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I'm a guitar newbie, and I've only been taking lessons for about 2 months now. My goal is to rock out on an electric guitar - for the time being, I have a cheap classical one.

Thus far I've been playing scales (pentatonic included) along the whole neck of the guitar. To be frank, this gets somewhat boring after a while. My teacher hasn't really touched on chords yet aside from some really basic theory.

As such, please forgive me if the question is just lame or if I'm using some terminology wrong.

If I'm looking at this right, the C major (which is the most basic scale, if I understand it correctly) and A minor scales use the same notes. I used this site to double-check - the root note is different, but otherwise the scales look exactly alike.

If I got a backing track in A-minor and want to improvise, do I need to play this any differently, assuming I'm not using chords at all yet? What actually changes in between these scales?

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There is not a 'most basic chord' - but what you should do is look at the questions tagged modes - and you will see what the changes are. Basically for these two it is simply where you start the scale from. –  Dr Mayhem May 13 '13 at 10:37
In the long run, Chords, Scales & Arpeggios are all one and the same, just organized differently, i.e. scales in 2nd's, Arpeggios in 3rd's (remove every other note of the scale, "2-4-6" and move them up an octave to be the 9-11-13 i.e. 1-3-5-7-9-11-13), of course we are limiting this example to 7-note "diatonic" scales (modes), there are other permutations that seem more complex when first starting out than they really are... until you see the larger internal logical consistency... in the end, everything we do just involves organization (re-organization) of the same 12 chromatic notes. –  David Axtell Moore II May 15 '13 at 16:32
Be careful to not fall into the trap of practicing the same scale over and over again, just starting and stopping on a different scale tone thinking that you are practicing "modes", you aren't, you would just be playing the same scale, starting and stopping on different scale tones. To really get the concept and understand the usage of "modes" (like the major and minor scale, i.e. Ionian & Aeolian modes), you have to have some kind of harmonic context to play them against, this will make more sense as your teacher expands on chord theory... but in the end, it's almost all I & V (simplified). –  David Axtell Moore II May 15 '13 at 16:41

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

C major and A minor scales contain the same notes, but those notes take on different roles.

The root note is the "home" of the melody - often the melody begins or ends on the root note, but even when it doesn't, you should be able to hear how the melody feels "resolved" when it's on the root note.

C is the root note of C major. A is the root note of A minor.

The fifth is an important relative of the root, because it reliably harmonises with it - indeed if you listen carefully (on most instruments) you can hear the pitch of the fifth when you play the root note - it is a harmonic. It's called the fifth because it's four notes up the scale from the root (or first) -- but it's 7 semitones up.

G is the fifth of C. E is the fifth of A minor.

The third is really important because it's the difference between a major and a minor scale. If you play all the notes from a scale except for the third, you can't tell whether it's major or minor.

It's two notes up the scale from the first. But in a major key it's 4 semitones up, while in a minor key it's 3 semitones up.

E is the third of C. C is the third of A minor.

All the other notes have "roles" too (this isn't a formal music term -- I'm using ordinary language to explain things). You can study books to learn more, or just learn to feel the music.


  • in C, the 1-3-5 notes are C-E-G.
  • in A the 1-3-5 notes are A-C-E.

You'll play A notes in C major melodies, but they will not take as significant a role in the structure of the melody. Likewise you'll play G notes in A minor melodies, but again they'll not be as "important" as a G is in C major melodies.

When soloing:

  • As a rule of thumb, start and end on the root note (but rules are made to be broken!)
  • Use the third to give a major or minor feel (or omit it to make it indeterminate)

On a piano, you could say that C major / A minor are the "most basic" keys, because the player can ignore black keys. In principle, though, every key is pretty much equivalent. C# major is simply C major with every note moved up one semitone.

There are easier keys than C/Am on a guitar, because more of the significant notes are open strings. However, if your intention is to solo, it's good to learn shapes that have no open strings. You can use these shapes in any key, simply by moving your whole hand up or down the fretboard.

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In "A" the notes are A-C#-E, in "Amin" (the "Aeolian" mode aka, relative minor of Cmaj. 1-3-5 are A-C-E, to really show the relationship better, the i (minor "one" chord) Amin7 is A-C-E-G (the 3-5-7 of Amin7 are none other than Cmaj triad, this is referred to as a diatonic substitution), this relationship goes both ways... playing an Amin sound like Amin pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) over a Cmaj triad is cool, roots are boring but help you center yourself as a reference when beginning, (but eventually every teacher will begin suggesting you limit it, there's almost always someone else playing it) –  David Axtell Moore II May 15 '13 at 16:19

Sometimes a scale can be called "related". For example, there is the major diatonic scale http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatonic_and_chromatic consisting of eight notes. On a piano, this is easy to remember. The C major scale is all the white keys. C to C is 7 notes plus the octave. The related or 'relative minor' can be counted 3 steps backwards.

C - D - E - F - G - A - B - c


A - B - C - D - E - F - G - a

All the same notes, but as sound can be recognized as the major or minor. There are actually three main minor scales (relative, melodic & harmonic). Each is slightly different.

One other thing about scales as mentioned above, is the modes. Here's a simple picture of all seven. http://waltribeiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/modes-together-rt.jpg

Try them all out! You will begin to see, and hear, C Ionian sounds different from C Dorian and also the (relative minor) A Aeolian for C Ionian (the major). Try C Aeolian. etc.

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