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The Diatonic Scale

I would like to deal now with one of the foundations of Western music: the diatonic scale. Most of you are probably already pretty familiar with this scale, but I would like to dig a bit deeper than normally since a thorough understanding of this scale is very important for everything that I will point out later.

The diatonic scale like many other musical scales on this planet belongs to the family of the so called "heptatonic" or seven-note scales and has been around for quite a while (several thousand years).

The term "diatonic" in a broader sense refers to notes that belong to a certain key or scale (e.g. all seven notes of a harmonic minor scale in the key of A minor). In a much narrower sense the term "diatonic" refers to just the diatonic scale which basically contains the notes of a major scale. So to avoid confusion I will mainly talk about the major scale in this chapter.

The diatonic scale is a child of its mother, the 12-tone chromatic scale that forms the basis of all common scales within the Western musical system (typically nowadays the twelve-tone-equal-temperament). In this system the smallest musical building-blocks are tones that are one semitone or half-step apart, corresponding to a distance of one fret on a guitar or one key on a piano. Mathematically speaking, each semitone is equal to one twelfth of an octave. If the frequencies of two tones that are a semitone apart are divided one will obtain a ratio of 21/12 (approximately 1.059463094). You will find more harmony theory in one of the next chapters.

However, let's go back to the major scale: the major scale has been and is still used widely in almost every musical context from old greek music to todays Jazz and Heavy Metal. It is definitely one of the most universal scales on this planet. It also has a number of astonishing properties that make it quite unique: for example it is the heptatonic scale whose tones can form the maximum possible number of perfect fifths. Heavy metal guitarists probably like that property a lot, since if allows them to generate a maximum number of power-chords with this scale (six to be more precise) :-)

The major scale is defined by a very characteristic sequence of semitones and whole tones (a whole tone is made up of two semitones).

This is the interval sequence starting from the first note of a major scale and ending at the eighth note (the octave):
wtwtstwtwtwtst
wt = whole tone
st = semitone

The point of reference for almost all Western musical systems is the C major scale. The 7 notes of this scale are named using letters of the alphabet from A through G. Note however, that the C major scale (as the name suggests) starts on a C!
CDEFGABC
The characteristic notes that form a semitone interval are depicted in red again whereas all the intervalls that are formed between white and white or white and red notes represent a whole tone step (2 semitones or 2 frets on the guitar).

Although this is a guitar tutorial, I will every now and then refer to a piano keyboard, since due to the above mentioned complexity of the guitar, the keyboard allows for a much simpler visualization of melodic and harmonic concepts.  If you want a deeper understanding of music theory and want to improve your guitar playing and song writing capabilities, having some basic knowledge of the piano keyboard is really helpful. Even a cheap MIDI keyboard plugged into your computer can definitely boost your musical skills. Some of the greatest guitarists on this planet were very good keyboard players, too (e.g. Shawn Lane).

So here is a conventional 88-key piano keyboard (the note C is where the little square is):


The interesting thing is that if a keyboard player wants to play a C-major scale, the only thing he has got to do is hit the white keys! So as you see, the piano is a color-coded instrument. I already see the envious eyes of all you guitarists out there!

For guitarists playing all notes that correspond to the white keys on a keyboard - or the C-major scale - is not that simple. If we locate all these notes on a 24-fret fretboard it will look like this:


As you can see, due to the complexity of the guitar, finding a way of memorizing all these notes is far more difficult than just playing the white keys on a keyboard. Since the guitar is not a color-coded instrument like the piano, our only option to learn to play all these notes on the guitar is to either add some sort of color code to our frets or to come up with a comprehensive system that lets you access all these notes. While the idea of a color-coded "piano"-guitar is not per-se bad and could have its uses, a much more general approach would be more helpful.

The typical way of accessing these notes on the guitar is position playing. In the case of a major scale there are 7 unique positions on the fretboard that repeat themselves every other octave. One can now come up with all kinds of regular or irregular scale patterns that make use of 2-note-per string, 3-note-per-string, 4-note-per-string patterns or a mix of these.

But, I would also briefly like to mention, that one of the first steps to familiarize yourself with the C major scale is to play the scale on only one string at a time! This is the most natural and linear way of experiencing the above mentioned whole tone - semitone intervals directly on your guitar! For example go to the B-string and play the C major scale from C through C as depicted in the above fretboard. You can do this for every string and get a pretty good feel for the scale. It is also a good preparation for the more horizontal approach we will take a bit later in this chapter. Adding the horizontal dimension to the more regularly used vertical dimension of position playing will be the main recipe for amazing guitar playing far above average.

But let us for a moment go back to position playing:
One of the systems that I personally like a lot is the 3-note-per-string system that is widely used these days. The main advantage ist that it uses a regular number of notes per string (3), allows you to quickly cover a lot of terrain on the fretboard in a very fluid manner and unlike the 4-note-per-string system is still very finger-friendly. 

Below, the 7 C-major scale positions in 3-note-per-string (3nps) patterns sorted from left to right (without the open strings) are depicted. Please note that I have given the 3nps positions greek mode names (supplemented with some more accessible names based on the starting note on the sixth string in the left lower corner of the red area).
I will not dive too deeply into this mode stuff since it is more complicated then people usually think. I will deal with modal playing in detail in a later chapter, but suffice is to say, that when building a scale from any note of the major scale and returning to it, people like to give it a greek name based on the respective note of the scale and call it a mode. However, all seven modes of the major scale contain exactly the same notes! So far we will just treat these different forms as different positions of the C major scales and not as modes.

Lydian- or F-form


Mixolydian- or G-form

 
Aeolian- or A-form


Locrian- or B-form


Ionian- or C-form


Dorian- or D-form


Phyrgian- or E-form


So as I already told you, these 3nps patterns are pretty standard and used by a lot of guitarists nowadays. However, the problem with all these patterns is that it is pretty difficult to memorize them. So you have got to learn 7 patterns of the major scale, 7 patterns of the harmonic minor scale, 7 patterns of the melodic minor scale, 7 patterns of any other heptatonic scale that you want to play ..... and then you can only play the positions up and down across the neck but don't still know how to link them together horizontally .... That could probably take you years....

Fortunately there is a simpler and very systematic approach that can help you a lot and can be easily transferred from the major scale to all the other heptatonic scales. If you break all these 3nps patterns down into single building-blocks, things are dramatically improved.
If we group these patterns into smaller 6-note patterns that are formed by 3nps patterns on two adjacent strings we will find that there are only 6 distinct patterns (however one of them is showing up twice due to the similarity of the Ionian and Mixolydian shape, so functionally we have 7 patterns). In analogy to the above 3nps positions we can name them according to their starting note and the successive part of the scale.

Here they are:
Pattern namePatternProperty
Ionian- or C-form symmetrical
Dorian- or D-formasymmetrical
Phrygian- or E-formasymmetrical
Lydian or F-formasymmetrical
Mixolydian- or G-formsymmetrical
Aeolian- or A-formsymmetrical
Locrian- or B-formsymmetrical

Now you can search for these patterns in the above 3nps positions and learn how they repeat themselves horizontally or vertically on a pretty regular basis! Note that two neighbouring horizontal patterns overlap by two notes on one string (4 notes total) which makes the system pretty simple!
Learn these patterns, then you will have total command of the fretboard! You only have to be aware that these patterns are somewhat distorted between the 2nd and 3rd string since the inverval there is only a major third (4 semitones or frets) instead of the regular fourth (5 semitones or frets) between two strings. So when moving from the 3rd to the 2nd string you have to shift the 3nps pattern on the 2nd string up a fret or semitone to the right hand side or vice versa on the way back.

I hope you had a closer look at these patterns on the fretboard and came up with some ideas of how to use them for navigating the fretboard. So if we use a systematic approach we could easily identify how to move in all 4 directions on the fretboard. To demonstrate this we will start off with an interesting experiment. Go to the 10th fret an your D-string which is a C (the starting point of an Ionian- or C-from pattern). Now let's move in all possible directions (left, right, up and down).

As you know if you want to move horizontally you will have to move by one scale degree (either one or two semitones or frets depending on the semitone steps) . So if you move to the left you will go from an Ionian pattern to a Locrian pattern. If you move to the right you will move to a Dorian pattern etc... When moving vertically, you will move one fourth (or five semitones) up or down (except for the interval between the 2nd and 3rd string which is a major third). So if you move from the Ionian pattern towards the high E-string (1st string) the next pattern will be a Lydian pattern. When moving into the opposite direction the next pattern will be a Mixolydian pattern. Basically you have to memorize the order of patterns when moving horizontally or vertically.

So if we put this information into a table and start at the ionian position (bold), here is what we get:
Aeolian
Phrygian
Locrian
Lydian
MixolydianAeolianLocrianIonianDorianPhrygianLydianMixolydian
Mixolydian
Dorian
Aeolian
I have depicted the horizontal dimension from Mixolydian to Mixolydian and the vertical dimension from Aeolian to Aeolian. So basically this whole thing is a cycle that is repeating itself over and over and is only limited by the number of strings and frets. While this system looks pretty nice, knowing it and being able to play it effortlessly and without conscious thinking are two different things. It will take you at least months of disciplined practicing to fully digest it. I also would like to encourage you to use this system from the very beginning in a musical context (e.g. playing to a backing track in C major) and not to just run scales or patterns up and down (you should spend about 20 % of your time doing pure technical training and about 80 % of your time practicing within a musical context). This is the best way of training your ears and fingers to make real music. If you don't do this, your playing will sound pretty mechanical....

An example of horizontal movement using the 6-note patterns 

Here is an example of how you can move up the fretboard  on the 5th and 6th string in the key of C major. We start out using a Lydian pattern and move up to the 24th fret (Ionian pattern). This is just an example of how you can move around freely in horizontal motion (up and down). Practice this on all strings and combine this approach with the vertical position playing approach and also with playing on only one string at a time.
Note that since we are using a 6-note pattern but the whole sequence consists of regular 16th notes we have to increase the number of notes to two 8-note patterns in the way I have done it here (but you can also do it in any other way that sounds pleasing to your ears). Basically you will end up getting 16 16th notes per pattern which gives a very rhythmic grouping of one pattern per measure (or 4 notes per beat).

Here is the tab of the first four patterns:

     S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S    S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S (16th notes)
E||----------------------------------|----------------------------------|
B||----------------------------------|----------------------------------|
G||----------------------------------|----------------------------------|
D||----------------------------------|----------------------------------|
A||--------2-3-5-3-2-5-3-2-----------|--------3-5-7-5-3-7-5-3-----------|
E||--1-3-5-----------------5-3-1-3-5-|--3-5-7-----------------7-5-3-5-7-|
Lydian                                Mixolydian

  S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S S    S S  S S S  S S S  S S S  S S S S  S 
----------------------------------|---------------------------------------|
----------------------------------|---------------------------------------|
----------------------------------|---------------------------------------|
----------------------------------|---------------------------------------|
--------5-7-8-7-5-8-7-5-----------|---------7-8-10-8-7-10-8-7-------------|
--5-7-8-----------------8-7-5-7-8-|--7-8-10-------------------10-8-7-8-10-|
Aeolian                             Locrian

You can also download the PDF sheet or the GuitarPro5 tab of the complete example with the full horizontal run up to the 24th fret.


Points of reference on the fretboard

One word about points of reference on the fretboard: so far we have mainly dealt with relative points of reference. We have started out in a certain 6-note pattern and have moved around. This might work pretty well as long as you are staying in only one key. However, if you want to change keys (e.g. from C major to G major) you will also need an absolute point of reference. There is actually two ways of doing this:
First you can memorize the names of some reference notes within the patterns (e.g. the root note of a given major scale) and locate it on the fretboard. To do so you have to be pretty familiar with the names of notes on the fretboard (which you have to learn anyway).
The other way is to learn all these patterns relative to an absolute landmark that is key-specific. For example you will notice that in the key of C major your landmarks would be the open strings, 5th, 10th and 12th fret on all given strings (and the same one octave higher, for sure). So if you memorize these landmarks while position playing this will allow you to quickly move around the fretboard in even unfamiliar keys.


Some concluding remarks. This chapter was dealing heavily with patterns, greek mode names and visualization on the fretboard. However, the real goal is to get beyond these things. To reach a stage where you hear a melody in your brain and can easily navigate around the fretboard and play exactly these notes. So basically the idea is to practice this pattern system to completely internalize it so that you don't even have to think about it anymore and can just play for the fun of it. It is a long way, but perfectly doable if you have the discipline to practice.....

Alex