After the pentatonic, major, and common minor scales and the modes, everything else – with one exception – can be considered an exotic scale; these won’t be used very often, but they’re still pretty cool, and each has its own sound.
The one exception is the chromatic scale. The word “chromatic” comes from the Greek word “chroma”, which means “color”. We can think of accidentals (sharps and flats) as adding a color, or inflection, to the natural note – so C# can be seen as a “˜color’ of C. If you use all the crayons in the box, you get the chromatic scale, or all the possible colors.
The chromatic scale is used sparingly in all sorts of music as a series of passing tones. It’s also used as the foundation for almost all atonal music, which avoids a sense of key by using all the possible notes equally. That means avant-garde composers are fond of it, and it’s worth knowing.
The guitar’s strings are mostly tuned in fourths, and perfect fourths are two and a half steps apart – five frets on a guitar. The exception is the second and third strings, which are a major third apart, or two whole steps (four frets). Since we can only fret four notes on a string without stretching or shifting position, the most common chromatic scale fingering will shift position on every string except the third/second – here’s a chromatic scale starting from 6th string 8th fret C:
In order to get two full octaves, I’ve put five notes on the first string. You could put the extra note on any string, so there are multiple fingerings of a two-octave chromatic scale. You can also shift on any finger – the first string in the example above could be fingered 1-1-2-3-4, 1-2-2-3-4, 1-2-3-3-4, or 1-2-3-4-4. This gives you a lot of possibilities, but a pretty simple structure.
If you use a chromatic scale run in an improvised passage, you’ll find it’s actually trickier than it looks. Because you’re constantly shifting position on each string, you’ll want to keep track of what base scale fingering you were using at the beginning, and know what fingering you’ll move to at the end.
For example, if I were playing in a 7th position C scale, and decided to do a one octave run up from C, I’d have this:
Now I’m in fifth position, which is very friendly for C major. But other chromatic runs, or other starting points, might not be so favorable. Always know where you are on the fretboard!
The chromatic scale is the simplest of the symmetrical scales – those that have an equal distance between each note. The other fairly common symmetrical scale is the “whole-tone” scale, which has six notes, each a whole tone apart: C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C (or C-D-E-Gb-Ab-Bb-C). Like the chromatic scale, this requires shifts on most strings:
There are a few pieces of music composed entirely of the whole tone scale; most of the ones I’ve heard that sound decent are piano pieces. But there’s one chord where the whole tone scale is appropriate for improvising: the augmented chord.
A C+ chord (the “˜+’ is the symbol for augmented) or a C7+ (augmented seventh) is composed entirely of whole steps or double whole steps: C-E-G# for the C+ chord, and C-E-G#-Bb for the C7+. So even though the scale itself isn’t all that common, there are some situations where you can use a bit of it for good effect, even if your improvisational line is based on a different scale.
The augmented triad is one of two chords in music that is perfectly symmetrical: a double whole step from C brings us to E, another double whole step brings us to G#, and one additional double whole step brings us back to C.
The other chord that’s perfectly symmetrical is the diminished seventh, written as CÂ°7, or just CÂ°. In this chord, you have a minor third between each note: C-Eb-Gb-Bbb (or A), and one more minor third brings us back to C.
All the scales we’ve looked at so far, except for the harmonic minor, have a whole step as the largest interval between notes. The most common exotic scale for improvising over a diminished seventh chord is called the diminished scale, but there are actually two different versions of it: the WH diminished (pronounced whole-half diminished) and the HW (half-whole) diminished.
Since a minor third is a whole step and a half step, if your chord contains only minor thirds you can add them in either order. A C WH diminished scale would be C-D-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-A-B-C; the HW scale would be C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C. Some people refer to these scales as “octatonic”, because they have eight tones in an octave.
Here’s a C WH diminished scale, starting in 8th position:
Notice we’ve got one stretch and one shift in that fingering. We could also do it with just one shift:
The HW diminished scale works out pretty much the same way, but with a little more moving around:
Next we’ve got a couple of scales that are from traditional styles of music. This one I could have presented earlier, right after the pentatonic (which is what I usually do in lesson) – it’s the blues scale, which is the minor pentatonic with the addition of a b5 note: 1-2-b3-4-b5-5-b7. Here’s the A blues scale in fifth position:
If you’re improvising blues with this, you might or might not fret the “blue note” or b5 – it’s pretty common to bend to it instead.
Then there’s the style of “Gypsy jazz”, like the music of Django Reinhardt. A common scale in this style is called the Gypsy minor scale; it’s the natural minor with a raised fourth, or 1-2-b3-#4-5-b6-b7. Here’s that scale in A, in 5th position:
You could do the same scale with a shift:
By now you’ve hopefully got a command of the most common scales, and if you’ve worked at it, an understanding of where the notes are on the fretboard. We’ve still got a lot of scales to cover, so from this point forward I’ll be outlining only the scale formulas, and leave it to you to find the fingerings. If you get lost, just go back to the major scale fingering patterns and adjust the notes to the formulas – if you find a lot of notes are out of position, shift the fingering forward or back.
The Hungarian minor scale, which is also known as the Gypsy minor or the double harmonic minor scale, has the pattern 1-2-b3-#4-5-b6-7. You might have noticed that I’ve already shown you a “Gypsy minor” scale – there’s no common naming system for scales, so sometimes the same name will be used for more than one scale. You’ll notice there are two places in the scale where there’s an augmented second (a three fret space): between the b3 and the #4, and again between the b6 and the 7. Since the only common scale that includes an augmented second is the harmonic minor, that’s led to this scale often being labeled the “˜double harmonic minor’ – having no common naming system, we can also end up with more than one name for the same scale!
Continuing the naming confusion a bit further, this isn’t the only Hungarian minor scale. The other one is 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-7. It’s sort of a cross between the harmonic minor scale and the Phrygian scale, and it’s also called the Neopolitan minor scale, and some folks even call this the “Arabic” scale.
It’s not actually an Arabic scale, as the actual Arabian system is different from our 12 tone system… I’ll cover that at the end, along with scales from India, which is also outside our 12TET system (12 tone equal temperament) – our guitars are designed to produce 12TET tones, so these take some real work to achieve on the guitar.
You might also come across the Neopolitan major scale… but it’s the same as the Lydian mode. Exotic scales seem to have sprung up in many different styles of music, so there ends up being a lot of overlap in the names!
Some of our exotic scales are simple alterations of our common scales. The major/minor scale is a good example of that: it’s a natural minor scale with a major third, or 1-2-3-4-5-b6-b7.
Jazz has also given us a lot of scales, especially bebop jazz. Bebop scales have eight tones, with a passing note between two “˜normal’ scale tones. The scale that’s usually called the “bebop” scale is a cross between the major scale and the Mixolydian: 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7-7. This is also called the “bebop dominant” scale, because it includes the dominant chord tone of b7.
But we can put the half steps in other places, which gives us the Bebop Dorian: 1-2-b3-3-4-5-6-b7. That’s a cross between the Mixolydian and the Dorian scales.
We also have the Bebop Major, 1-2-3-4-5-b6-6-7. This scale works well over major 7th or major 6th chords.
If we lower the third of that scale, we get the Bebop Melodic Minor: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-6-7.
Finally, we can lower the 3rd of the Bebop Dominant, and get the Bebop Harmonic Minor: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7-7. That’s a harmonic minor scale with the added b7.
Jazz also makes extensive use of altered dominant chords. If you’ve read my chord lessons, you might remember that dominant chords have a tension; altered dominant chords increase the tension by including notes altered from the underlying scale – substituting b5 or #5 for the fifth in the chord, or including the b9 or #9 note. These chords may be spelled out in the name, as in C7b9, or they may just be indicated on a chart as “C7alt”, leaving it up to the performer which non-scale tones to include.
Because these chords can include b9 (the same tone as b2), #9 (same as #2), b5 or #5, a scale that will work over any of them should contain those notes – as well as the root, third, and b7 common to dominant chords. The resulting scale is 1-b2-b3-b4-b5-b6-b7.
This one takes a bit of explaining to unravel the spelling – we want it to have just one of each letter name; the b3 is the same pitch as #2 (or #9). Having used a 3, the natural third from the chord ends up being spelled as a b4. b5 is there, as is b6 – that’s the same tone as #5. And the b7 is needed to blend with a dominant chord.
Compare this scale with the Locrian mode, which is 1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7, and you’ll see it’s the Locrian with a lowered fourth. So this scale is sometimes called the “superlocrian” (which is how I first learned it), but a more common name is simply the “altered scale”.
Another big source of scales in music has been the deconstruction of chords used in specific tunes. If you take a chord like a m7b5, we have scale tones (I’ll show those in C): 1-b3-b5-b7. We’re missing 2, 4, and 6. We can fill those in with any tones from the scale, creating these:
Any of these scales will work over a m7b5 chord, since they each contain all of the chord tones. One (the 1-2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7) is used commonly enough to call it a “half diminished” scale, but in fact ALL of them can be considered half diminished scales!
Some composers will create a chord and build a piece around it. They’ll usually follow the same process I showed above, filling in the missing notes with possibilities from our chromatic scale. The resulting scales are often named after the piece the composer created that contains the chord…
The Prometheus scale comes from a symphonic work by Alexander Scriabin called “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire”. The chord can be spelled in several ways, but it’s often seen in fourths: C-F#-Bb-E-A-D. Arranging these in scale order, we get C-D-E-F#-A-Bb, or 1-2-3-#4-6-b7. To continue the naming confusion, the chord is also called the “mystic” chord – and the scale is naturally also called the mystic scale.
Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet called “Petrushka”, and in it he used the Petrushka chord. It’s a foray into bitonality, with two different tonal centers at the same time… if you have two guitarists, and one plays a C major chord while the other plays an Gb major chord, the result is the Petrushka chord. Combining the notes C-E-G and Gb-Bb-Db gets us the scale C-Db-E-Gb-G-Bb.
That causes a little problem because we’ve got two G notes. Spelling the second chord enharmonically (as F# major, which is what Stravinsky actually did) gets us two C notes (C and C#). So the scale ends up being spelled as a mix of the two: C-Db-E-F#-G-Bb, or 1-b2-3-#4-5-b7. It’s also known as the “tritone” scale, because it’s made up of several notes that are a tritone, or three whole tones, apart: C-F#, Db-G, and E-Bb.
Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 20 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.
More from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 1
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 2
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 3
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 4
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 5
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 6
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 8
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 9