Rock music, like a few other musical genres out there, can be quite diverse in terms of the scales used.
In this article, I’m going to explore what are some of the most commonly used scales in rock music, including what they are and how they’re used, as well as the quality of the scale that gives it its characteristic sound.
The most commonly used scales in rock music are the following: Blues Scale, Minor Pentatonic Scale, Major Pentatonic Scale, Major Blues Scale, Natural Minor Scale, and the Dorian Mode.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and I’m sure there are cases where a guitar player will use something like the Lydian Augmented, which is the 3rd mode of the Melodic Minor scale, however, this article will explore what are easily the MOST common scales in the genre.
The Importance Of The Major Scale
In order to understand a lot of these concepts, it’s best to first understand the importance of the Major Scale in Western music theory.
It’s the scale on which the rest of our theoretical system is based, so make sure you’ve researched the Major Scale first before you start trying to dive into music.
Putting it simply, the Major Scale is the foundational scale that’s used for comparison in music theory.
For instance, when a teacher says it has a “flat-third,” or a “raised 7th degree,” they’re using these terms in reference to the Major Scale.
Without further ado, we’re going to start with the scale that’s easily the number one scale in the genre, the blues scale.
Also, it’s a lot easier to understand the Minor Scale if you know that the Minor scale is just a scale that’s based on the sixth degree of the Major Scale.
Every scale is, in some way, connected to the Major Scale.
Commonly Used Explanations of the Major Scale
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – This is the foundational understanding of the Major Scale. It’s very common for people to compare and contrast modes and scales to this formula.
It’s really not complicated. All you have to do is memorize a six-string version of the Major Scale on the guitar, and then play it wherever you want on the neck.
Memorize the shape shown below. Pay attention to the order of whole-tones and semi-tones. A whole-tone is 2 frets and a semi-tone is 1 fret.
For instance, if you see this formula, “1, 2, 3, 4#, 5, 6, 7,” that means it’s the Lydian Mode, because the Lydian mode, essentially, is a major scale with a raised 4th degree.
In other words, if you wanted to turn that G Major scale into a G Lydian scale, you would just add a ‘#’ to the 4th note, ‘C#.’
The minor scale, on the other hand, looks like this “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 8.” This means that the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees are lowered by a semi-tone in comparison to the Major Scale.
Putting it simply, if you wanted to turn that G Major into a G Minor scale, you would flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees, which would end up looking something like this:
W-W-H-W-W-W-H – (‘W’ means whole-tone and ‘H’ means semi-tone or half-tone) This is the order of semi-tones and whole-tones that make up the major scale. I rarely use this formula for understanding the major scale, but it’s commonly used.
Regarding what I think is the most important thing to memorize in guitar playing, I would say the following things will help you the most and also take the least amount of time:
- Major Scale – Learn how to play it in each key. It’s ok to use the same shape.
- The key signatures – C, D, E, G, A, B, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, F, F#, C#, as well as the order of sharps and flats in them.
- The mode shapes and their names: Ionian, Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. You can read more about these scale shapes in this article here.
Now that we’ve outlined some of these concepts, we’re ready to get into the next stage. Each scale uses the formulas above to help you understand what it looks like.
Most Common Scales in Rock Guitar Playing
1) Minor Blues Scale
1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7
The blues scale is, without question, the most commonly used musical scale in rock music, and players have been using it now for the last 50-60 years, at least in the rock genre, depending on how far you want to go back in the history of the genre.
Essentially, the Blues Scale is the Minor Pentatonic scale with a Flat 5th. The flat fifth is known as the Blue Note because it’s the part of the scale that gives it its characteristic sound.
The Blues Scale looks like the image shown below, using the Tux Guitar software. I’ve included the musical notation as well as the tablature as well.
By looking at this scale shape, I’m sure that you recognize it right away.
For the most part, you want to use the Blue Note, the flat fifth, as a passing tone rather than as a note that you stop on.
The reason for that is the natural dissonance that gives the blue scale its tonality, however, it’s dissonant, so it’s best used as a play-through rather than anything else unless you want to be real funky.
The Blues Scale is definitely the most popular musical scale in guitar playing, but in my personal opinion, it’s also one of the reasons that rock music has failed to evolve: the overreliance in the genre on this particular scale.
2) The Minor Pentatonic Scale
1, b3, 4, 5, b7
The Minor Pentatonic Scale is the scale on which the Blues Scale is based, but it is also used a ton in rock music, mostly because of how cool it sounds and also for its easy playability.
The pentatonic scales are five-note scales and they’re very easy to play.
In case you didn’t know, “Penta,” means five in Latin, and tonic means “note” so you’re playing 5 notes including the first note.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale, essentially, is just a five-note version of the Minor Scale, which is the scale that’s equivalent to the sixth mode of the Major Scale, Aeolian.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale looks like what you can see in the image below:
The Minor Pentatonic and the Blues Scale are probably tied for the two most commonly used scales in rock and blues music.
There was a time when it was used a lot more in mainstream pop music, but those days are coming to a close, especially as we move on to more simplistic songs on the Top 40 charts that are using the same chord progressions over and over.
There are honestly countless examples of the Blues Scale and Minor Pentatonic Scale. They’re used in guitar riffs and solos continuously.
One of the first examples that come to mind is Kirk Hammet, who was all about using the Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scale in nearly all of his solos on Metallica’s first record, Kill’Em All.
3) Major Pentatonic Scale
1, 2, 3, 5, 6
I chose to include the Major Pentatonic Scale as number three, not because it’s the most commonly used scale, but because it’s going to help you understand the following scales and modes in the rest of the article.
The Major Pentatonic Scale, is basically a short-form version of the Major Scale, a five-note version of the Major Scale, similar to the way the Minor Pentatonic Scale is just a five-note version of the Natural Minor scale.
The Major Pentatonic Scale looks like what you can see in the image below:
Essentially, how you turn these notes into a Major or Minor blues scale is by adding the flat-fifth, or the b3, depending on how you want to look at it and from what scale you’re comparing it too.
4) Major Blues Scale
1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6
Similar to the Blues Scale, or the Minor Blues Scale, the Major Blues scale is just a pentatonic scale with a flat-fifth, in this case, the Major Blues scale is the Major Pentatonic with a flat-fifth, rather than a Minor Pentatonic with a flat fifth.
The Major Blues Scale looks like the image you can see below:
5) Natural Minor Scale / Aeolian Mode
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
The Natural Minor scale has two different names from what I understand, the Natural Minor scale, and also the Aeolian Mode, which are essentially the same things, although, what name you use depends on how you go about using it.
The Natural Minor Scale is the scale that’s built off of the sixth degree of the Major Scale.
If you take the C Major scale, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C, again, but you start on the ‘A’ of the C Major Scale and play up from the ‘A’ until the ‘A’ again an octave up, that’s the natural minor scale.
Here’s what the Natural Minor Scale looks like:
The tonal center of the scale determines its tonality, so in other words. More importantly, the chords over which you’re playing also determines what mode you’re in.
In other words, if you’re jamming along with a guitar player and he’s playing the A Minor chord and you’re playing the notes of the C Major scale, despite the fact you’re playing in C Major, it’s actually more like A Minor, A Natural Minor, or the Aeolian Mode, because of the musical context in which you’re playing.
Putting it simply, modes are the musical context in which you’re playing. To play the notes of the C Major scale over an A Minor chord, which is the sixth chord of the C Major Scale, will produce a natural minor or Aeolian sound.
6) The Dorian Mode
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
The Dorian mode is the second mode of the Major Scale, and it has a very characteristic sound to it. It’s known for having a very chill, introspective vibe to it, and it’s used by a wide range of guitarists and artists, including Carlos Santana.
Miraculously, the Dorian Mode has actually become extremely popular nowadays due to artists like Drake, who, without question, loves the Dorian mode.
Some of his biggest songs use the Dorian Mode, like the track, “Passionfruit,” from More Life.
Another big song in the last year is the track, “Blueberry Faygo,” from Lil’ Mosie.
The Dorian Mode continues to grow in popularity in R&B and modern hip-hop.
The Dorian Scale looks like what you can see in the image below:
Essentially, the Dorian Scale is the second mode of the Major Scale, so it’s based on the second chord of that scale.
Explained in another way, the Dorian Mode, in the Key of C Major, would be D, E, F, G, A, B, C, and D again, with the tonal center being the D, the second note in the C Major scale.
With that said, this is easily the most common way of explaining what a mode is, but it’s important to emphasize that a mode is a musical context in which you’re playing, and it’s not just starting from a certain note and ending on the same note.
For instance, playing the notes of C Major while the rhythm guitarist plays the D Minor chord is the Dorian Mode.
For the sake of not turning this article into an explanation of modes, I recommend you check out my article on Modes on Producer Society, which can be found at this link here.
YouTube Video Tutorial
I hope this article helped you out. I really did my best to explain these concepts, which I find can be quite confusing.