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The Bluegrass Learning Place-- Harmonized Scales

Friday, January 23, 2015

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, accurately, and almost without thought as most of the professional musicians do...

Today we're going to have fun with Major Harmonized Scales!

Learning these in every key is what really makes you stand out as a fiddle player. And again, we're going to be using the MAPS with no open strings, so once you learn one, you can use the same map to play in in every other key! However, they are a little more challenging than learning the single note scales, and you will have to practice them A LOT to get really good at them!

It's going to be a lot easier to show you the patterns on the Mandolin
Then you can take the concepts directly to your fiddle.

The reason we're looking at it first in the key of C is for simplicity-- no sharps or flats.

The first thing to notice is the pattern. You start with a Major, then play two minors, two Majors, a minor, a diminished, and a Major. This pattern is the same for EVERY Major scale.

By the way, the diminished chord in the seventh position is only for three note chords but I wanted it to be technically correct. The seventh chord in the three note harmonized scale is always diminished, in which you flat the 3rd AND the 5th of the CHORD, in this case the B chord. But because we're only using two harmony notes you can play the Bdim as a B minor.

Next you see is that the root of the scale is the higher note. So that makes it the first inversion.

Notice that the lower string notes are made up of the SAME NOTES AS THE C SCALE but start on the E,
which is the third note of the C scale... if you were to play the notes of the C scale, (NOT the notes of the E scale), starting on the E while another instrument was playing the single note C scale, you would be playing in perfect harmony! For all the technically inclined people, you would be playing in the Phrygian Mode, which is really important for playing harmony backups.

We'll be talking about the 7 Modes later, but for now it means playing all the notes of a scale consecutively, but not beginning with the Root note!

So let's put our harmonized scale in the key of E, which is the lowest key you can play with no open strings. We're going to play it ONLY on the D and G strings, which means you're going to finish WAY UP the neck!

Again, we're using the mandolin tab because fiddle tab doesn't make much sense way up the neck.

Don't even concern yourself with the notes at all, or even the finger positions! This is truly about relationship of one note to the other and you're going to be playing way up the neck in places you and Tabledit never dreamed existed!

Take the same MAP you played in the C position and overlay it for the E harmonized scale. Find the 3-1 E chord and make that your starting position... the 1st and 2nd fret on the 4th and 3rd strings:


     Notice that I have put either Wide or Narrow labels on each of the double stops.

  • Narrow means that the fingerings on the notes are one fret apart and are played with the 2nd and 3rd fingers. (Use your 1st and 2nd fingers for the first note for more room.)
  • Wide signifies that they're two frets apart and played with the 1st and 3rd fingers.
  • You will only use those fingers, sliding them up to play all the notes of the scale.



Once you learn that pattern, then learn it on 3 strings

Here's where it gets really fun.

Remember the lesson on the Major Scales where we said, because the fiddle (and mandolin) are tuned in 5ths, the scale is divided into halves... the exact same fingering for the first four notes on the lowest string are duplicated on the next string up.

What we're seeing here is... it's the same when you play the harmonized scales! It couldn't be any easier!


Please watch the video in full screen to see the fingerings clearly!



So now let's see what the E Major Scale on 3 strings looks like using Fiddle Tab:
(Don't forget, after your first note, you're only using your 2nd and 3rd fingers for the narrow and
 1st and 3rd for the wide stops.)


When you've mastered the scale in E, you can now play all 12 scales, just by finding the root 3-1 chord and making that your starting point!

I also want to stress that you should be able to play the E Major harmonized scale on only the D and G strings all the way up the neck, not only because it sounds better that way, but also because you will often use some of the higher parts of the scale in other positions, for example, for the turn-around intro for Mansion on the Hill.

If at any point you're getting too high on the neck you can pick up the next notes on the next higher strings at any time!

The 4th and 5th chords of your harmonized scales are your IV and V chords in your chord progression.

So instead of changing strings when playing chords, you can move UP THE NECK to your IV or V position and play from there. It really opens things up for you.

All the notes of the harmonized scale except the I, IV, and V are played as minor chords... which, in case you forgot, is the Major chord in which the 3rd is flatted. It could be a b3-1, 1-b3, b3-5, or a 5-b3.

Go back to the 1st ​mandolin diagram to understand it clearly.

It's worth it to spend all the time you can to learn this as it will give you the ability to play in every key. As I mentioned it will take a lot of work to perfect because you don't have frets and the spacing between the notes gets smaller as you move up the neck.

It's similar to a basketball player who has to learn to make shots from three feet away, four feet away, six feet away, ten feet away, twenty feet away... Every shot needs different power and arc, but practice makes perfect! Once you learn harmonized scales, you'll always KNOW where to place your fingers, and as I say at the beginning of each post, effortlessly, accurately, and almost without thought!

As always, remember as you move up the neck the spacing gets smaller!  If you’re used to using tape to mark your frets you’ll need to learn to use your ear to determine the finger spacing to get the true notes.​ However, after learning this MAP system you can probably get rid of the tape entirely.  

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