For those who are uncertain where to begin studying music theory, diatonic scales are an ideal starting spot.
If you narrow your theoretical scope down to melody and modes (essentially lead guitar), diatonic scale guitar theory becomes a more significant cornerstone.
And in this lesson, we’ll explain it.
We’ll also try to make it really easy to understand, by taking a highly complex and mathematical subject, and boiling it down to the information that is most helpful to guitar players.
Benefit of Knowing Diatonic Scale Guitar Theory?
And you might ask, “Why do I need to know diatonic scale theory?”
I suppose you don’t need to.
You can certainly play a lot of guitar without understanding anything about diatonic scales.
But I also know that some of you want to know what’s going on. And if you’re here, chances are you’re one of those people. So allow me to reenforce your intentions of learning about diatonic scales.
Learning this, and most other music theory topics, is beneficial for the following reasons:
- Theory teaches you music and not just guitar.
- The diatonic scale is a foundational pattern that leads into a number of modes you’ll likely run into as a guitar player.
- Scale-related theory helps you make sense of melodies on the fretboard.
- All music theory makes you a more serious and respectable musician.
What kind of guitar player doesn’t know how their instrument works?
Sure, you might be able to play really well.
You might even be blazing fast.
But isn’t it more significant if you know what’s going on underneath the hood? There’s no better way to truly know your instrument, then in a theoretical sense.
And if you learn it, you’ll enter into a small percentage of guitar players who are working, not just to become impressive guitarists, but accomplished musicians.
Diatonic scales are a great place to begin that journey.
Just the Definition: What is a diatonic scale?
A diatonic scale contains seven notes in succession, where each note is a natural note.
But, what’s a natural note?
Glad you asked:
A natural note is simply a note that is neither sharp nor flat.
That makes sense, but could you give me a concrete example?
A diatonic scale would be C, D, E, F, G, A and B, or, all the white keys on a piano going from one C note to the next.
But what about a guitar example?
The C major scale, is an example of a diatonic scale. As you can see in the diagram (in the link), there are no sharps or flats.
Here is another example, tabbed in the key of G:
E|----------------------- B|----------------------- G|----------------------- D|-----------------2--3-- A|--------2--3--5-------- E|--3--5-----------------
We know this tab is a diatonic scale because the notes are all natural: G, A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
Any corresponding transposition of succeeding natural notes would also be considered a diatonic scale.
So, what would it look like if I summarized all this information?
Let’s try this:
While there is a lot of additional information and dependencies on diatonic scales, this is perhaps the easiest way to simply define diatonic scales as a concept.
But what if you wanted to explore some of the more relevant, additional information?
Let’s look at some topics that will shore up our understanding of this concept.
Diatonic Major Scales
The major scale (also called the Ionian scale), and the minor scale that corresponds to it (natural minor), are both diatonic scales.
From the major scale, you get seven distinct notes and an eighth note that is a duplicate of the root note, an octave higher. This is the most common pattern you’ll find that falls under the category of diatonic.
The diatonic scale also includes the following seven modes:
- Ionian (major scale)
- Aeolian (natural minor scale)
You can see that our major and natural minor scale are both included as Ionian and Aeolian modes.
So the more proper terms for major and minor scale - if you don’t use their mode designation - would be diatonic major and diatonic minor.
Because of its relevance, let’s continue to focus on the major scale:
The major scale gives you seven different scale degrees for each note, which include:
- First: Tonic (root note)
- Second: Supertonic
- Third: Mediant
- Fourth: Subdominant
- Fifth: Dominant
- Sixth: Submediant
- Seventh: Leading Tone
- Eighth: Tonic (octave)
Each scale degree is separated by an interval, which - when grouped together - create what’s called a sequence of intervals.
And to summarize:
The major scale is the most important and recognizable form of a diatonic scale.
And concerning its construction:
A diatonic major scale contains seven notes, and an eighth octave, which each have their own scale degree and are separated by a sequence of intervals.
The Conceptual Versus the Practical
Now, there are two different ways that we need to look at the topic of diatonic scales.
- Conceptual and Theoretical
- Practical and Applicable
In short, conceptual is what we understand and know while practical is what we perform or do.
To be a good musician, you need to have both, but you also need to separate them and understand them as two different disciplines.
And you might ask:
How do the two coexist?
Generally speaking, conceptual and theoretical topics lead us to some kind of application or doing.
In the case of diatonic scales, most of what you’re reading here is theoretical, with distant application. In other words, you don’t really need to think of diatonic scales in terms of how you perform them.
Instead, they’re a conceptual tool that you can use to gain a further understanding of other more directly applicable topics, such as intervals and major scales.
These topics, though theoretical, hold more direct application to what you play on the fretboard.
Diatonic scales help explain and give a definition to these concepts.
Foundational Music Theory
These topics are important because they provide a cornerstone, of sorts, for our understanding of music theory.
As a result, we become more informed and educated guitar players, knowing about music and not just the fretboard.
And if you can be that type of musician, you’ll be in a minority.
This minority, being well-informed, sought-after and highly valuable in studio or performing scenarios, is a good one to be a part
Other Advanced Lead Guitar Resources
Building Harmonic Variety into the D Major Chord Shape: A lead guitar lesson that focuses on harmony and melodic variance within the D major chord shape.
Jazz Guitar Harmony and the Basics of Shell Voicing: An advanced lesson on Jazz patterns and shell voicing from music professor Mark Whetzel.
Clean, Easy Moonlight Sonata Guitar Tab: The "Moonlight Sonata" parsed into seven different tabs that are easy to learn, one by one.
Exploring Guitar Arpeggios on the Higher Register: Using short melodic patterns via arpeggios on the higher frets.
Write and Record Pentatonic Scale Guitar Solos: A lesson on writing and recording solos using the pentatonic scale shape.
How to Superimpose the Pentatonic Minor Scale Over Chords: An advanced lead guitar lesson on applying the pentatonic minor scale.
Lydian Mode Guitar Study: Understanding and applying the theory of the Lydian mode.
Simple Classical Guitar Tabs: Sampling and learning tabs from some of the most popular classical pieces.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron