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The Bluegrass Learning Place-- Scales and the Numbering System

Posted by LifesMiracle on Thursday, January 15, 2015

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Table of Contents © John G Nitkowski

No matter what your skill is you can always be better! The goal is not merely to enable you to play other people's musical ideas, but for you to create your own and be able to play effortlessly and almost without thought as most of the professional musicians do...

I hope you're excited about today's post. I know you're not very happy with the title!

Since the goal is to be able to play effortlessly, we have to go back to basics. Don't worry we'll get to the good stuff.

Major Scales are made up of half steps and whole steps. On the piano, a half step is when you play two notes that are adjacent to each other... regardless of whether they're a black or white key. A whole step means there is a note in between. On the Mandolin, or any fretted instrument, a half step is the interval of one fret and the next one up or down. You have a whole step when you skip a fret. This never changes.


The only Major scale without Sharps or Flats, (the black keys on the piano) is the C Major Scale, All others have at least one.  


The pattern for every Major Scale is:

Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step (Memorize this!)


?Any Major Scale is Eight consecutive notes named by the first note of the scale, for example, the G scale starts with a G.

All Major scales are constructed exactly the same. Utilizing the pattern in the box above, you start on the first note and for the second note you move a whole step, or 2 frets up.

  • So for the G Major scale, the first note is the G which we call 1 on the map.
  • Move up a whole step for the A or 2
  • Move up another whole step for the B or 3
  • Move up a half step for the C or 4
  • Move up a whole step for the D or 5
  • Move up another whole step for the E or 6
  • Move up another whole step for the F# or 7
  • Move up a half step for the G or 8 OR 1 (an octave higher)

We put numbers on all the notes of the scale for the convenience for forming chords. (they're not fingerings) For example if we say 1-3-5 that's the map for a Major chord. So it doesn't matter what scale you're playing, a 1-3-5 is always the Major chord for that scale!

Just remember, the 1-3-5 aren't fingering positions, they're the relationships of the notes of the scale!

  • For the G Major chord (GM or just G) the 1-3-5 is the G-B-D notes.
  • For a CM the 1-3-5 chord is C-E-G
  • For a DM the 1-3-5 chord is D-F#-A

All minor chords have this configuration: 1- b3- 5

  • The small italics b means you flat that note, or lower it by one half step
  • So for a Gm chord, with a small m, you would take the 3, or the B,
     and lower by one-half step to a Bb. So the Gm is G-Bb-D
  • The C chord is C-E-G........ the Cm chord is C-Eb-G

...And so on. You'll be able to play all the minor chords you will learn using this numbering system.

All natural minor scales have this configuration:
1 - 2 -  b3 -  4 - 5 -  b6 - b7 - 8

One more scale I must mention is the Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is made up of 13 notes and includes every tone from one note to its octave counterpart... every black and white note on the piano, or every fret on the mandolin. So when you see the chromatic scale setting on your electronic tuner, you know that every note possible is included.

Another use for the scale numbering system is for naming chord progressions.

If you're at a parking lot jam session, and someone wants to play a song you've never heard before, they'll say something like; one, two, one, four, five, ( I, II. I, IV, V)  in the key of G, three quarters time. So, because you learned this system, you know the chords in the song are G-A-G-C-D, in that order, and it's played like a waltz, three beats per measure. When written, Roman Numerals are used to reduce confusion.

 In the key of D  the same I, II. I, IV, V...  means D-E-D-G-A.

One GREAT THING about the fiddle and mandolin is that their strings are tuned in 5ths.

So that means the fifth note, or the second half, of any scale you're playing will be on the exact same position but just one string higher! So if you're playing an A Scale starting on the fourth (lowest) string, the fifth note of the scale will be the E on the third string. If you don't use open strings, exactly one half of the scale is on one string and the second half is on the next higher string! EXACT SAME FINGERING!

The A Major progression using tablature would be:

  • 1-2-3H-4 on the 4th string and,
  • 1-2-3H-4 on the 3rd string

The G Major progression would be:

  • 0-1-2-3 on the 4th string and,
  • 0-1-2-3 on the 3rd string

There are no exceptions to this rule! You can start on any string, on any note and play the first four notes of the scale on that string and the last four notes will be played on the next string in the exact same position and fingering! The fiddle and mandolin are the only bluegrass instruments in which this is true! This makes it so much easier to learn! You're definitely the envy of the banjo player!

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