For this week’s lesson, we’ll learn seven scale patterns that will help you play in any key, anywhere on the fretboard. These scales can also help you learn every note on the guitar.
This lesson is great for beginning guitarists. I learned these scale patterns during high school and they quite literally changed the way I looked at the guitar as a musical instrument. Much thanks is due to my teacher from those days, St. Louis guitarist Dan Rubright.
What are Modes?
Some types of scales are referred to as “modes,” an ambiguous term for a collection of scales with funny names. While there is plenty of history behind these things, we’re going to take a very simple approach to understanding modes. If you are familiar with modes, feel free to skip this section.
Anybody familiar with western music–rock, pop, classical, etc.–knows the sound of the major scale. That’s the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do we learned in elementary school or from watching The Sound of Music. The major scale has seven notes, and they’re separated by either whole steps or half steps.
Instead of using the Do-Re-Mi syllables, let’s call each note a scale degree. In a C major scale, C is the 1st scale degree, D is the 2nd scale degree, G is the 5th, etc. If you play a C major scale starting and ending on D, you are actually playing the 2nd mode of the major scale, known as Dorian.
In this lesson we’ll learn a scale pattern starting on each scale degree, therefore learning the seven modes at the same time. The names of the modes are: 1) Ionian, 2) Dorian, 3) Phrygian, 4) Lydian, 5) Mixolydian, 6) Aeolian, 7) Locrian.
Note that the names of the modes correspond with scale degrees and not specific pitches. The Dorian mode will always start on the 2nd scale degree. In the key of F, Dorian starts on G. In the key of Bb, Dorian starts on C.
The Scale Patterns
The patterns are written out in the key of F. This is simply because the lowest note on the guitar that isn’t an open string is F.
Click on any of the images below for a larger, easier to read size.
I’ve written these scales out using standard notation, TAB, and with fretboard diagrams. Between the standard notation and TAB you’ll find fingerings. Your pointer finger = 1, your pinky = 4. Make sure you always use the same fingers as that will make transitioning to different keys much easier.
A few other points:
The seven scale patterns use no open strings. This means you can shift them up and down the neck to change keys, always playing the same patterns.
Hold your position. You will always stay within a 5-fret range on the neck. The shifting occurs when you go to the next pattern.
Pay attention to the “shared” notes on the fretboard from one pattern to the next. When looking at the fretboard diagrams, notice how two rows of dots could overlay on the adjacent scale.
Finally, here’s a video with some additional explanation of these scales, and a demonstration of all 7 patterns being played. To skip the chatter and just watch me play the scales, skip ahead to about 3 minutes.
Practicing Your Scales
Your first goal is to simply learn all of these patterns as written in the key of F. Use a metronome and start slowly. Once you can play the scales straight up and down, apply the patterns on page 3 of the PDF.
These patterns will help you learn where every note is on the guitar if you say the name of each note as you go along. Since these are written out in the key of F, you’ll start with: F, G, A, Bb (flat), C, D, E, F… over and over until you reach the top. The Dorian scale starts with G, Phrygian with A, and so on.
A few tips:
Always make sure you know the accidentals in each key and say “sharp” or “flat” when appropriate.
Focus on memorizing one note at a time, such as the root. For example, as you practice in F, learn where F is all over the fretboard. Print out the fretboard diagrams and circle all the roots if it would help.
Pay attention to the shapes on the fretboard created by octaves of the same note. Eventually you’ll start recognizing shape of many different intervals.
Once you’ve got the key of F under your fingers, the next step is to learn the patterns in different keys. The most practical approach is to go in the circle of 4ths or 5ths, learning closely related keys such as Bb, the next key in the circle of 4ths, or C, the next key in the circle of 5ths.
To know which mode/scale pattern to play first, figure out where F falls in the new key. Remember, we’re not using any open strings so we always start on the low F.
For example, in the key of Bb, F is the 5th scale degree (Bb, C, D, Eb, F). Therefore you would play the scale pattern of the 5th mode, Mixolydian, starting on the low F. Continue through the order of these scales, going back to Ionian after Locrian.
In the keys G, D, A, E, and B you’ll actually start on the second fret, or F#, because those keys do not use F natural.
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Cameron Mizell is a freelance guitarist, music teacher, and musicians' advocate, in Brooklyn, NY. He performs frequently in NYC with a wide variety of ensembles. When not playing guitar, he writes for MusicianWages.com, a website about musician careers he co-founded in 2008.