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As the title suggests, I wonder the number of notes in a scale shape on guitar.

Let's take the G major scale in 2 octaves: G A B C D E F# G A B C D E F# G, there are 15 notes. I found that in many guitar resources, they play more than 15 notes.

This is called the first position. Play from the first root note (G) to the 3rd root note, there are 15 notes, however they add M2 and M7 (A & F#) into play.

Photo taken from Applied Guitar Theory

I found that the other scale shapes also have more than 15 notes? So why do they have to add more notes and how can I know which order to play after completing the 2 octaves?

Photo taken from Guitar Galore

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    Your hand written diagrams look pretty accurate but the diagram in the 1:00 position has an extra note that shouldn’t be there the D string finger 4, it is a b7. Oct 12, 2023 at 16:07
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    (note: John's comment refers to the top-right diagram / 1 o'clock position)
    – Andrew T.
    Oct 13, 2023 at 8:18
  • I feel the title is misleading, I answered with a guitar scale shape that was clearly not 15 notes and the answer got deleted because of that. Isn't it presupposing the antecedent? Many notes have the same pitch on different strings so you can make them almost however you want, including all duplicates or only unique ones.
    – Emil
    Oct 13, 2023 at 16:36

4 Answers 4

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Maybe I'm just pedantic, but for me a scale runs from tonic (root) to another tonic one, two, three octaves higher, and often back again. At least that's what's expected in practical music exams. Not sure what the examiner would think if a candidate played two and a half octaves of what was required!

A lot of these portrayed 'scales' are really showing the available notes within a hand span. So, basically, a four fret span on guitar/bass, where no great stretch is required. Often, the perpetrator of those 'scale' patterns will include extra notes, lower and higher , that could be reached with a little stretch, up and/or down. As those notes are diatonic to the key, thus would belong in a scale.

A scale, though, is basically the set of diatonic notes, portrayed in ascending/descending order. So, in actual fact, you may come across one which is in reality a mode of that parent scale - albeit not starting and finishing on the same note. No wonder it's confusing especially for beginners.

The title ought to be 'notes available in a span', rather than 'scale', but maybe that's too pedantic..!

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  • Thanks, Tim. So, for 2 octaves G major scale there, they should not end up at A (in the 1st string) but to continues high up the string to reach another G (tonic), to get three full octaves? For me personally, a scale doesn't end at the tonic sounds really weird. Oct 12, 2023 at 9:01
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    That's my point. Whether a scale goes 2,3 or 4 octaves, it really needs to go tonic-tonic. Those boxes merely show available diatonic notes within reach.
    – Tim
    Oct 12, 2023 at 11:12
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    @trequartista the problem is that people use "scale" in different senses. Frequently it means "a set of notes that you can use in a solo (or in some similar musical context)" and for that sense neither ordering nor beginning-and-ending points are particularly important.
    – phoog
    Oct 12, 2023 at 11:29
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    @Tim This makes much more senses to me than the five scale shapes popular on the Internet: jeffreygoodmanmusic.com/major-scales In fact, looking at those shapes I don't know where to start and where to finish the series of notes. Oct 12, 2023 at 15:09
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    The only context where I've seen a scale have to go strictly from tonic to tonic, or even from a given degree to the same degree, is a music school exam. In any practical application of scales you'll have scales spanning partial octaves. Saying the images depict scales is completely correct in my opinion. Oct 12, 2023 at 18:47
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TL TR; the figures depicted in the question are not scales, these are different positions for a given scale.

Let's try not to be pedantic (pardon me I'm in a joking mood), guitar is one of those instruments that wandered quite far from the classical world, so you will find many (really many) guitar resources that are incorrect on the web and litterature, some plain wrong, some with incorrect terms. It's always good to cross examine multiple references.

From the nature of the instrument (uniform repartition of semitones), many guitarists/bassists will rely on visual structures to identify scales, because the same pattern can be repeated up and down across the board, it will produce the same scale but for a different root note. It is interesting for us to extend this structure to all the notes that are easily playable witout moving the hand, well, because we can use them to stay in that scale without, hum, moving the hand.

You actually had it in the question already, these are called positions. This is why you have numbers on the second image, these are the number of the finger you will use to play. Your example is actually a conterexample: for most scales the standard position will have you start on the root note with the first finger. The major scale has this particularity that it's easier to play in the position you illustrate, starting with second finger on the root to avoid big gaps you see on the second figure of the second image. In all these poitions, you see that the root is highlighted with a color to show you where you can start and end if you want to go up and down a scale in a given position.

The way most of us commoners (non-classical) learn music, we are told not to focus on going up and down scales mechanically, but to focus on the musicality (eg "licks" or "riff" approach), so we tend to consider a scale as a set of notes to play with, rather than a ordered list with a start and end. This is why lots of guitarists tend to confuse terms or use them loosely..

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The scale shapes have more than 2 octaves worth of notes marked on them for the same reason pianos have more than 2 octaves worth of keys. You're supposed to learn to see the shapes on the fretboard so you know where the "right" notes are.

If the scale was a song or a phrase you're supposed to perform like a piece, and then the audience would applaud for a great and touching performance, then maybe it would suffice to only mark one scale run from start to finish. But scales are not full songs. The shapes are for seeing and knowing, not performing.

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  • IMHO, generally we all agree that a major scale is defined by the formula WWHWWWH (TTSTTTS) so what I'm asking here is not a shortened scale applied in a piece. I'm asking for the consistency of the above definition and the scale shape. Oct 14, 2023 at 2:46
  • The shapes are consistent with the definition. They show notes belonging to the scale that lie within playable reach in the given position, and out of those, root notes highlighted with a different color. The shapes are for seeing and remembering when you play various things utilizing the scale. A two-octave scale run exercise ("Play from the first root note...") is one of many things that utilize the shape. If they had said "Play Mary Had a Little Lamb", they wouldn't have drawn a different, even more limited shape having only the notes of that song.
    – user94880
    Oct 14, 2023 at 7:12
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As you now know, there is a difference between scales and positions. If you want to practice scales, you generally start on the root and play up to a higher root that is either one, two or as many octaves as you can manage, then back down to the original root.

Both have their merits. Scales teach us how to navigate our instruments, learn our fingerboards and hear tonality, among other things. Positions show us all the available scale tones available to us across all six strings in a vertical space 4 to 5 frets wide.

Don’t let anyone talk you out of the fact that learning positions is not useful. It is extremely useful in many ways. First things first, melody has this strange habit of not always beginning and ending on the root note of the key you happen to be playing in. The highest and lowest notes of a melody are also not always, or even usually the root note of the scale. This means that our nice sequence of do-re- mi is just a reference for where everything is, it is not music on its own. Here is a simple example, let’s say you are playing a melody or solo where you want your high note to be the second degree of the scale. By knowing the position in your first diagram that note is available to you on the high E string.

The other thing about knowing positions is it teaches you to learn where the notes to a given key is on the ENTIRE fingerboard, not just in two or three spots where you feel comfortable playing it.

Here is a similar but better diagram of the scale positions. This particular one eliminates the big stretches in some of yours which I think is better to work with initially. As the caption says, this diagram shows the intersection points where the positions share common notes. The notes you play with fingers 3&4 will be played with fingers 1&2 in the next position, shown by the boxes between the positions. These positions also happen to coincide with the chords of the CAGED system. I’ve outlined those chords on the diagram in blue for reference. FYI if you use these actual fret numbers all of these positions are the key of G major:

enter image description here

Knowing these positions will give you options of where and in what register you want to either play a melody of solo in. You can play any key anywhere you choose on the fingerboard. Say you have a melody where you want to play a high 5th as your top note. Position 3 is a good choice. They are also useful for learning how to move horizontally across the neck. Here is an example. Starting in position 1, play the first octave but when you get to the octave note on the D string. Instead of using finger 4, slide up and play it with finger 2. Voila, now you’re in position 2! You can find an infinite number of ways to shift from one position to another using this basic concept, just try and be as logical and smooth as possible.

The last and very important thing I want to leave you with is I believe the best way to practice and learn positions is to still think of them as relating to the key you are in. For me that means always starting and ending on the root. Start on the lowest root note, even if it is on the D string, play all the way to the top, then back down past the starting root note down to the lowest note in the position, then work your way back up to the original root note and end there. This way you always have the sound of the key you are playing in your head.

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    Thank you very much John for your insightful answer. Actually I'm learning classical guitar and practicing scale in various rhythms and positions is one of my goal. What confusing me here is how to connect these shapes if, for example, in the second position you end the series of notes at p4, and what to play next when you reach p4 and you start at the first tonic (G)? Oct 14, 2023 at 2:57
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    @trequartista The way I like to practice these positions is to think of them as the notes that are available to me vertically in the part of the neck and in the key I choose to play in. As I mentioned in my answer, in G I would start on the G on the D string, play all the way up to the p4 on the high E string, then descend all the way to the lowest note, the M2 on the low E string, then back up to my starting note of G on the D string. However these scale positions are just information, you can use them in any way you feel would benefit you, Oct 14, 2023 at 3:35
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    @trequartista I also explained in my paragraph below the diagram how you can transition from one position to another by choosing a common note between positions and changing fingers to get to the new position. This works both ascending and descending. My example shows how to shift from position 1 to position 2 by switching to the second finger on the octave root note but this can be done anywhere and even more than once. Oct 14, 2023 at 3:45

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