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4 Essential Bluegrass Guitar Scales: Beginner Lesson

If you love bluegrass guitar you owe it to yourself to check out Bryan Sutton's lessons at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons! 

bluegrass guitar scales

You must learn to walk before you learn to run. When it comes to flatpicking, you must first learn your scales before learning to shred. 

Learning some of the commonly used scales is a critical step towards advancing your skills as a bluegrass guitarist. As with any instrument, it's very important to make sure that you're taking your time with the basics before moving onto more complicated techniques and theories. Let’s go over some essential guitar scales you will want to learn early on before moving on to the more advanced concepts.

With some of these basic bluegrass guitar scales under your belt, you'll have a great foundation to build on when it comes to playing leads and improvising. 

1. The Major Scale

This is arguably the most important scale to familiarize yourself with when you are starting out with bluegrass guitar. Most people, even non-musicians, recognize the Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do pattern of a major scale, which is an indication of how ubiquitous it is in popular music. The majority of bluegrass songs are in major keys, so you will want to familiarize yourself with both the shapes and sounds of major scales in various keys.

The most common keys in bluegrass are G, C, D, A, E and F - so it's always a good idea to learn those first. 

2. The Major Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is another scale that you should try to nail down early on. The “penta” in the name of the scale tells us that it is made up of five notes (as opposed to the seven in the major scale). You will notice, however, that the five notes of the pentatonic scale are actually all part of the major scale, so while you are learning these scales, it is important to pay attention to how they integrate with one another on the fret board.

bluegrass guitar scales 2

If you love bluegrass guitar you owe it to yourself to check out Bryan Sutton's lessons at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons! 

3. The Minor Pentatonic Scale

Like the major pentatonic scale, the minor version only has five notes, but it is built around a natural minor scale instead of a major scale. It is important to learn these scales, because you’ll want to use them when you’re ready to improvise over a song in a minor key - but you can also integrate minor pentatonic licks into major key songs. This will help you add a more funky/bluesy tonality to your solos.

In fact, one of the most common guitar embellishments (or runs) in bluegrass goes from the minor 3rd of the pentatonic to the major 3rd of the major scale. It's called the G Run, and you can learn a lot about it from Bryan Sutton in this video here: 

4. The Mixolydian Scale

This one is a scale with a tricky name but a simple concept. The mixolydian scale is essentially a major scale with a lowered (or flatted) 7th. For example, instead of playing G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G in the key of G, you would play G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The flatted seventh is a common interval that you will hear in rock and blues as well, so it will be important to familiarize yourself with this modified major scale.

Make sure that as you are learning these scales, you are also learning the note names and sounds, as well as the shapes. Also work on learning various patterns and sequences to practice these scales with so you are not simply running them up and down linearly. You’ll be glad you did once you get into more complicated tunes and start developing your improvisational skills.

As Bryan Sutton says in his lessons at ArtistWorks, “you can run scales all you want, but our goal here is to make music.”

bluegrass guitar scales

If you love bluegrass guitar you owe it to yourself to check out Bryan Sutton's lessons at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons! 

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