Home » Lead Guitar Scales Part 1 – Minor Scales

Lead Guitar Scales Part 1 – Minor Scales

Steve Vai lead guitar scales
Steve Vai – A master of guitar scales!

In this lesson we will cover the 5 essential lead guitar scales that every guitarist needs to know!

These 5 essential lead guitar scales are used by players from almost every genre, including; rock, pop, blues, country, funk, jazz, metal and folk. They are the foundation sound of western music, and they are very fun to play when playing lead guitar! This lesson will cover;

  • Minor Pentatonic
  • Natural Minor (Aeolian)
  • Blues Scale
  • Major (Ionian)
  • Major Pentatonic

Every pro guitarist has built their career on these fundamentals, and some never go beyond these either. Also, there are many other scales out there, including the modes, but we wont cover them in this lesson.

What Order Should I learn Lead Guitar Scales?

Traditionally it makes sense to learn the major scale first and then the minor. From here, you could then learn the pentatonics and blues scales, before moving onto the modes.

In this series though, I will put the minor scales first as they are used more often in rock and blues playing. However, I will go over the major positions after, as they are the fundamentals of music and are ‘need to know’ lead guitar scales!

After mastering the major and minor scales you should then look into the blues, harmonic minor and then the modes. The blues and harmonic minor scales are basically the same as the minor scale, but with one note changed. Getting your head around the fundamentals first will enable you to quickly adapt to these scales and the modes!

Some Quick Guitar Scale Theory

Scales usually have seven notes, the pentatonics are the same as the major and minor scales but with two notes taken out, therefore they have five notes in them.

Each note in a major scale is a degree and has a name;

  1. Tonic
  2. Supertonic
  3. Mediant
  4. Subdominant
  5. Dominant
  6. Submediant
  7. Leading Tone

We won’t use these names in this lesson so don’t worry about learning them right now!

The first is known as the Root Note. In G major, G is the root note. If somebody was playing a G chord, I could play the G major or G major pentatonic scales. The root note G would be my best sounding note, but the third and fifth degrees of G also sound really good when playing the G chord.

The third and fifth degrees, also know as intervals, are used a lot in guitar playing and are the most harmonically pleasing. The third interval defines the chord as being either major or minor, while the fifth interval is the dominant interval and sounds great!

G chord with examples of 3rd & 5th intervals from the scale
G chord with examples of 3rd & 5th intervals

Working Out The Chords In A Scale

Each scale degree is the root note of a chord. So, if we take the G major scale, the notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. This mean the G major scale contains the chords; G, A, B, C, D, E, F#.

Each chord will either be major or minor though. We can find this out by seeing what the 3rd interval of a particular note is in the G major scale. Lets first look at two octaves of the G major scale;

 G major scale - 2 octaves of lead guitar scales
G major scale – 2 octaves (R = root note)

We can work out if a chord is major or minor by looking at the third interval of it and seeing whether it’s a major or minor third. To find the third degree, count the root, then the next note, and then the third note.

If we take the G note from the scale above and look at its third interval (G, A, B), we can see it’s a B, which is an interval of a major third.

However, if we take the second chord, A, and look at the third interval (A, B, C) of this we can see that its a C, which is an minor third interval, meaning that the second chord in a G major scale is A minor (Am).

Lets work out all the chords in a G major scale;

G major scale chords
G major scale chords

So now we all the chords for a G major scale; G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em and F#mb5 (flat 5th). From this we can actually take a look at the scale formula for the major scale.

Major Scale Formula

In this formula M = major, while m = minor. Every major scale in every key follows this formula;

1M – 2m – 3m – 4M – 5M – 6m – 7mb5

The numbers refer to the scale degrees. We will outline the formulas for each scale as we continue this lesson.

Lets Learn Lead Guitar Scales!

In this lesson we will go in order of most used in Rock, metal and blues music. These are typically minor shapes, there isn’t much death metal played in C major, but we’ll get to the majors at the end!

This lesson is divided into a minor keys section and then a major keys section. To be a good guitarist it is vital that you can play both major and minor keys, so try not to skip over the material in this lesson!

Minor Keys

1. Minor Pentatonic Scale

This is perhaps the most common on the list in this lesson. It is heavily used in many genres for guitar solos and also melody lines for all instruments. Lets take a look at one & two octaves of the G minor pentatonic scale;

G minor pentatonic scale - 1 octave lead guitar scales
G minor pentatonic scale – 1 octave
 G minor pentatonic scale - 2 octave lead guitar scales
G minor pentatonic scale – 2 octave

The root note is the first note, and the other octaves of the root are labelled on the pictures above with an ‘R’. Remember, it’s important to to know where the root notes are within a pattern. In turn, this will allow you to easily switch keys, because you know where the root notes are!

Minor Pentatonic Formula

1m – 3M – 4m – 5m – 7M

Because there are only five notes in this scale it is easier to learn, which is handy because it is used everywhere! Also, you’ll notice that the numbers in the formula don’t go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Instead, we write the number based on its interval from the root note. So, the third and fourth chords in the formula are actually at an interval of fourth and fifth respectively.

Exercise That Pentatonic!

The pentatonics, particularly in the first position, are great for guitar exercises! Although not really musical, exercises will help you become very familiar with the notes in a scale and improve your fingering and picking techniques. Check out these exercises and licks I made from the minor pentatonic scale. We will switch to E minor pentatonic to get your fingers high up on the neck!

Em pentatonic lead guitar scales
This is the E minor pentatonic scale we’ll use, ending on the major third on the 15th fret!
Em pentatonic Lick 1
Em pentatonic exercise 1

…How about the same exercise but using legato!

 Em pentatonic Lick 2
Em pentatonic exercise 2
Em pentatonic Exercise 3
Em pentatonic Exercise 3

Lets try a couple of tasty guitar licks in the same position!

Em pentatonic Lick 1
Em pentatonic Lick 1
Em pentatonic Lick 2
Em pentatonic Lick 2

This is just a snapshot of what the minor pentatonic can do. Many songs and lead guitar lines are written using this scale. We can also move the basic 5 notes all over the fretboard and have many different shapes to play with.

Below, I will give you the 4 essential positions for one octave of the minor pentatonic scale in the key of A minor. The licks above in Em can be transposed to Am.

TASK: See if you can expand each of these to two octaves, either before or after what I have given you!

Am pentatonic shapes
Am pentatonic shapes
more Am pentatonic shapes
…more Am pentatonic shapes

Check out my lesson on The Minor Pentatonic Scale for a full pentatonic workout!

Practice time!

Use the backing track below to test out the above licks and exercises. As well as playing the tabs above, try to play around with the various patterns and positions I’ve given you, see if you can do some improvising and come up with your own licks!

Check out some of the masters of the pentatonic scale for inspiration!

Eric Clapton

Jimi Hendrix

Kirk Hammet

Angus Young

In conclusion, this first scale on my list of 5 Essential Lead Guitar Scales forms the foundation of most electric guitar music. It’s a great first scale to learn for lead guitar, therefore making it great for building exercises, licks and skills as a lead guitarist.

However, we can open up the pentatonic further and get more harmonic possibilities from it. Next, we’ll move on to the minor pentatonics big sister, the natural minor scale…

2. Natural Minor Scale

This is also known as….well…. the minor scale, and is just as popular, if not more than the minor pentatonic. It is the same scale but with two more notes than the pentatonic. These extra notes, the 2nd & 6th intervals, mean that this can be more melodic and therefore better for melody lines and more intricate parts.

Lets take a look at one & two octaves of the A minor scale;

Am lead guitar scale
Am scale – 1 & 2 octaves

Compare the A minor scale to A minor Pentatonic

Natural minor & minor pentatonic scales
Natural minor & minor pentatonic

As you can see, the natural minor scale has more notes, while the pentatonic contains the core notes (intervals) from the natural minor.

Natural minor scale formula

1m – 2mb5 – 3M – 4m – 5m – 6M – 7M

If you don’t know already, the major and minor scales are actually the same notes just played in a different order. The minor scale comes from the major scale; If you start the above formula from the 3rd degree and did an octave from there, then you will have played the relative major scale to this minor scale. Check out the major scale formula to see!

In our case today we are using the A minor scale which contains the notes Am, Bm, C, Dm, Em, F, G. If we started this sequence on the 3rd degree we get C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bm which is the C major scale!

Every minor scale has a relative major scale, find it by finding the 3rd degree in the key you are in and there is your major key!

Similarly, every major scale has a relative minor, find this by starting and ending the major scale from the 6th degree!

Minor Scale Exercises And Licks

Try these exercises and licks using the A minor scale at different speeds. Some guitar solo patterns can be confusing at first, but stick with them and you’ll soon be shredding with these! See the pictures above for the 2 octaves of A minor.

A minor scale exercise 1
A minor scale exercise 1
A minor scale exercise 2
A minor scale exercise 2
A minor scale exercise 3
A minor scale exercise 3

Lets try a couple of sweet guitar licks with the A minor scale!

 A minor scale lick 1
A minor scale lick 1
A minor scale lick 2
A minor scale lick 2

As you can see, the natural minor scale is more melodic than the minor pentatonic. Therefore, it is one of the most dominant in western music, alongside it’s partner in crime, the major scale.

Because the minor pentatonic is derived from the minor scale, we can still do all the cool pentatonic stuff we’ve already learned when playing the natural minor scale. These two are very interchangeable and compliment each other well in lead guitar!

Below, I will give you the 4 essential positions for one octave of the natural minor scale in the key of A minor.

TASK: See if you can find the same notes in different position all over the neck!

A minor scale positions
A minor scale positions 1 octave
A minor scale positions 1 octave
These are same notes, but 2 different positions!

Practice time!

Use the backing track below to test out the above licks and exercises. As well as playing the tabs above, try to play around with the various patterns and positions I’ve given you, see if you can do some improvising and come up with your own licks!

Here are some great guitar solos that use the natural minor scale!

Hotel California – The Eagles

Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses

Powerslave – Iron Maiden

The natural minor scale is used everywhere in popular music, and it will be a staple in your arsenal of lead guitar scales. Moreover, you will start to spot the difference between major and minor when you hear different types of music. If you figure out a piece is minor, you now know you can use both the minor and minor pentatonics to play along with.

3. Blues Scale

Can you guess what genre uses this a lot? That’s right, the blues! Now, don’t get daunted thinking that you have already learnt two scales in this lesson and now you have to learn another!

The blues scale is the same as the minor pentatonic but with one more note added, the Blue Note.

The Blue Note

The blues scale is the same as the minor pentatonic but with an added #4, or more commonly thought of as the b5. This note is usually used as a passing note, meaning that we don’t normally linger on this note too long. Rather, we pass by it when moving from the 4th to the 5th degree, or vice versa.

This one note has gone on to define the blues genre in part, and has a very distinct sound. The note, the flat 5th, was known as the devils note in centuries gone by. Consequently, musicians would be afraid to play it, even in private, in case they were arrested or hung for having summoned the devil….And this is why it’s perfect for blues and rock music!

Lets take a look at one & two octaves of the C blues scale;

Cm Blues Scale
Cm Blues Scale 1 & 2 Octaves

The b5, the blue note, really defines this scales sound and instantly helps to give you that blues edge in your playing. But remember; it’s easy to play the blues scale, but hard to play the blues with conviction!

I wont give a formula for the blues scale, as it is just the same as the minor pentatonic. The extra blue note is often played as a dominant 7th chord, or is played the same as the 4th and 5th chords when used as a passing chord (maj, min, dom7 etc.).

As already mentioned, guitarists don’t tend to linger too long on the b5, instead it’s used as a passing note. The possibilities for blues licks becomes endless once you become comfortable with the minor pentatonic and blues scales.

BONUS TIP!

Don’t worry too much about learning the blues scale. Instead, remember where the blue b5 note is and add it into the minor pentatonic or other lead guitar scales you’ve already learnt! When you want that blues sound, throw in the b5.

Blues Scale Exercises And Licks

Start off slowly with these and use an online metronome to help your timing. In addition, don’t be afraid to change these licks and add other notes in, experiment! These will greatly improve your picking and fingerings.

C minor blues scale exercise 1
C minor blues scale exercise 1
 C minor blues scale exercise 2
C minor blues scale exercise 2
 C minor blues scale exercise 3 lead guitar scales
C minor blues scale exercise 3

…Blues Licks…

 C minor blues lick 1
C minor blues lick 1
C minor blues lick 2
C minor blues lick 2

The blues scale is my favorite to play because it forces me get my fingers all twisted up. Moreover, it does allow us to do all the minor pentatonic licks that we’ve learnt too, and it’s up to us to choose where to add that elusive blue note!

Here are 4 great positions for the blues scale in the key of Cm. Remember, pay attention to where the root notes are for each position. This will enable you to transpose the shapes into other keys!

Cm scale position 1- lead guitar scales
Cm scale position 1
Cm scale position 2- lead guitar scales
Cm scale position 2
Cm position 3 - lead guitar scales
Cm scale position 3
 Cm scale position 34 - lead guitar scales
Cm scale position 4

Play through these positions. Go up and down and memorize the sequence of notes and recognize the patterns of where the notes always fall in relation to the root note.

Practice Time!

See how blue you can go! Try to use the minor pentatonic and blues scale with the backing track in Cm below, while using the blue b5 note sparingly. However, don’t be afraid to play around with it and get a feel for its possibilities.

Check out some of the blues legends of this world, I’ll throw a couple of shredders in there too!

Pride And Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble

Joe Bonamassa

The Thrill Is Gone – BB King

Gary Moore

Conclusion

So there we have it. That concludes the minor scales for this lesson. The exercises and licks I’ve given you here should be played slowly and with emphasis on clean picking and playing in time. Practice each along to a backing track and experiment with your own ideas and master these lead guitar scales!

In the second part of this lesson we’ll look at two major scales that every lead guitar must know; the major and major pentatonic scales!

Part 2 – Major Scales

2 thoughts on “Lead Guitar Scales Part 1 – Minor Scales”

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