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Harmonized Scales for Guitar

Rating: 9 user(s) have rated this lesson Average rating: 4.2 Posted by: dc.oneil, on May 15,2011, in category Music Theory Views: this lesson has been read 14099 times
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As you continue your study of scale and chord construction, the next step is to understand harmonized scales for guitar. What are they and why are they important? This lesson shows how to build harmonized scales and how to incorporate them in your songwriting, ear training, and playing.

So . . . why is harmonizing a scale for guitar important? The answer is simple, really – it shows which chords ‘officially’ belong to a given major or minor key. Are they the only chords you should use when writing a song? No, not necessarily, but it gives you a great guideline for creativity in every music genre – and, you’ll understand how music theory really works.

Let’s begin with harmonizing a C major scale. First, on a sheet of manuscript paper, and remembering that the half steps occur only between degrees 3 to 4 and 7 to 8, write a one octave scale. Now, adhering to the key signature of no sharps or flats, build a triad on each note of the scale. The triad built on C will be C, E, and G; the triad built on D will be D, F, and A; the triad on E will be E, G, and B; and, so on. That’s easy enough . . . you’ve harmonized the scale!

The next step in understanding scale harmonization is analyzing each of the triads to determine the chord family to which it belongs. Of course, doing so requires familiarity with key signatures and chord building formulas, so, if you don’t this stuff, or you’re just a bit rusty in the theory department, please review my recent lesson, Music Theory for Guitar Part 3 – Chord Construction. Hopefully, that will help.

As you look at each triad, you must first think of the major scale built on the same tonic. For example, you know that a D major scale has an F# and a C#; but, the chord built on the second degree of the C major harmonized scale contains the notes D, F, and A. So, considering D as the tonic (root), what type of triad is it? It’s a D minor triad – the F# has been lowered to an F. Likewise, considering B as the tonic, the notes B, D, and F form a B diminished triad (often noted with a little ‘degree’ symbol) – both the third and the fifth have been lowered. Remember that there are only four types of triads – major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

The cool thing about harmonized scales for guitar is that the chord patterns are always the same, regardless of the key. When you memorize the patterns, the only concern is knowing the key signatures. The staff examples (below) show how to harmonize a C major scale using triads and seventh chords. Upper and lower case Roman numerals are used to note major and minor chord families, respectively. Diminished chords are lower case with an abbreviation or symbol (dim or ‘degree’); augmented chords are upper case with an abbreviation or symbol (aug or +). As an upper case ‘M’ or ‘maj’ denote a major chord, both are used (mainly a typing, spacing issue) in the examples which follow – a delta sign (little triangle) is often used as well.

C major harmonized – triads

C major harmonized triads

Notice, in the following harmonized scale example that the chord built on the fifth degree, becomes a dominant seventh chord – very important in music theory! And . . . fully diminished chords are built by successive minor third intervals (B, D, F, Ab); however, the uppermost interval of a half diminished chord is a major third (B, D, F, A). Half-diminished chords are noted by a degree symbol with a slash through it, or as a minor seven flat five (m7b5). The latter seems a bit easier to remember . . .

C major harmonized -- 7th chords

C major harmonized 7th chords

Although numbered chord progressions such as I, IV, V, or ii, V, I refer to major scale harmonization, you can also harmonize minor scales. They provide some interesting progressions that you may not usually think about. The examples show an ‘a’ natural minor scale harmonized using triads and seventh chords. Use both full and power chords to play through the harmonized scale, ascending and descending, and you’ll instantly recognize several popular rock patterns.

A natural minor harmonized – triads

A natural minor harmonized – triads


A natural minor harmonized – 7th chords

A natural minor harmonized – 7th chords


As mentioned in my previous lessons, the natural minor scale is often overlooked in favor of the harmonic minor scale. That works great for classical and jazz, but not so much for pop and rock music. The most important thing to remember about harmonic minor scales is the raised seventh degree, which creates a dominant seventh chord built on the fifth degree (V7) – again, very important! Chances are pretty good that you won’t use a Cmaj7#5 chord too often, but the Am-maj7 is a useful transitional chord for moving bass lines. If you want the low note to descend chromatically from A to G# to G to F#, play Am, Am-maj7, Am7, D/F (or D9). Use only the top four strings. Sound familiar? A couple of extra notes on the top string, of course . . .

A harmonized harmonic minor – triads

A harmonized harmonic minor – triads


A harmonized harmonic minor – 7th chords

a harmonized harmonic minor – 7th chords

Well, now you know how to harmonize scales for guitar, and I suggest that you play them in every key – especially the major keys. But, how else can understanding harmonized scales help you to develop as a guitar player?

Do you know someone who can listen to a song once or twice, pick up the guitar, and play the song? Can you do that? If so, you’re lucky! But, for those of you (us) who are not blessed with a truly great ear, learning tunes from a CD can be tedious and frustrating. It would sure help if you already know which chords are likely to be part of the chord progression! Now you know! Understanding harmonized scales for guitar gives you that advantage, and you won’t always have to rely on internet tab sites. You’ve discovered, no doubt, that some tabs are very accurate while others are, sometimes, laughably incorrect. Try to figure it out yourself – train your ear!

Just for fun, play the following chord progression in the key of G major and equate the correct Roman numerals to the chords. It will add a little zest to a simple I, IV, V progression. It sounds a bit like ‘Freebird’, but it sounds a lot more like every power ballad written by the 80’s hair bands – they all had one! And, they’re fun to play! Play one measure per chord unless otherwise suggested (2x) – modify it to your liking. A finger picking pattern will sound great. If it sounds good, do it! A good rule of thumb! Use primarily a major pentatonic scale for soloing, but throw in the extra major scale notes, too.

G D/F# Em (2x) C G/B Am7 D (play progression two times for verse)

C (2x) G (2x) C (2x) D (2x) (chorus – a Dsus4 sounds good for the last measure)

Bm7 Em7 Bm7 Em7 Am7 (2x) D (2x) (bridge)

Knowing how to harmonize scales for guitar will make you a better guitar player. There’s no doubt about that! Remember the mantra, “Music theory is fun . . . music theory is fun … music theory is fun . . . !“

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