Hills District Music School Blog

Guitar lesson on scales also good for singers to understand
Posted by Gary on June 24, 2013

Guitar lessons 101 usually deals with learning the main scale used by guitarists, the pentatonic scale. It has 5 notes thus the ‘pent’ it is often referred to as the  blues scale but in it’s pure form (5 notes) it is not a blues scale, but it works great over a blues progression I, IV, V.

So there is a lot of confusion about scales out there. Here is an overview that deals with some of the reasons we should look at applications of scales (particularly the pentatonic) and how it might cause confusion. Hopefully this will inform you rather than confuse you more. If you are confused feel free to email me or ask at your next guitar or singing lesson.


‘C’ pentatonic Major scale cage patterns notes and theory


Can I use ‘A’ minor pentatonic over a ‘C’ major chord since ‘C’ is the relative major of ‘A’ minor?

The short answer is ‘not very well if you think of it as A minor and you want to sound C’.

Here is the long answer:

You may already know your pentatonic minor scales. Major scales have the same notes as their relative minor counterparts. To explain this if you’re not sure what I mean, ‘C’ pent major has the following notes (C, D, E, G, A) (1, 9[same as 2], 3, 5, 6). These are the same notes as the ‘A’ minor pentatonic, except that this time you start on ‘A’ instead of ‘C’ (A, C, D, E, G) (1, m3, 4, 5, m7).

This means you will already know the shapes on the guitar. You could theoretically, and even to a point ‘practically’, use the ‘A’ minor scale to play over ‘C’ major, but I don’t advise it!

The big question then is why learn two different scales if they are the same scale. The answer is that the use of scales is subjective and that their use depends on the harmony and the sound you want to create.

This is a ‘big’ point of confusion among many players so I’d like to explain why you need to learn both scales and be able think of them independently.

The way I see it is that the main problem is that if you’ve been playing ‘A’ minor blues or pentatonic minor scales then you are probably using these scale to play over both ‘A’ minor and ‘A’ major progressions. For example I often use ‘A’ minor pentatonic, usually adding a few blue notes [see appendix], over a major blues or I, IV, V progression and it sounds great. I also use the minor pentatonic or blues scale over a minor blues often harmonically spelt (i, iv, V) it will work over these progressions, but you have to treat some of the notes differently. Remember we are now talking about the Key of ‘A’ only, be it ‘A’ major or minor. We are not talking about ‘C’.


So I use the minor pentatonic or blues scale over both minor of major blues progressions of the same key. Lets look at the I chord in ‘A’ Major. It is spelt A, C#, E, (Bb-optional 7th) if I use the ‘A’ minor pentatonic scale I can bend the 3rd the‘C’ natural note a half step (1 fret) to match the pitch of the ‘C#’ that is the 3rd of the chord. This starting out of tune with a ‘C’ natural and bending it to a ‘C#’ creates tension and resolution using bending, sliding or hammering to do so is a typical blues attribute that you will probably want if you’re going for a blues sound.

This bending of the ‘C’ naturals becomes a habit typically and works for ‘A’ major blues very well. It will work to a point in ‘A’ minor also you could for example reverse bend from C# to C to create tension and resolution, but this is not so common.

Now the point I want to make is that if you are in the habit of thinking ‘A’ minor pentatonic and bending the ‘C’ you will continue to play these same habitual licks when playing in ‘C’ major if you still think in ‘A’ minor when in ‘C’ which many people will try to do who don’t want to learn the C pentatonic scales because they already know the ‘A’ minor pentatonic scales. You will be playing a bad sounding note to my ears if you are in ‘C’ major and you bend a ‘C’ note a half step.


Ok so that’s an example of the problems associated with thinking of a scale in a different  or relative key to the one you are playing in. This idea is the same with general modes you’ll want to think of the scale that best is associated with the harmony over which you want to play a melody or solo.

If we now think of a ‘C’ major blues the one chord is spelt (C, E, G, (Bb optional b7th) and use a ‘C’ pentatonic ‘major’ scale I get these notes (C, D, E, G, A) (1, 2, 3, 5, 6) I can bend notes of this scale to make a blues sound most commonly I can bend the ‘D’ to ‘E’ a whole step, the ‘A’ to Bb. This gives a different type of sound than before and is typically a more country sound to my ears.

Now don’t forget we can still use a ‘C’ pentatonic minor over ‘C’ major we get  (C, Eb, F, G, Bb) so you can bend the ‘Eb’ to ‘E’ and anything else you can image pretty much, but the main idea is that you can use bends of slides etc to make a note below or above a target note resolve and usually when done right you get a great effect.

The point of this explanation was to show that Playing for example in ‘C’ and think of an ‘A’ relative minor scale is not the usual practice and in my experience it is counterproductive. You can however use a ‘C’ minor or major over ‘C’ minor or major blues progressions and it will work either way if you treat (bend for example) the notes appropriately. The main aim is to think of the harmony you are playing over and try to relate the notes you’re using in the chosen scale to find an interesting and sonically pleasing way to create tensions and resolutions in your melodies and solos.

In summary it’s important to think of the key you are in so that you gravitate to the sound of that key thinking ‘A’ minor does not usually give a C major sound… So take the time to learn your minor and major pentatonic scales and play them in their root key typically until you get a feel for how to treat the notes to make the licks you like for both major and minor keys.


What is a blue note

For my purposes I think of them as an altered 3rd, 5th and 7th. Many people just think of it as a pentatonic minor scale with a note between the 4th and 5th degrees. I usually play a blues scale with all 3 blue notes in it so I play 1, 2, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, b7, 7 I end up with a 9 note scale. Be careful what beat you play the blue notes or passing tones on. I use rhythmic specific targeting to make the notes sound good. Chord tones are the notes of the chord. These notes will usually sound good when improvising, but often are not very adventurous as they are already being stated in the harmony. To create interest the blue notes are added to create chromatic passing tones that usually need to resolve to sound pleasant.



Targeting refers to aiming for certain chord tones but coming at them indirectly via other notes that are outside of these chord notes. A key principle of executing this approach is that you should avoid playing the non-chord tones on accented or typically strong beats of the bar. For example in 4/4 time I would usually avoid playing a note that is a half step away from a chord tone on beats 1 and 3. Once you get a grasp of this idea you can experiment and be more daring and try different beat divisions and even try to break these elementary rules if you like.


Copyright Gary Johns 2013

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