Harness the Hypnotic Harmonies of the Whole-Tone Scale

This pattern of pitches is simple to visualize on the fretboard, but tricky to use on the bandstand.
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To most rock guitarists, the whole-tone scale remains an enigma - a perfectly symmetrical pattern of pitches that is simple to visualize on the fretboard, yet tricky to use on the bandstand. That pattern - which evenly slices the octave into six whole-steps - may seem perfectly uniform to the eyes, but can sound alien to the ears.

If you’ve never played the whole-tone scale, you’ll find generating it is as easy as choosing a string and playing every other note. Do this, and it should be obvious that there exist exactly two whole-tone scales: one on the even frets, the other on the odd ones, as shown in Ex. 1. The first pattern hits one half of the notes in Western music; the second hits the other half.

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It is the whole-tone sound that remains open to interpretation. Even while complete grid fingerings for the scale are simple to discern (Ex. 2), the dreamy harmonies delivered by them can be difficult to employ. Perhaps we need to call in an expert to help us manage this mysterious melodic material.

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Enter Sweden’s versatile jazz export, Andreas Oberg.

“The whole-tone scale is typically played over dominant 7 chords,” says Oberg to a roomful of students during one of his regular counseling sessions at Musicians Institute. He’s referring to altered lines such as Ex. 3, which uses the whole-tone scale to resolve from A7#5 to Dm.

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“What I want to show you, though, is a cool way to use the scale over minor chords,” says Oberg. “For instance, let’s vamp on a Cm groove. With Cm as our background chord, we’re going to start the scale one fret below the root [Ex. 4].”

Experiment with this approach, noticing that the scale skips the root (C) - we can leave the tonic to the bass player - and makes things interesting by hitting the major 7 (B) and the minor 3 (Eb) of C, which projects an intriguing “minor/major7” flavor.

“It’s very cool for getting so-called outside sounds over a minor vamp, because there are all these useful structures you can pull out of the scale,” says Oberg. He’s talking about shapes such as the augmented Eb-G-B triad triplet that opens Ex. 5. This cluster gets shifted up a whole-step with each new beat. “You can even move it to the next string set [beat four of bar 1]. And, of course, find other shapes and move them around as well [Ex. 6].”

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Once you have some whole-tone structures under your fingers and can bounce them around the fretboard in whole-steps, be sure to “find ways to connect the shapes with chromatic passing tones,” says Oberg. “And, last but not least, be sure you can play a complete augmented arpeggio [Ex. 7], and can bounce that around in whole-steps.”

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Jude Gold is GP’s Los Angeles editor and Director of GIT, the Guitar Program at Musicians Institute. Comments? Email him at jgold@mi.edu.