You Only Need To Know 2 Whole-Tone Scales to Play Over Any Dominant Chord
When learning scales, most guitarists tend to focus on major scales and modes which are important, but one lesser studied symmetrical scale that can add some flavour to your playing is the whole-tone scale. The whole-tone scale is a great scale to learn if you want to add some crunch to your lines. Because of the scale’s construction there’s a few cool ways that you can apply it on the guitar neck and use it in your playing.
In this lesson I will be explaining how to play the whole tone scale on guitar by explaining how it’s formed, suggesting efficient fingerings, and some cool licks and patterns that you can use to get the sounds from this cool scale into your ears and onto your fingers.
Like the augmented, chromatic and diminished scales, the whole-tone scale is a symmetrical scale meaning that the same shape repeats itself across the neck, unlike other scales where you have to learn a new fingering every couple of frets.
To find out more about how to practice scales beneficially, check out this article I wrote. As the name suggests, the whole-tone scale is constructed of whole tones or major 2nd intervals. So let’s check out the formula in the key of C:
Interval Formula: R, 2nd, 3rd, #4, #5, b7
Note names: C, D, E, F#, G#, Bb
The Whole Tone scale is built from an augmented triad and along with the #11 found in the scale you can use this scale to solo over 7#11 and 7b13 chords. For a more detailed study of how to play different dominant 7th chords and develop overall well rounded chord and comping techniques, check out this 30 day comping series I wrote.
Due to the crunch that this scale provides, you can use it over most types of dominant 7th chords and get a pleasing result as well as apply it over all the different chord types. The cool thing about the whole-tone scale is that any note can function as the root so you only need to know the scale in two keys a half-step apart to be able to use it over any chord.
First let’s remind ourselves of the notes from a C whole tone scale: C, D, E, F#, G#, and Bb. If you wanted to play a D whole tone scale the notes would be D, E, F#, G#, and C which are the same notes as the C whole tone scale, just started from the second note in the scale.
This principle is similar to starting a major scale on different degrees of the scales to obtain modes, but because whole-tone scales have only 6 notes, all 12 can be played by just moving the scale up a semi-tone. So by just knowing the C and Db whole tone scales, you can play a whole in any key by start on a different note within each scale.
Personally I like to think of the two scales as being C and G. G has the same notes as Db, but I prefer to think of the scale as being in G, because it makes it easier to see the scales in cyclic situations when using two whole-tone scales.
Below is a chart of cycling dominants, like in a Rhythm Changes bridge which shows which of the two whole-tone scales you can apply.
To conclude this study of the whole-tone scale here are two cool licks that use this scale in different ways which you can study and add to your vocabulary.
Augmented Triads Lick
This lick uses G, F, Eb, and Db augmented triads found within the whole tone scale. Not only will the lick work over a G7, but also over A7, B7, Db7, Eb7, and F7. The constant triplets give the line a nice bouncy feel, and the way it lays on the fretboard makes for a great sweep-picking exercise. This line is ideal for altered chords that are resolving so it can be easily applied to II-V-I situations.
Horizontal Whole-Tone Scale Lick
As I mentioned at the beginning of the lesson there are numerous cool patterns which are found within the whole tone scale and here’s one that demonstrates a funky shape that you can move across the neck. You can play start this lick from every 5th note, and start it high above the neck and move it down for variation.
The first step in practicing the whole-tone scale is learning the note names of both scales a half step apart. When you have done this start to find efficient fingerings for them across the guitar neck. Then start creating licks and melodies, apply them to different chord types, mix them with other scales, and apply them over tunes that you know.
I hope this lesson helps you to understand how the whole-tone scale is formed and used by jazz guitarists. It’s one of my favorite scales to use, and has a certain crunch that isn’t found with other scales. How do you practice the whole-tone scale? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.