Guitar Scales – A Left-Handed Guide

Learning scales are essential for anyone serious about learning the guitar. But, living in a right-handed world means scale diagrams are almost always created from the perspective of a right-handed guitarist.

With this in mind, in the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at guitar scales from the perspective of a left-handed guitarist, firstly explaining what scales are and why they are so important, and also provide a bunch of resources that make it easier for left-handed guitarists to not only learn scales but play them efficiently and transpose to other keys. But first….

What Are Left-Handed Guitar Scales?

The short answer: Scales are sequences of notes, shown in ascending or descending order. Left-handed scales are scale diagrams adapted for left-handed guitarists. While the musical patterns remain consistent, the finger placements and visual diagrams are reversed, meaning they are tailored to suit the orientation of left-handed guitarists.

The long answer:

Guitar scales are organized sequences of notes that follow specific patterns based on pitch differences. These patterns form the foundational framework of music theory, enabling guitarists to analyze and comprehend melodic and harmonic structures.

Scales also have their own distinct character or flavor. For example, the major scale has a bright and cheerful sound due to its unique sequence of notes, and intervals. In contrast, the minor scale sounds darker, and more serious because of its different note arrangement.

There are many types of scales, and each has a unique sound and purpose in different musical contexts.

For example, the blues scale, as the name suggests, is popular in blues and rock, while the pentatonic scale, containing just five notes, is more universal and found in blues, rock, and pop music. The minor scale, while extremely versatile and used across a wide range of musical genres is perhaps most commonly associated with classical music.

Becoming familiar with scales allows guitarists to play across the guitar’s neck confidently, write solos, improvise, understand chord construction, and connect more deeply with the music they’re playing.

Why Left-Handed Scales?

For left-handed guitarists, utilizing right-handed scale charts presents a unique set of challenges. These charts are visually and structurally oriented toward the natural progression of a right-handed player’s finger placement on the fretboard. As such, left-handed players may find these diagrams counter-intuitive, impeding their learning progress.

This can hinder the development of muscle memory and the internalization of scale structures. To address this issue, left-handed guitarists can seek out resources specifically designed for them, such as left-handed scale charts (as we will refer to in this article).

Alternatively, they can practice mentally flipping right-handed diagrams, although this requires additional cognitive effort, which I’ll explain below.

Adapting Scales for Left-Handers

As previously mentioned, left-handed guitarists can refer to left-handed resources where available, but the majority of websites and magazines that offer chord charts, scale diagrams, and resources for learning songs rarely offer this (although this is slowly changing), resulting in what I like to call “the mirror image challenge“.

The Mirror Image Challenge

When a left-handed guitarist is required to use a right-handed resource such as a scale diagram, instead of simply mimicking a movement or position, the left-handed player is required to mentally flip the information to make it applicable, much like it would appear as if reflected in a mirror.

The Mirro Image Challenge (Converting Right-Handed Scale Diagrams to Left-Handed)

As a result, reversing traditional fingerings and diagrams is a pivotal skill for left-handed guitarists. Below are some tips you may find useful for countering the “mirror image challenge”

  • Initial Perception: First, understand that the diagram in front of you is essentially the opposite of what would otherwise feel most intuitive to you. For example, if looking directly at a guitar scale diagram the headstock end of the guitar will be facing the opposite direction your headstock will be pointed in.
  • Mental Rotation: While difficult to do initially begin by mentally “flipping” the diagram e.g. not merely rotating as this would result in the top string being the 6th, and not the 1st string as intended. Imagine looking at the diagram in a mirror; the order of strings should remain the same (e.g. the lowest string remains at the bottom of the diagram) but the finger placements are reversed.
  • Finger Placement Interpretation: Consider the fret placements. A note that appears on the leftmost part of a diagram for a right-handed player would be on the rightmost for a left-handed player when mentally mirrored.
  • Holistic Visualization: Over time, aim to see the entire diagram as its mirror image without focusing on the individual components. This holistic visualization will allow quicker interpretation and adaptation.
  • Practice Scenarios: One effective way to hone this skill is by taking a scale diagram and trying to play it without any alteration. Over time, the mental translation becomes quicker and more accurate, reducing the gap between seeing a right-handed resource and playing it in a left-handed manner.
  • By regularly practicing this visualization technique and challenging oneself with right-handed materials, left-handed guitarists can develop the ability to almost instantaneously interpret and adapt resources tailored for their right-handed counterparts.

How to Read Scale Diagrams

Of course, before we dive into each of the scales (major, minor, pentatonic, and blues) it’s important that you understand how to read a scale diagram, how to transpose e.g. move the pattern up or down the neck to change key and learn efficient fingering for playing scales. Below are the basics of reading scale diagrams:

A Major Scale (Left-Handed)
  • Strings and Frets: Scale diagrams are presented in a grid format, where vertical lines represent the guitar’s strings and horizontal lines denote frets. The example above shows the entire fretboard (I prefer this approach because it allows you to quickly navigate where you are on the fretboard), but many scale diagrams just show a section of the neck, including only the frets involved in the scale).
  • Root Note: The starting note or “root” of the scale is often highlighted or marked differently from the other notes. This note gives the scale its name, like “A” in the A major scale. In the example above, I have reversed the color of the root notes e.g. the root notes are represented as white circles, and the remaining notes are blue. Keep in mind there are three rot notes as such because the major scale repeats as it only contains 7 notes.
  • Dot Placement: Dots placed on the grid show where fingers should press down on the fretboard. These are the notes of the scale in sequence.

Transposing Scale Diagrams

Transposition involves moving a scale’s pattern to a different root note, allowing you to play the same scale but in a different key. Below are the basics of transposing scales:

  • Identify the Root: Start by identifying the root note of the scale you wish to transpose. This is usually the lowest root note shown in the diagram. In the example scale diagram shown above this would be the 5th fret of the low E string.
  • Shift the Pattern: Move the entire scale pattern up or down the fretboard to start from the desired new root note. Ensure that every note in the pattern shifts by the same number of frets. It is beneficial to know at least the notes on the low E string for this purpose. For example, moving the entire scale shape down 2 frets would mean the lowest root note is subsequently found on the 3rd fret of the low E string, which is the note G – meaning the diagram would be representing the G major scale.
  • Maintain Finger Positions: When transposing, the relative finger positions usually remain the same. Only the starting position changes.

Efficient Finger Positioning for Playing Scales

The most important principle when it comes to finger position for playing scales is minimizing efficiency or “economical movement.”

Efficient Finger Placement for Playing Scales

This typically means assigning each finger to a single fret, and as we have four fingers and many scale patterns span four frets, it’s logical to allocate one finger per fret. This strategy minimizes unnecessary right-hand (left-hand if you are playing right-handed) movements, promoting efficiency, and importantly accuracy.

While there are different ways to play scales, including three notes per string, I’d recommend using scale patterns as shown above, at least to begin with, that limit extensive fretting-hand movement.

Key Scales for Guitarists to Start With (Left-Handed Scale Diagrams)

While learning how to read and utilize right-handed diagrams is a fairly essential skill if left-handed, where possible left-handed scale diagrams can make the process easier. In my experience, as someone who has played guitar left-handed for over 30 years, I can confidently say that using left-handed resources doesn’t lead to greater difficulty comprehending right-handed diagrams either.

With this in mind, in the following section, I’ll be listing the 5 essential scales for guitarists, and using left-handed diagrams to visually represent them. Each will be shown in the key of A, but keep in mind to transpose each of the scales to an alternative key, simply move the entire scale pattern up or down the fretboard to start from a new root note, and ensure that every note in the pattern shifts by the same number of frets.

The Major Scale

A Major Scale (Left-Handed)

The major scale is foundational in music for several reasons:

  1. Music Theory Foundation: The major scale serves as the cornerstone of Western music theory. Understanding it is essential for grasping concepts like intervals, chords, and harmonization.
  2. Building Chords: The major scale provides the framework for constructing chords, including major, minor, and even extended chords, which are the building blocks of countless songs.
  3. Fretboard Navigation: Learning the major scale patterns across the fretboard allows guitarists to seamlessly transition between keys and positions, enhancing fluidity and versatility in playing.
  4. Foundational for Other Scales: Many other scales, like the modes (Dorian, Mixolydian, etc.), are derived from the major scale. Knowing the major scale inside out aids in comprehending and mastering other scales.

The Minor Scale

The A Minor Scale (Left-Handed)

The minor scale is one of the foundational scales in many musical traditions. It is characterized by its specific interval pattern, which includes a minor third between the first and third notes. This minor third is primarily responsible for the scale’s distinctive sound. In the natural minor scale, the pattern of whole and half steps is: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. When played, this sequence of intervals produces a sound that is generally perceived as sadder or more introspective compared to the bright and uplifting quality of the major scale.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The A Minor Pentatonic Scale (Left-Handed)

The minor pentatonic scale is a five-note scale derived from the natural minor scale. The term “pentatonic” is derived from the Greek word “pente,” meaning five, indicating the scale’s five distinct tones. This scale omits the second and sixth notes of the seven-note natural minor scale (see above), resulting in a simpler and more open sound.

In terms of intervals, it consists of the root, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Its relatively fewer notes and lack of half-step intervals make it less dissonant and more adaptable, making it a favorite choice for guitarists and is particularly prevalent in blues, rock, and jazz, often serving as the backbone for guitar solos and melodic improvisations.

The Major Pentatonic Scale

A The Major Pentatonic Scale (Left-Handed)

The major pentatonic scale is also a five-note scale derived from the seven-note major scale. This scale is constructed by removing the fourth and seventh notes from the standard major scale. In terms of intervals, the major pentatonic comprises the root, major second, major third, perfect fifth, and major sixth.

Like the minor pentatonic scale, its lack of half-step intervals prevents any inherent dissonance, granting the scale a universally harmonious sound. The major pentatonic scale is a cornerstone in numerous musical traditions worldwide, from American folk and country to East Asian traditional music.

The Blues Scale

A Blues Scale (Left-Handed)

The blues scale is a variant of the minor pentatonic scale, augmented with an additional chromatic note, referred to as the “blue note.” As the name implies, this six-note scale is integral to the sound of blues. The blue note, typically a flattened fifth (or augmented fourth) relative to the scale’s root, introduces a dissonant or “dirty” quality, infusing the scale with its iconic tension and expressiveness.

In terms of intervals, the blues scale includes the root, minor third, perfect fourth, diminished fifth (the blue note), perfect fifth, and minor seventh.

While the blues scale is mostly associated with blues, its influence extends to rock, jazz, funk, and even pop.

Practice Techniques For Scales

Before we sign off, below are some useful tips for firstly, learning and then becoming more efficient at playing scales.

  1. Start Slowly: Begin at a comfortable tempo, focusing on accuracy over speed.
  2. Use a Metronome: This ensures consistent timing and helps gradually increase speed (more on this shortly).
  3. Finger Positioning: Ensure fingers are close to the frets for cleaner notes.
  4. Alternate Picking: Practice using alternate up and down strokes for efficiency.
  5. Practice Daily: Consistency is key. Dedicate time each day solely for scales.
  6. Vary Scales: Don’t just stick to major or minor scales; explore major and minor pentatonic, the blues scale, and then expand your understanding in the direction of modes.
  7. Use Multiple Positions: Once you have learned scales in the positions shown above, research playing scales across the entire fretboard, not just in one position.
  8. Record Yourself: Playback can highlight areas that need improvement.
  9. Seek Feedback: Play for peers or teachers and get constructive criticism.

Using a Metronome for Scale Practice:

Arguably the best tip I can provide is to practice using a metronome. Practicing scales with a metronome offers the following benefits:

  1. Consistency: Metronomes promote even playing and eliminate tempo fluctuations.
  2. Speed Development: Starting slow and gradually increasing the tempo helps build agility and reinforces accuracy.
  3. Timing: The use of a metronome helps refine a musician’s internal sense of rhythm.
  4. Discipline: Metronomes prevent unconscious slowing in challenging sections.
  5. Progress Tracking: Documenting metronome settings gives a tangible measure of improvement. For example, once comfortable at a specific temp you can speed up the metronome.

Final Thoughts

Mastering guitar scales is a pivotal step for any aspiring guitarist, offering a comprehensive understanding of melodic structures and enhancing one’s musical depth.

While the world predominantly caters to right-handed guitarists, left-handers face unique challenges, especially when translating traditional scale diagrams. However, armed with the knowledge of what scales are, their significance, and the strategies to transpose and adapt them, left-handed players can navigate these challenges.

Specialized resources, such as left-handed scale charts, bridge the gap between traditional materials and the needs of left-handed guitarists, mitigating the “mirror image challenge.” Whether you’re practicing the major, minor, pentatonic, or blues scales, utilizing techniques like playing to a metronome, focusing on finger positioning, and seeking feedback can expedite one’s learning curve.

I hope you find the information above useful.

FAQ

How many scales are there?

The total number of scales worldwide is vast, numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, especially when considering all regional, historical, and experimental scales.

Why do certain scales sound happy and others sound sad?

Certain scales evoke specific emotional responses primarily due to their intervals. The major scale, with its specific sequence of intervals, often sounds “happy” or “bright” to many listeners, largely because of its major third. In contrast, the minor scale, which possesses a minor third, tends to convey a “sad” or “melancholic” mood. These perceptions have been ingrained over centuries by cultural associations and the context in which these scales have been used in music.

What are scale positions?

Scale positions refer to various patterns on the fretboard where a particular scale can be played. Each position offers a unique arrangement of notes from the scale across the frets and strings, allowing guitarists to play the same scale starting from different notes of that scale. Understanding multiple positions for a given scale enhances a guitarist’s versatility and ability to navigate the entire fretboard fluidly.

How can I use scales to improve my improvisation skills?

By practicing scales, you internalize note patterns, enabling spontaneous and fluid playing. Additionally, familiarity with scales aids in recognizing and anticipating chord progressions, allowing for more cohesive and harmonious improvised solos.

Why do some scales have more than seven notes?

Some scales have more than seven notes due to cultural, musical, or theoretical reasons. For instance, certain non-Western musical traditions utilize scales with microtones, resulting in scales that exceed the typical seven-note structure found in Western music. Additionally, some scales, like the chromatic scale, encompass all twelve pitches in an octave.

About Marty

My name's Marty, I've been tinkering around on left-handed guitars for over 30 years.