How To Read Scale Diagrams …and Why?


by Justin Johnson

Recently, I have been asked by several people, “How do you read a scale diagram?”  The easiest way to learn how to read a scale diagram is to first understand a few simple concepts about what scales are, how they are used, and why fretboard diagrams help.

1) What is a scale? 

A scale is a series of notes that, together, create a distinct harmonic feel and mood.  A scale differs from a chord in that a scale is a series of notes played one-at-a-time, while a chord is a combination of notes played all at once.

2) Why make a diagram, why not just write out the notes? 

Short Answer:  It’s easier!

Long Answer:  The guitar, by nature, is a very visual instrument.  The visual pattern that a scale’s notes make on the fretboard can be memorized, and then shifted up and down the fretboard.  This makes it extremely easy to transpose a song or melody into a different key, simply by moving the visual scale pattern up or down the neck.  For example, if you know a scale pattern for the G Major Scale and you want to play the A Major Scale… all you have to do is take that same pattern and move it up 2 frets.  This way, you are not having to think about the intervals of the scale, the sharps and flats, or the other seemingly endless hurdles involved with transposing to a different key.

3) Why are some dots on the diagram filled in, and others aren’t?

Those dots are filled in to indicate the “root note” of the scale.  The root note is the note that the scale is based off of, for example in the G Major Scale, the note “G” would be the root note.  Similarly, “D” would be the root note of the D Minor Pentatonic Scale.  If you have a scale pattern that has a root note on the lowest string, you could shift that pattern up and down the fretboard, and whatever note the shaded-in dot (root note) lands on, will be the root note of that particular scale.


Now that we have some basic questions answered, let’s look at a couple of different types of fretboard diagrams.  In Figure 1, you will see three scale diagrams.  They are all diagrams for the same scale, the G Major Scale (Notice how both Scale Position Diagrams could be overlain onto the complete scale diagram on the left).  The diagram on the left shows a visual outlay of every note in the G Major Scale from the nut to the 12th fret.  This type of diagram is very helpful when you are wanting to see every available note on the fretboard for a given scale.

But what if you want to play the scale from start to finish in a specific region of the fretboard?  The first diagram isn’t very helpful for that purpose, so we will have to use a “scale position” diagram.  These diagrams have less dots, but they don’t repeat any notes, giving you a useful pattern for playing the notes in the scale sequentially and comfortably on the fretboard from the lowest note to the highest in that position.  Start at the lowest note one the lowest string, and work your way up.  Play each note sequentially on the low string, then move the lowest note on the next string, and so on, until you reach the highest note in the diagram.  Then go back down the scale, playing each note one-at-a-time in descending order.

The second scale digram in Figure 1 is the G Major Scale Pattern in Open Position, meaning that you can play this scale pattern from lowest note to highest note taking advantage of open strings without moving your fretting hand uncomfortably from that open position.

The third scale diagram is the G Major Scale in 5th Fret Position with the root note on the second string.  This diagram gives you a pattern for playing the G Major scale one note at a time, without having to uncomfortably move from that position around the 5th fret.

To sum thing up, scales are very useful in that they give you a harmonic “backbone” with which to flesh out your melodies.  If you know what you want your melody to “feel like” you can pick a scale that has a similar vibe and, BAM!  You have a starting point… a pattern of notes that will help you turn your “feel” into a song!  These are not rules, just helpful patterns.  If you practice scales regularly, you will learn valuable muscle memory and begin to build up a harmonic memory that you can rely on to guide your note selection when improvising or writing melodies and riffs.

Thanks for keeping the roots alive!  …and don’t forget to click the “FOLLOW” link on the right side of this page to get new lessons send straight to your email!
~Justin Johnson
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Posted on September 25, 2014, in cigar box guitar and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Very helpful… especially the transposing info! Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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