Theory 1, 2, 3: Easy Concepts -- Half Steps and Whole Steps, Part 3

Theory Concept 3: How Can I Figure Out A Scale Using Half-Steps and Whole-Steps?

As I mentioned above, we can assign a formula to scales. If you know the formula, you can figure out which notes are in any scale simply by starting on your root note -- the note that is the key of your song or scale -- and then following the formula.

For example, here are the formulas for the typical major and minor Diatonic scale patterns. W stands for whole step, H stands for half-step.

Major Scale

Minor Scale

For example, if you want to play a C major scale, you start on C, then -- according to the formula above -- move up one whole step to D. Then another whole step to E. Then a half-step to F… You get the idea?

If you wanted to play a C minor scale you would start on C, then -- according to the formula above for the minor scale -- you would move up a whole step to D, then a half-step to E-flat. Then a whole step to F, another whole step to G, a half step to A-flat, a whole step to B-flat, and one final whole step to C to complete one octave of the scale.

Summary: Three Concepts

In summary, in this lesson, you’ve learned that:

  1. Whole steps and half steps are simply the distance between two notes.
  2. On the guitar a half step is one fret, a whole step is two frets.
  3. Scales follow formulas of half-steps and whole-steps. The formula for one type of scale (let’s say major) is different than the formula for any other type of scale (let’s say minor, or Mixolydian or some exotic scale from a far away land).

That’s all easy enough to understand, right?

Put It To Use Right Now

Here’s a really helpful exercise you can get out of this. Your guitar playing will improve exponentially if you can hear the difference between a whole step and a half step. Try playing back and forth between G and A over and over again and get the sound in your ear. That’s the sound of a whole step. If you know that sound, any time you hear someone play a whole step, you will be able to recognize that they just made a whole step move.

So let’s say you figured out that Stevie Ray Vaughan just played a C note in his solo on “Texas Flood.” And then you recognize the whole step move. So now you know the next note in the solo is D.

Training your ear to hear the whole step and half step moves one after another is one of the most useful techniques in learning your favorite songs and guitar solos.

And you can probably already hear a whole step or a half step in your head.

Think of the opening chords of “You Really Got Me,” by the Kinks (or Van Halen). That’s a whole step move -- between the G and A chords. The riff goes G-A-A-G-A, in case you didn’t know it.

Now for half steps. Think about the theme from the movie “Jaws.” You know, the musical phrase we all associate with the approaching shark. That’s a half step move, from the low open E string to F at the first fret.

See, you already can hear half steps and whole steps. Now use them to figure out some melodies, one note at a time. And then move on to some solos or some more tricky riffs. You can do this.

Go Back to Concept 1

Go Back to Concept 2

About the Author: Adam St. James is the Editor of and the author of many popular instructional music books, CDs, and DVDs, including the Hal Leonard titles “The Blues Guitar Handbook,” and “101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All The Pros Know And Use,” and his five-hour DVD course “Logical Lead Guitar.”

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