foundation for even the loftiest of musical concepts.
  Major Pentatonic Scale Pattern
  Major Pentatonic Scale Construction
  This is a pentatonic scale (penta=five, tonic=notes). A pentatonic scale has all the elements necessary to define a scale as major or minor but lacks the two notes which would define it further. Every guitarist should know this pattern. Playing it should be effortless.
  Major Pentatonic Scale

As shown, the notes which make up the C major Pentatonic scale are: C, D, E, G, and A. Marking all of these notes on the fingerboard in the 5th. position gives us the pentatonic scale pattern pictured above. This pattern is very useful as it may be used as a skeleton for many other scales. This will help in the memorization of the scales presented in other lessons. It is sometimes helpful to remember a scale’s usage by which finger plays the root note. In this example, the note C is played by the fourth finger.

Using Specific Fingers For Scale Placement

In the pentatonic scale we’ve learned, the fourth finger plays the root. In many of the other lessons, major scales will also be played from the fourth finger. Although there are many ways to play any scale, the first concern is learning the sound and function of the scale rather than memorizing fingering charts. For this reason, only one possibility is presented for now. Pay close attention to the sound of the scale and how it relates to certain chords.

  Major Pentatonic Intervals
  This interval of a major third appears in this pattern above the root. Since it is the third interval (natural or flat) which determines whether the scale is major or minor, the above scale is C major pentatonic. Whichever note the fourth finger is on, on the 6th string, is the root and determines which major pentatonic scale we are playing. If, for example, the chord is A major and we want to solo using the A major Pentatonic scale, Slide the scale pattern down (toward the guitar’s headstock) four frets until the fourth finger is on A. In this way, one pattern may be used to play over any major chord. Scale patterns are movable in the much the same way as bar chords.


  A Major Pentatonic Scale
  Major Pentatonic Scale

The above pattern is the A major pentatonic scale. The note A is the point of reference. The natural 3rd interval above the root A determines the scale to be major. This scale will work over the A major chord. Practice by playing this pattern over different major chords moving the scale pattern to the same root note as that of the major chord.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is a minor scale which, like the major pentatonic scale, has two of the notes removed. In this case, they are the 2nd. and the 6th. degrees of the scale which are missing. In this pattern of the minor pentatonic scale, the first finger plays the root note of the scale. For the time being, It will be helpful to remember minor scales this way. Like major scales there are, of course, many ways to play the minor pentatonic scale. Using your first finger as the root reference for minor scale will help you to instantly get into position to play over any minor chord while you are still familiarizing yourself with the sound of the scale.

  Minor Pentatonic Scale Construction

Using the Pentatonic Scale

If the root of the pentatonic scale is “A” this scale is A minor because of the b3rd interval above the note “A.” When playing over an A minor chord, this is one scale which will sound good. Like chords, scale patterns are moveable, so, if the chord were C minor, we would slide the same pattern up the neck (toward the guitar body) four frets so the root is on C instead of A.

  Minor Pentatonic Scale

Practice soloing over minor chords using this pattern. Record several measures of several minor chords to tape and solo over the recorded chords. Change scales (move this pattern to the new root position) for every chord. In the absence of a tape recorder, convince a friend to play the chords for you or practice as a team, taking turns playing chords and scales. The idea here is to get used to changing scales when the chord changes and to internalize the minor sound. Notice, that when playing this pattern as a minor scale, the root note (6th string) is always played by your first finger (assuming you have a first finger and relatively good hand position). Later, we’ll take advantage of this by separating patterns into major or minor groups depending on which finger plays the root note on the 6th string.

Practice tip: There are many commercially available 4 track cassette recorders available for under $300. These allow you to record music while playing back music you’ve already recorded. They are ideal for practicing soloing allowing you to record chord changes and hear your ideas for your solos played back. As a bonus, unlike you most friends, a 4 track won’t complain about hours of constant practice.



Fourth Finger = Major

For the purpose of becoming familiar with their sound, major scales will be played with the fourth finger on the root. This makes it easy to play major scales by eliminating much of the memorization usually associated with learning scales.

  C Major and F Major Pentatonic Scales



First Finger = Minor

For the time being, minor scales will be associated with your first finger playing the root. Play different minor scales by simply sliding the first finger to the root of the minor scale you want to play, then play the pattern for that scale.

  G minor and D minor Pentatonic Scales