Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 3

Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 2 outlined the formula for the major scale. The next step in learning to understand harmony when looking at music is the use of key signatures. The key of a tune is vital to understanding phrasing, chord progressions, and improvisation.

Key Signatures

On a musical staff (where the notes are written as opposed to the tablature or tab for short) there is a symbol that looks like a fancy “S”. This is known as the clef of the staff. It indicates the actual pitch relations on the five lines. For a guitarist, the staff will always have the fancy “S” known as a treble clef. Also, immediately to the right of this clef the key signature is given. The key signature is derived from the sharps or flats found in the major scale that the tune is based upon. The number of sharps or flats, or their absence, will indicate the key of the tune. Therefore, when playing the notes in the tune, these notes are always played as sharp or flat all the time unless otherwise noted within the score.

Each key signature corresponds to one of the major scales. For instance, if four sharps are seen in the key signature, then the key of the tune is E Major. This is because the key of E Major has four sharps. Three flat notes indicates the key of E♭ Major. If no sharps or flats are given, then the key is C major because there are not sharps or flats in the C Major scale. The example below (Example 1) gives a pictorial view of the key signature for each major key and its relative minor. The relative minor key has the same notes as the major key and therefore are related.

Example 1

key signature chart


The perceived distance between two notes as heard to the ear indicates their musical relationship. The name given to this relationship is the interval. Previously, intervals were touched upon in the formula of the major scale. In that formula, the intervals of a Major 2nd (whole step) and a minor 2nd (half step) created the major scale sequence. Furthermore, to determine an intervals name, it is important to include both the notes as you count through the musical alphabet. Intervals should be learned by counting from the bottom (lowest) note and the to the top note (highest). The distance from C to E would be counted like this: C-1, D-2, E-3. Therefore, the interval from C to E is a Major 3rd.

Each interval also has a name that identifies the quality of the interval (Major, minor, Perfect, etc.). These quality identifiers will be crucially important in the understanding harmony. Furthermore, it is important to recognize intervals both by sight, sound, and where they exist on the fretboard of the guitar. In the example below (Example 8), the tablature shows where to play each given interval. Notice that after the Fret 12 is reached, the intervals are placed on the next string. There is more than one place to play these intervals on the guitar. In this case, they are given on a single string (up to Fret 12) to facilitate the understanding of the distance visually.

Example 2


In the above example, the basic definitions of the qualifiers are as follows.

Perfect = This qualifier began being used centuries ago. It describes the purest sounding intervals of the scale.
Major = This is the larger form of an interval that is not described as a perfect interval.
Minor = This is the smaller form of an interval that is not described as a perfect interval.
Diminished = This describes a perfect interval that has been made smaller.
Augmented = This describes a perfect interval that has been made larger (not given on the example above).

Cycle of 4ths (or 5ths)

In almost every style of music, chords tend to move in specific patterns. One of the most common movement are the movements of 4ths and 5ths. The diagram below (Diagram 1) shows this movement pattern. There are twelve roots of chords and/or keys shown around the circle. If movement is in a counterclockwise direction, then each root is a 4th higher than the previous one–hence the name cycle of 4ths. If the movement is in a clockwise direction, then each root is a 5th higher than the previous one–hence the name cycle of 5ths. The memorization of this order of notes (4ths and/or 5ths) should be memorized because any study of harmony will require the understanding of these relationships.

Diagram 1


Harmony is a very big subject. However, understanding the major scale and intervals is the first step to its mastery. Processing this information takes time.  It is better to master small pieces and then add the together to create the whole. This is the same with theory and harmony and now the tools have been presented for the first step in that process.

I encourage you to help support this education work by purchasing a downloadable pdf of this entire lesson (Part 1, 2, & 3). It includes:

  • All the information in Part 1, 2, & 3 plus,
  • The completed major scales,
  • Roman numeral explanations,
  • Printable practice notecards for the scales.

Just click the button below to visit the store. Thank you for your support and keep learning!

Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 2

In Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 1 the key reasons for studying harmony were outlined as well as the introduction to the chromatic scale. Now the attention will focus on understanding the major scale.

The Major Scale

In the Western culture, as opposed to Eastern culture, most of the music heard derives from the major scale. A major scale can begin on any of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. The difference between the chromatic and major scale lies in the relationship between each tone. The major scale uses a specific whole step (two frets) and half step (one fret) order (Example 1).

Example 1

major scale formula

whole step = Whole Step

half step = Half Step

Building Major Scales

Now that the formula for a major scale is defined, it’s time to build one. The C Major scale starts on the note C. Using the chromatic scale from before and the formula just presented as a guide (Example 2), the next note in the scale is up a whole step to the D. Another whole step brings the scale to an E. One half step away from E is the note F (notice that there are no sharp or flat notes between E and F and B and C). Continuing on with the formula for a major scale, a whole step from F is G, another whole step from G is A, and another whole step from A is B. The last distance is a half step bringing the scale from B back to the root note C. The C Major scale is now complete.

Example 2

c major scale

Notice that the same indications for whole step (angled straight lines) and half step (curved line) are used in the examples for clarification. It is difficult for many beginning guitarists that read only music to separate the idea that the lines of a musical staff are different than the strings. This becomes more apparent due to that moving from one line to a space on a musical staff does not always equal the same distance. Obviously, on the tablature lines, it is much easier to see the distance by fret (one half step).

The Bb scale gives another view of a scale taken from the chromatic scale (Example 3). Another new symbol appears in this scale known as a natural sign (♮). This symbol appears on the B note after the B♭ and all other flat notes. It returns the note to the natural instead of keeping it a half step below the normal B note. This does not need to be written in the note names because it is obvious in not having a flat sign next to them.

The Bb major scale does not have the notes circled to give a sense of the lack of observable distance (whole step vs. half step) in a normal musical staff. The distance is easily seen in the tablature for the guitar.

Example 3

bb major scale

Examples 4 and 5 illustrate the C major scale and Bb major scale without the extra notes of the chromatic scale. Each scale is played entirely on string n in order to familiarize the the distances of the whole step and half step.

Example 4

c major scale 2

Example 5

Bb major scale 2

The next step in the process is to construct all twelve major scales on paper, away from the guitar. The following order is a good order to use because it is referred to as the circle/cycle of 4ths (this will be discussed in Part 3): C, F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, B, E, A, D, and G. Check your results with the those in Appendix A of the downloadable resource available at the end of this series.

After double checking the scale, it is time to begin the memorization process away from the guitar. The importance of this memorization in the life of a musician cannot be overstated. Almost every theoretical concept in music will be based on this information. The better you know these major scales, the easier more advanced concepts in music will be to attain.

Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 1

It’s time to dig into the nuts and bolts of music. This series helps the aspiring musician get the first concepts in basic guitar harmony by starting with an understanding of  scales and Intervals. Most schools of thought divide music theory (outside of technique specific to the instrument) into three main areas of study: harmony, melody, and rhythm. Out of the three, harmony requires the most amount of time and effort to understand. In my opinion, harmony is the most important area of study. Harmony, for the purposes of these lessons, means the science of combining notes or tones. 

Basic Guitar Harmony. Nah, Just Give Me A Song

Why study harmony anyway? It is the foundation of almost every style of music. But in case any objection to learning harmony comes to the surface, the following list will help persuade otherwise.

  1. Knowledge of sounds available for any use or purpose
  2. Understand the intent of the composer
  3. Make educated choices on the phrasing of musical lines
  4. The ability to expand almost any idea whether it be to make variations on any chord progression, song, riff, etc.)
  5. An accurate understanding of what makes music work this will speed up the learning process greatly
  6. The knowledge to analyze what other musicians are doing on recordings, jams, etc. 
  7. The ability to enrich musical ideas through:
    • Chord extension and embellishment (adding 9ths, 11ths, etc., to given chords). 
    • Chord substitution and reharmonization (replacing the chords in a given progression with interesting substitutes)
    • The addition of moving voices
    • Melodic (think the vocal line) embellishment, decoration and variation 
    • Change keys 
    • The understanding to create and compose different moods, feelings, and colors

The above list only begins to scratch the surface of how the understanding of harmony will aid those who study it. If any of the terms and ideas are unfamiliar, then this is definitely the place to begin the journey of musical understanding. 

The Chromatic Scale

The western musical system gives every tone a name. These names create the musical alphabet and consist of only twelve names. After the final name has been used, the series begins again from the beginning when ascending (going higher). When descending, the reverse order repeats as necessary. Playing each of the tones in order, ascending or descending, a chromatic scale is created.

On the guitar, each fret creates a new tone and thus a new name. The distance covered by one tone to the next in a chromatic scale is a half step (this will be further covered later). The below example (Example 1) shows a chromatic scale beginning on the tone A. It continues one octave (starting and ending on the same tone) until the next A is reached. Practice playing this scale in order to begin the process of recognizing its characteristics.

Example 1

basic guitar harmony chromatic scale

A few observations need to be made about Example 1. Notice the difference between the top scale using all sharps(♯) and the lower scale using all flats(♭). A sharp raises a tone by one half step (one fret on the guitar) and a flat lowers the tone by one half step). Between the two scales arrows connect two enharmonic notes (same notes that have different names). The observation that the same fret on the same string is played below the note indicates that the same note is indeed played.

This introduction in basic guitar harmony lays the groundwork for understanding the major scale. This and key signatures make up the bulk of Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 2.