Practical Theory Part 2: Scales (Guitar Lesson)


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Orville Johnson

Practical Theory Part 2: Scales

Orville Johnson takes a look at scales in part 2 of his practical theory mini-series.

Taught by Orville Johnson in Beginner Acoustic with Orville seriesLength: 18:40Difficulty: 2.0 of 5

Scene 1: Introduction

Being a beginner guitar player, the huge number of different scales that can be played might be overwhelming. In this lesson Orville Johnson explains how to memorize scales in an easy, manageable way.

The chromatic scale is made up of all twelve notes that are in an octave. Every other scale is just a pattern of different kinds of intervals in this twelve note range. A scale’s pattern remains the same in any key, so the number of scales you need to memorize is already much smaller than it may initially seem.

Half Step (H) – A musical interval equivalent to one fret on the guitar.

Whole Step (W) – A musical interval equivalent to two frets on the guitar.

The most important scale to know in western music is the major scale.

The pattern of half/whole steps for the major scale is: W W H W W W H.

This can be observed in the C Major scale as : C (W) D (W) E (H) F (W) G (W) A (W) B (H) C.

Now you can play a major scale in any key, even if you don’t know the name of the note you are starting on.

Scene 2: Naming Notes

You can easily find the name of any note on the fretboard of your guitar by counting up from the letter name of the open string. Just count up fret by fret remembering these rules:

- When you go up one fret, it is a half step.

- A half step up from a natural note (not sharp or flat) is an “in-between note” that has the same letter name but is sharp (#). Alternatively, it has the next note’s letter name but is flat (b).

- A half step up from an in-between note is another natural note.

- There is no note between B and C or E and F.

You will notice that for most notes on a guitar, there are several different frets that make the exact same note across different strings. A good exercise to help you learn your way around the fretboard is to pick a note and then find the same note on a different string.

You can think of any other scale in western music relative to the major scale by changing the intervals.

A minor scale can be made from the major scale by lowering the 3rd note one half step (minor 3rd).

Here are two different minor scales that Orville demonstrates, relative to the major scale:
1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7


Video Subtitles / Captions


Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.


freefly8freefly8 replied on July 13th, 2017

Wow...again Orville you are great at visual and audio instruction. The scale(s) information was clear and concise. I though about using the fret tags for the notes. I believe I'll try to practice the way you explained it. Thanks once again.

vMotionvMotion replied on April 26th, 2017

You are a terrific instructor! As a kid that was early diagnosed ADHD, I really struggled to remain attentive in structured learning environments. I really have to drink through the firehouse to remain engaged. However, I find your patient and controlled pace very effective. You teach the guitar the same way I hope to learn and play it, efficient and smooth! Thank you!

NativgodNativgod replied on February 13th, 2017

Love your videos, easy to follow and simple to understand. I am fairly new to theory and I am confused. I thought a half-step was the space between each fret? For example from the 1st fret to the 2nd fret is 1 half-step and 2 (1st fret to 3rd fret) frets is a whole-step. On both your theory lessons you state that there is no half-step between E &F and B & C. Am I wrong?

pbaehrpbaehr replied on November 6th, 2015

Another very good lesson. I also like the written summaries that appear below the video. A helpful primer.

martin1234martin1234 replied on May 30th, 2015

Enter your comment here.

martin1234martin1234 replied on May 30th, 2015

Good stuff!

reneesarahreneesarah replied on March 25th, 2015

So tremendously helpful Orville. Thank you very much! :-)

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied on January 6th, 2015

I would just practice major scales for awhile. And remember, there is just one formula for all major scales- whole step-whole step-half step- whole-whole-whole-half. If you start on any note and follow that pattern you'll be playing a major scale. The name of the scale will be the note you start on.

mrousemrouse replied on January 2nd, 2015

Hello Orville- So still a beginner but up to lesson 50 over on Eve Goldberg's lessons. I came across your beginning theory lessons- - is it worth my time learning the major scales now and if so which ones? Or keep on looking at your overviews? I want to learn more theory and play notes and such -Just not sure how far to go in the scale thing right now...Is there a place where you prescribe some specific homework?

guloguloguyguloguloguy replied on November 20th, 2014

I just had a quirky thought: Perhaps it might help someone in trying to visualize, and memorize the "Scale" pattern(s). Imagine running up and down a large set of stairs!....then imagine only stepping on every other step when needing to make a "Whole Step", ....and that means when you step on any two adjacent stairsteps, that That is a "Halfstep"!!! This might take a few seconds of careful visual thinking to get the image into One's "mind's eye", but it might be a useful visual/memory trick to literally imagine running up and down along these steps, until One really 'knows' (memorizes) the "Scale Patterns" well, going UP, or Down!

guloguloguyguloguloguy replied on November 20th, 2014

When writing out the Scale pattern, I like to write/type it as if it were broken into smaller more comprehensible blocks. For instance, the Major Scale could be better written/typed out like this: |W|W|H| W |W|W|H| ...So, One can see that these letters represent the 'relative amount of space', or 'distance between' the actual notes, not the notes themselves directly. It IS a "Pattern" for the Spaces Between the actual notes, of the "Scale" (in this case, it is a "Major" scale. So, I like to use the "slash" mark, or a vertical bar, to show the position of each 'note'. One could use the asterisk *, too. => *W*W*H* W * W*W*H*

guloguloguyguloguloguy replied on November 20th, 2014

I've been wondering if it might not be much more useful to the student, if your second camera viewpoint could be moved, to be in a 'better position', such that it is 'looking downward', = at/toward the fretboard from above!, = closer(more similar) to the position in which the guitar player, and instructor would be looking at/viewing their fretboard, (rather that as it is usually set up as if One was sitting at eye level, in front of and reversed position/opposite to the instructor). [ => Perhaps you should try this and see if it doesn't allow the student to more closely view, and understand more precisely where each fret position, and finger is being located. ] I think that this would be better for all of the JAMPLAY videos (to have that second camera oriented 'from on high', as if from the player's visual perspective)!

Orville.JohnsonOrville.Johnson replied on September 8th, 2014

oakcliffboy- I said the major scale (not chord) follows the WWHWWWH pattern. If you play the pattern you've notated (WHWWWHW) you will not be playing a major scale. If you follow WWHWWWH you can start on any note and that note will be the root of a major scale. hope that helps and sorry for the long delay in replying...oj

oakcliffboyoakcliffboy replied on May 7th, 2014

I don't understand you saying that the major chord follows the pattern WWHWWWH. If I start with D major it is WHWWWHW. Do you mean just the key if C major follows the pattern. Thanks

BuffyLOLBuffyLOL replied on September 3rd, 2013

You are an amazing teacher. thank you so much for this lessons. Great tips!!!

frwyguyfrwyguy replied on January 27th, 2013

Great lesson! I am having a great time with the major scale, and you have made it so easy to grasp the other scales as they relate to the major scale. Thanks a lot bro.

haqzafhaqzaf replied on November 3rd, 2012

Hi, Orville, Started, watching your theory lessons this evening.Took notes what you taught.I will practice to locate notes on fretboard as you adviced.Six strings mean,each note exists 6 times all over the fretbard.No difficulty in understanding two theory lessons.Will watch the rest gradually.Thanks for these lessons.

tarocattarocat replied on June 8th, 2012

Me too, Orville. Your teaching style and easy manner make learning and thinking about basic music theory quite enjoyable. I'll be back for more. Thank U.

BrianShrekBrianShrek replied on June 7th, 2012

WOW!! So excited. I have learned more in the 40 minutes I am watching your lessons than I have in 6 months of playing. Literally. You are a fantastic instructor!!! thank you , thank you!!!

cheltonchelton replied on May 22nd, 2012

Enter your comment here.

cheltonchelton replied on May 22nd, 2012

not sure of purpose or function of scales

sherchanrock72sherchanrock72 replied on December 6th, 2011

thank u very very much i been playing guitar my whole life but did not have knowledge about what you taught today. Hope to learn more from you and thanks again..

sherchanrock72sherchanrock72 replied on December 6th, 2011

thank u very very much i been playing guitar my whole life but did not have knowledge about what you taught today. Hope to learn more from you and thanks again..

charlie636charlie636 replied on August 29th, 2011

I'm learning a lot here. You make it simple to understand. Thank You Orville.

cpritchardcpritchard replied on December 9th, 2010

Nice...I love the Musical theory set...I can play by memorizing chords and tabs but its great understanding more the technical aspects of guitar!!!!

ed mcleaned mclean replied on September 18th, 2010

Thank you very much for this lesson, it makes so much more sense now!

cdwalshcdwalsh replied on May 5th, 2010

Orville, you always offer a unique perspective to a topic. I am never able to skip one of your lessons, even if I think I already know the topic. Looking forward to more! Thanks !!!

Beginner Acoustic with Orville

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Discover the essentials with Orville Johnson by learning some of the most popular topics and techniques in beginner guitar.



Lesson 1

Overcoming Beginner Challenges

Orville talks about some challenges you will likely face as a beginner and offers some advice that will help you overcome them.

Length: 13:05 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 2

Flatpick and Strumming

Orville talks about flatpicks, how to hold them, and how to strum with them.

Length: 13:29 Difficulty: 1.0 FREE
Lesson 3

Fingerpicking and Patterns

Orville Johnson introduces some basic fingerpicking patterns.

Length: 6:58 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 4

Metronome and Practicing

Orville Johnson explains why it is important to practice with a metronome. He also covers some practice strategies that will help minimize your frustration.

Length: 21:35 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 5

Practical Theory Part 1: Intervals

Orville dives into part 1 of his beginners' guide to practical theory. In this lesson, you will learn the basics of intervals.

Length: 17:30 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 6

Practical Theory Part 2: Scales

Orville Johnson takes a look at scales in part 2 of his practical theory mini-series.

Length: 18:40 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 7

Practical Theory Part 3: Chords and Construction

Orville Johnson jumps into part 3 of his practical theory mini-series. This lesson is about chords and their construction.

Length: 21:08 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 8

Practical Theory Pt. 4: Modes

It's now time to tap back into the practical music theory portion of this series. Continuing on with part 4, Orville now discusses what modes are and how they are really just scales with Greek names.

Length: 19:50 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 9

Basic Blues Shuffle

Orville Johnson demonstrates a basic blues shuffle. This incredibly easy rhythm piece will have you sounding like a blues great in no time!

Length: 12:38 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 10

Connecting Chords with Bass Runs

Orville Johnson demonstrates how simple chord progressions can be spruced up with bass runs. The classic song "Oh! Susanna" is used as an example.

Length: 12:04 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 11

Voice Leading

Orville Johnson talks about the concept of voice leading. This concept will help you play chord progressions that flow better and sound more harmonious.

Length: 10:20 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 12

Major Chords

Orville Johnson teaches the basic major chords in this lesson. He also explains the best way to change from chord to chord, a challenge for many beginners.

Length: 19:23 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 13

Note Values

Orville Johnson jumps into some light theory with a lesson on note values.

Length: 7:51 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 14

The CAGED System

Orville Johnson takes a beginner's look at the CAGED system.

Length: 8:14 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 15

Open D Tuning

Orville Johnson introduces open D tuning and encourages exploration of its possibilities. This tuning is great for a broad range of playing styles.

Length: 24:04 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 16

Open G Tuning

This time, Orville Johnson introduces open G tuning. This tuning is great for a broad range of playing styles and sounds pretty without even fingering a chord.

Length: 21:28 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 17

Beginner Fingerstyle Techniques

This lesson is perfect for the beginner looking to develop dexterity and independence in the right hand fingers. Orville guides you step by step through basic rhythm concepts and fingerstyle exercises.

Length: 26:00 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 18

How Does a Capo Work?

This lesson presents any beginner with the information needed to understand how a capo works. This tool enables you to change the key of a song without learning any new chord voicings.

Length: 22:07 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 19

Beginner Lead Techniques

Orville introduces basic techniques that can be used to play lead guitar. This lesson includes a primer on hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and harmonics.

Length: 22:14 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 20

Orville's Guide to Practicing

Orville dispenses a lifetime of accrued wisdom on the subject of practicing and learning. This lesson is only 16 minutes long, and it will not only change how you learn the guitar, but can also be applied...

Length: 16:38 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 21

Creating New Chords

This lesson is all about creating different types of chords. This does steer the lesson towards music theory, but the information is invaluable and infinitely applicable.

Length: 23:05 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only

About Orville Johnson View Full Biography Orville Johnson was born in 1953 in Edwardsville, Illinois and came up on the St. Louis, Missouri music scene, where he was exposed to and participated in a variety of blues, bluegrass and American roots music. He began singing in his Pentecostal church as a young boy, in rock bands in middle school, then took up the guitar at 17,with early influences from Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Chuck Berry. In the early 1970's, Orville spent several seasons playing bluegrass on the SS Julia Belle Swain, a period-piece Mississippi river steamboat plying the inland waterways, with his group the Steamboat Ramblers.

Orville moved to Seattle, Washington in 1978, where he was a founding member of the much-loved and well-remembered folk/rock group, the Dynamic Logs. Other musical associates include Laura Love, Ranch Romance, File' Gumbo Zydeco Band, Scott Law, and the Twirling Mickeys. Johnson, known for his dobro and slide guitar stylings and vocal acrobatics, has played on over 100 albums. He has appeared on Garrison Keilor's Prairie Home Companion, Jay Leno's Tonight Show and was featured in the 1997 film Georgia with Mare Winningham. His musical expertise can also be heard on the Microsoft CD-ROMs, Musical Instruments of the World and the Complete Encyclopedia of Baseball. He teaches as well at the International Guitar Seminar, Pt. Townsend Country Blues Week and Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.

Orville released 4 recordings in the 1990's: The World According to Orville (1990) Blueprint for the Blues (1998) Slide & Joy (1999) an all-instrumental dobro tour de force and Kings of Mongrel Folk (1997) with Mark Graham. He also appeared on 4 discs with the File' Gumbo Zydeco Band and produced Whose World Is This (1997) for Jim Page and Inner Life (1999) for Mark Graham. In the 21st century, he has released Freehand, a new Kings of Mongrel Folk disc, Still Goin' Strong, and been featured in the soundtracks of PBS' Frontier House and the Peter Fonda flick The Wooly Boys as well as the compilation cd Legends of the Incredible Lap Steel Guitar.

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