Written by William Wilson

The Simple Scale System is a method for learning any scale or arpeggio on the guitar. All scales and arpeggios are patterns of notes. As the following article demonstrates, scales and arpeggios can be broken down into small simple patterns. Rather than relying on large scale charts, the Simple Scale System uses small basic scale patterns over and over.

Part 1

  1. Moveable Patterns
  2. Fix the Guitar's Tuning to Learn Scales
  3. Major Triad
  4. Add the Octave
  5. Stack Them Up!
  6. Two Forms
  7. Stack Alternating Forms
  8. Cover the Entire Fretboard

Part 2

  1. Build Scales From Triads
  2. Stack at Octave
  3. Second Form of the Major Scale
  4. Stack Alternating Forms
  5. Cover the Whole Fretboard
  6. Other Scales

Part 3

  1. What Happens When We Change One String?
  2. What Happens When You Lower Two Strings?
  3. Simple Scale System in a Nutshell
  4. Note on the CAGED System
  5. Further Resources & Projects


A Basic Knowledge of Music Theory including Key Signatures and Chord Construction

Try Playing Key Hunt, Music Theory Blocks, and Super Scale Trainer if these are new to you. For Super Scale Trainer use quickstart mode and play with note names for major scales and triads. A score of 250 on both of these means you're ready.

A Basic Knowledge of the Notes on the Fretboard

Complete the Fretboard Mini-course or Learn the Guitar Neck in 10 Easy Lessons if this is new to you.


Moveable Patterns

Arpeggio (är-pêj'eó) n.- Chord played one note at a time rather than simultaneously.

On the guitar a scale or arpeggio pattern can be moved up the fretboard to change its key. Play the following G major arpeggio that starts on the 6th string 3rd fret. (Play it one note at a time from the lowest note to the highest).

G major Triad

Play G Major Play

Now to make it a G# major you only need to move it one fret higher:

G# major triad

Play G# Major Play G-sharp Major

Move it again and you get an A major:

A major chord

Play A Major Play A Major

What happens when you move these same patterns to different strings? Is the following arpeggio a major arpeggio?

C major chord

Play Arpeggio Play

Yes! It is C major. Let's move it again. Is the following major?

F major chord

Play Arpeggio Play

Yes again. It is an F major arpeggio. So far it appears that patterns can work on any string. Let's try moving it again. Is the following major?

A# diminished chord

Play Arpeggio Play

No! Play it and you will hear that it doesn't sound like a major arpeggio. The notes are A# C# and E, which makes an A# diminished arpeggio. What happened? Why doesn't the pattern work across the third and second strings. The answer is the guitar's unique tuning. All strings are 5 frets apart except the second and third strings which are 4 frets. Because of this, patterns can not be moved once you reach the third string.

Why should the guitar be tuned in such a way? Wouldn't it be much easier if you could move scales or arpeggios anywhere on the guitar neck? Read on...

Fix the Guitars Tuning to Learn Scales

The guitar is tuned to make playing large chords possible. Since guitarists can only use four fingers to hold down chords the tuning was chosen so that several strings would be left open for most basic chords.

While the guitar's standard tuning (E A D G B E) works well for chords, it makes learning scales and arpeggios a challenge. As mentioned in the previous section, this is due to the space between the strings not being equal; the second and third strings are 4 frets apart (a major 3rd), while all other strings are 5 frets apart (a perfect 4th). Most stringed instruments that are used for playing melodies (violin, cello, etc.) have equal tuning between all strings. This makes learning a scale pattern easy. Any scale pattern can be moved to different strings and it retains the same shape. As we discovered in the last section, this is not so with the guitar. Due to the inequality of its tuning, scale shapes look different for different sets of strings, forcing players to learn different patterns for each set.

The Simple Scale System solves this problem by "fixing" the guitar's tuning for learning scales. Students tune the guitar equally, thus allowing patterns to be moved easily. (Later the guitar will be tuned standard and the patterns adjusted.) For the next part, the guitar should be tuned (E A D G C F) as follows:

Equal Tuning

Play Tuning Notes Play

Major Triad

Triad (tri'-âd )n. - The basic three notes that make up most chords. The simplest form of arpeggio.

Now that your guitar is tuned equally any scale or arpeggio pattern can be moved to any set of strings without alteration. Play the following "A" major triad. (We'll be using the term triad to refer to a small pattern of three notes, and the term arpeggio to refer to any "broken" chord.)

A major triad

Play A Triad Play

Now play the following two triads:

C major:

C major triad

Play C Triad Play

Db major:

Db major triad

Play Db Triad Play

Unlike standard tuning, in our fixed tuning no matter what string or note you start on the pattern is always the same. To create a major triad (in equal tuning) you always use the same pattern. The location of the pattern on the fretboard changes the key (i.e. B major, C major, D major, etc.), but visually it remains the same. The note you start the pattern on is the root, which names the chord. Experiment by playing the pattern all over the neck and listen to how it always makes a major triad.

Add The Octave

An octave is a pitch that shares the same name, like "C" up to the next "C." Let's add an octave to the major triad pattern.

Play this pattern in several places around the neck.

Stack Them Up!

By placing another major triad pattern on the octave, you create a larger arpeggio. Stacking patterns in this way, you can cross all six strings using the same small triad pattern three times. In the chart below, the dots that are two colors signify that they are the end of one pattern and the start of the next. Play the following "A" arpeggio:

A Arpeggio

Play A Arpeggio Play

You can start anywhere and just keep on stacking. The following is a "C" major arpeggio.

Stacked arpeggio

Play C Arpeggio Play

Play the previous examples and experiment with creating your own.

Two Forms

For each type of scale or arpeggio two forms (patterns) are necessary to cover the entire neck. If you move the last note of the major triad to the next string you create the second form.

Creating the second form

Play Example Play

Notice that on both forms the octave is one string higher than the last note of the basic pattern.

Play both forms all over the neck, name the root note for each.

Stack Alternating Forms

By stacking alternate forms (the first and second version learned above) larger arpeggios can be built covering all six strings in a single position. In these larger patterns the first and second forms alternate. In the following pattern (Key of "A") the first form starts on the sixth string, and the second form takes over on the fourth string.

Major Arpeggio

Play Alternating Forms Play

By starting on different strings several different patterns can be created. But at their core there are still only two forms stacked on top of each other. Play all the following forms, and say whether you are playing form 1 or 2, plus the key. It is worth spending several days (or even weeks) mastering the following 5 patterns:

Cover the Entire Fretboard

With these five forms you can play a major triad all the way across the neck. The five forms fit side by side to create major triads across the entire neck.

Major Triads across fretboard

Practice this in all keys. (Hint: the root of the pattern creates the key.) When you are comfortable with these forms, move on to the next page: Simple Scale System Part II

Part I     |     Part II     |     Part III