How to Read Guitar Scale Charts

Guitar scale charts, while a powerful tool for learning scales on the guitar, can be confusing when first encountered. They’re not quite as intuitive as guitar tablature, therefore learning how to read them correctly and understanding the layout and symbols used is required to take full advantage of them.

When I first started playing guitar and trying to understand basic guitar theory I refused to use scale diagrams or chord charts. Being left-handed, the mental gymnastics required to visualize a mirror image of the layout of the fretboard represented yet another obstacle for a kid trying to learn the guitar, and as a result, my lead playing, and a general understanding of how chords are derived from scales was seriously lacking for a long time.

While you could conceivably rely on guitar tab (or standard music notation, if you can read music) as I did, scale diagrams are far more common when it comes to notating scales on the guitar and also offer some advantages over tab, specifically as you can visualize the entire scale in relation to the fretboard of the guitar in one image and they are moveable e.g. all except open position scales can easily be moved up or down the fretboard to another key.


Types of guitar scale charts

You will encounter two types of scale charts when learning guitar: horizontal and vertical. Which really aren’t all that different, and more or less function in the same way.

Horizontal and Vertical Guitar Scale Charts

If you do need to utilize both vertical and horizontal scale diagrams just keep in mind the difference in their respective layouts is much the same as moving between portrait and landscape mode on your smartphone.

A Major - Chord Chart

Scale charts are laid out exactly the same as guitar chord charts, with the only difference being the notes are played melodically e.g. one note after the other, rather than all at once. This means it’s important you know which note is the starting note (more on this shortly).

Much like guitar tabs, there’s no set standard in place for scale charts, so in most cases how they are presented e.g. in vertical (portrait mode) or horizontal (landscape mode) is the personal preference of the author.

However, if you have a preference a simple image search on Google will provide both vertical and horizontal guitar scale diagrams for the most common scales.

Scale Charts

How to read a guitar scale chart

The basic layout

The most common guitar scale chart is horizontal, so we’ll be using this format for the remainder of the article. But, keep in mind if you find this less intuitive just picture the horizontal scale chart rotated a quarter turn clockwise (the nut is at the top) just like the diagram we referenced earlier.

The strings

Low and High E Strings

In the diagram above we see that the low E 6th string is the lowest string, not only in pitch but also visually. If you have never used guitar tab, or scale diagrams before this may seem counterintuitive e.g. the top string on your guitar is your low E string after all. But, all music notation is written in this way e.g. higher notes appear on ledger lines closer to the top of the staff in music notation and guitar tab.

Standard Music Notation

It also happens to represent the guitar as you would see it from your own perspective. The simplest way to picture this is by sitting the guitar on your lap.

The frets

Scale diagram showing the individual frets

The diagrams used in this article indicate the nut by using a thicker line than what is used for the frets. This tends to make it easy to visualize the orientation of the neck (at least for scales contained within the first seven frets).

But, not all guitar scale charts are played this low on the neck, and not all include a visual indicator for the nut. So, it’s handy to know that the further left the lower the fret number, and alternatively the further to the right, the higher up the neck the scale diagram shows.

Root notes

Scale Diagram showing the Root Notes

Root notes are indicated on guitar scale diagrams in reverse color (usually). In most cases, this would mean a white circle is used, with the remaining notes of the scale represented by a black circle.

The root note (or tonic) is the fundamental e.g. the home note. It’s the first note played in a scale and defines the name of the scale. e.g. the A Major scale’s root note is A, D Major is D, and so on, much like chords.

You can think of the root note as the note the scale begins on and resolves on e.g. is led back to.

Root note or Tonic?
When discussing scales, tonic is actually the correct term to use. The term ‘root note’ is used to represent the home note for chords. However, it’s not unusual to see ‘root notes’ referenced in relation to scales as both are often used interchangeably.

Fingering

Scale Fingering
Fret Hand Numbers

Much like chord diagrams numbers are sometimes used in guitar scale diagrams to indicate the correct fingering for each note of the scale, so the scale is played efficiently with minimal hand movement.

This won’t always be the case, but again, a quick image search on Google will usually offer alternatives if you are working with a scale diagram that doesn’t indicate fingering.

On the first impression, you could be forgiven for thinking the numbers represent the order the notes are to be played in (more on this shortly) but they actually represent the different fingers of your fretting hand from index to pinky, with 1 representing the index finger, 2 representing the middle finger, 3 representing the ring finger and four the pinky.


Which notes are played first in guitar scale diagrams?

This might be the most confusing aspect of guitar scale charts, which note is the starting note?

Firstly, all horizontal scale diagrams are read from left to right while moving from the lowest note in the scale to the highest. So, in a practical sense, this means the note following the preceding note will always be to the right if on the same string.

Vertical scale diagrams are read from top to bottom as you move across the strings left to right.

But perhaps the most important consideration is the fact that scales always begin on the lowest (lowest pitch) root note if ascending (playing the scale from low to high) and the highest root note if playing the scale descending.

Starting Notes

For example, if looking at the scale diagram above unless you know that you should always begin on the lowest root note, you may be forgiven for starting the scale on the 3rd fret of the E string. This would be incorrect as the scale above is an A minor pentatonic scale (5th position) and begins on the 5th fret of the low E string (A).
If you were to play all notes in this position (A minor pentatonic), the order of notes would be as follows.

Order of notes - Minor Pentatonic Scale

*Don’t be confused between fingering (as discussed above) and the numbers used in the diagram below, which are there for example purposes only and wouldn’t normally be included.

In practical terms, the minor pentatonic scale above repeats after 5 notes (Penta = 5) so the scale could be started on the 5th fret of the low E string or 2nd fret of the G string, finishing on the next nearest root note if only playing one octave.


Why learn scales?

Every guitarist should know at least the Major, minor, minor pentatonic, and blues scale. These are foundational scales, especially the major scale which most other scales are derived from.

You can read my complete article here on understanding guitar scales which explains much of the theory and details the scales mentioned above. But in simple terms learning scales has many benefits, including:

  • Helps develop finger strength and muscle memory
  • Helps develop speed on the fretboard
  • Provides a greater understanding of basic guitar music theory e.g. the relationship between scales and chords
  • Helps develop your ear
  • Helps with improvisation
  • And much more.

Summary

Scales, like chords, are an essential aspect of music, so learning how they are represented visually is important and will only help you become a better guitarist, songwriter, and musician. I hope the information above is helpful, and like always if you have a question or comment why not leave a comment below and join the conversation.

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About Marty

My names Marty, I've been into guitars for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about acoustic guitars, music, and home recording.