10 scales from around the world that will broaden your playing horizons

Guitar Playing
(Image credit: FilippoBacci / Getty)

As creative musicians, we’re always on the hunt for fresh and unique sounds. One way to introduce new musical ideas and reinvigorate our playing is to look at incorporating less familiar sounds. 

As most pop, rock, blues and even jazz utilises a well-worn set of scales and chords, a great way to do this is by studying scales that popular western music rarely employs. We can cover new ground either by exploring a completely new concept, revisiting an old musical friend to search for new ideas, or by slightly modifying something we already know well. 

Our brief today is to help us expand our playing by focusing in on 10 different scale sounds, with a range of five, seven and eight-note options coming from all over the world. These will allow you to add sophistication, edge and beauty to your playing. You’ll expand your knowledge of harmony along with your melodic phrasing, fluency and compositional options along the way. 

There are 10 musical examples for your perusal. Each consists of a new scale definition, an intervallic or triadic exercise to establish some of the harmonic possibilities using this sound exclusively, a harmonised chord scale with a suitable chord from each available note, and a full solo consisting of licks, melodies and appropriate musical phrases derived from each scale entirely and exclusively.

To really assimilate each sound I’d suggest you spend some time with each in isolation and become as familiar as you can with the intervallic content. Begin with the fingerings as listed but it’s also a good idea to find these notes in as many positions as you can, including mapping the scale out along the length of a single string. 

This will give you the best physical distance-to-interval relationship and will really assist you in internalising the sound. With this in mind, I’d also suggest singing what you play. Start with just the ascending and descending scale patterns and work up to the arpeggio and interval exercises outlined in the musical examples. 

Marty Friedman

Marty Friedman is a rock guitarist who loves to explore less common harmony. (Image credit: Susumu Miyawaki)

It’s also a great idea to try to sing each line and lick, either out loud or just to yourself in your head. Even if you get things slightly wrong, it may still help your phrasing to sound more like the music you imagine, rather than what you fingers are capable of reaching without necessarily being in control internally. 

Create a chord progression for each scale using the chords listed and try these ideas out in a contextualised way and you’ll be using these ideas in your playing in no time

Working on scales in this focused way, by establishing the fingerings and sound, defining the harmonic options within each sound and then by creating a vocabulary of useable melodic options from each, is an immensely useful strategy.

It’s also a whole world away, in terms of application and motivation, from just passively ascending and descending each scale from top to bottom to a metronome click, with little attention or comprehension to when and where this sound might be applied in an actual musical context.

You could give yourself the goal of creating a short number of original musical phrases or composed licks; say three to begin with, for each scale. Create a chord progression for each scale using the chords listed and try these ideas out in a contextualised way and you’ll be using these ideas in your playing in no time. As always, enjoy. 

Technique focus: Shaping your scale melodies

While it’s valuable and immensely helpful to run through scale exercises, both sequentially and in intervals leaps, the real secret to bringing these to life and out of the world of dry academia is to shape your melodic choices into cohesive musical phrases. 

Consider the rhythmic shape of each idea, where and when the pauses occur and the balance between long and short notes. How about the melodic contour of each melodic fragment? 

Also, how does what you have just played influence what you are about to play in the next moment? It’s importantly that you ‘play’ the scales, rather than let the scale play you. We should still be able to hear your musical personality shine through, with the rhythmic vocabulary, dynamic preferences and other aspects that make up your personal style in tact, irrespective of which scale you have chosen.

Get the tone

AMP SETTINGS: Gain 5, Bass 5, Middle 4, Treble 6, Reverb 4

For the scale, triad arpeggio and chord sections go for a full sounding clean tone using the neck pickup. For the single-note line solo based ideas  add a light crunchy overdrive with the bridge pickup to achieve a tone that sings but is still dynamically expressive. Go easy on the gain and deliver the notes with commitment and conviction. Ensure all notes ring true and that you keep all idle open strings at bay with muting.

Example 1. Chinese Scale (R-3-#4-5-7)

Our first collection of notes is the Chinese scale, essentially a Major Pentatonic scale, although the raised 4th (F#) and Major 7 (B) allude to connections to the Lydian mode. 

You could see this as Lydian Pentatonic, as the intervallic numbers are exactly the same as the more common Minor Pentatonic (Root-3rd-4th-5th-7th), although the intervals are shaped to fit into a Major tonality (R-maj3-#4-5-maj7, rather than the more familiar Root-b3-4-5-b7).

Example 2. Byzantine Scale/Double Harmonic Minor Scale (R-b2-3-4-5-b6-7)

You might recognise the sound of our second (Major) scale from the theme tune to one of Quentin Tarantino’s legendary blockbusters. There’s a dark sophistication to this sound, due to the flattened 2nd (Db) and flattened 6th degree (Ab), although this is offset a little by the brightness of the Major 7th (B). 

The Byzantine scale is also palindromic, so the intervals are the same distance from the root upwards (semitone-b3rd-semitone, etc.) as they are from the octave downwards. This has certain implications for contrary motion and any melodic idea can be echoed with a reflected phrase in the opposite direction. 

A key harmonic point here is the parallel chords available, with C Major and Db Major, along with both E Minor and F Minor all being present.

Example 3. Oriental Scale (1-b2-3-4-b5-6-b7)

This interesting collection of notes outlines the sound of Major, albeit with a flattened 7th (Bb), implying a Dominant 7th tonality, along with the lowered 5th (Gb). 

Once again we see some parallel triads, here in the form of A Minor and Bb Minor, although these separate to Am7 (A-C-E-G) and Bbm/maj7 (Bb-Dbb-F-A) when considered into their four-note chordal forms. As with many of our scales, only a few notes differentiate it from something much more ‘regular’ sounding.

Example 4. Hijaz Scale (R-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7)

You may already be familiar with this Major based scale (C-Db-E-F-G-Ab-Bb), as it has a number of aliases, such as the Phrygian Dominant or Spanish Phrygian. You may also recognise this familiar but sophisticated sound as the fifth mode of F Harmonic Minor (F-G-Ab-Bb-C-Db-E). 

Whichever title you so choose, it’s a sound that is associated with Dominant 7th chords with the dark sound of the  flattened 9th (D9), such as C7b9 (C-E-G-Bb-Db). It’s possible to make the connection with Diminished 7th, by considering four components of this five-note chord (E-G-Bb-Db = Edim7).

Example 5. Persian Scale (R-b2-3-4-b5-b6-7)

Our final Major scale is the mysterious-sounding Persian scale, once again featuring both the flattened 2nd (Db), flattened 5th (Gb) and flattened 6th degrees (Ab). As this scale features a Major 7th (B), it’s possible to repurpose both b5 and b6 degrees into #4 (F#) and #5 (G#), to allow us to create Imaj7#4(no 5th) (C-E-F#-B), or Cmaj7#5 (C-E-G#-B). 

It’s a good idea when looking at such scales to get into the habit of considering enharmonic alternatives, to see if there are any more familiar harmonic constructs available within any less familiar melodic material. 

Spend some time familiarising yourself with the sound of every component note here so any work spent on chromatic interval recognition will be duly rewarded.

Example 6. Hirajoshi Scale (R-2-b3-5-b6)

For our first Minor example we’re looking at the Hirajoshi scale, essentially another Pentatonic option that alludes to a Natural Minor or Aeolian tonality (R-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb), albeit with no perfect 4th (F) or flattened 7th (Bb). 

Rather like Example 1, where the Chinese scale can be seen as a similar template to Minor Pentatonic with modified intervals, Hirajoshi can be visualised as the same numeric content as Major Pentatonic (R-2-3-5-6), but with the intervals changed to reflect this Minor tonality – so instead we find the Minor 3rd (Eb) and flattened 6th (Ab).

Example 7. Arabian Scale (R-2-b3-4-b5-#5-6-7)

Our next unusual scale, the Arabian scale, also has a number of other potential titles, such as Whole-Half Diminished, Symmetrical Diminished and even the Octatonic scale, as it’s an eight-note scale. Regardless of the name, the construction is always the same, based upon a repeating pattern of whole-tone (two-fret) and half-tone (one fret) leaps. 

As it’s an eight-note scale, there is a large number of potential chords found here. From the root you can find Diminished 7th chords, and these repeat symmetrically in Minor 3rds throughout (Cdim7, Ebdim7, Gbdim7 and Adim7), whereas from the 2nd, 4th, #5 and 7th (D-F-G#-B) you can find Major, Minor or Diminished triads, along with Dominant 7th, Minor 7th and Diminished 7th four-note chords.

Example 8. Hungarian Gypsy Scale (R-2-b3-#4-5-b6-7)

One way to consider the Hungarian Gypsy scale is like a Harmonic Minor scale (R-2-b3-4-5-b6-7: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B), but with a raised 4th (F#). With this in mind, the chords that you find within this scale are the same until we factor this F# into the equation. 

Again, there are some useful parallel triads here, such as the G and Ab Major chords, along with B Minor and C Minor triads. It’s also a good idea to acknowledge the available semitone connections, such as the 2nd-b3rd (B-C), #4-5 (F#-G), b5-5 (Ab-G) and maj7th-root (B-C). So, when soloing with this scale, you’ll notice it provides a lot of chromatic options.

Example 9. Romanian Scale (R-2-b3-#4-5-6-b7)

One way to consider the Romanian scale is as a Dorian mode with a raised 4th degree (R-2-b3-#4-5-6-b7). You can also perceive this scale, along with all the associated fingerings, as the fourth mode of the Harmonic Minor. So, for the C Romanian scale, we can think of this as G Harmonic Minor (G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb-F#), although rearranged; or that the C note and the associated harmonised Cm7 chord become our tonal centre (C-D-Eb-F#-G-A-Bb). Notice the Cm and D arpeggio possibilities.

Example 10. Algerian Scale (R-2-b3-4-b5-5-b6-7)

Our final scale, the Algerian scale, is another eight-note structure. One way to perceive this sound is as C Harmonic Minor (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B) with an added b5 (Gb). This adds a bluesy feeling to proceedings and from a chordal perspective, you get everything you would expect from Harmonic Minor with further options when you throw this note into the mix. 

One useful addition is the II7b5; in this example you can see it expressed as D7b5/F#, a chord not normally available within the Harmonic Minor sound. Make sure to explore the enhanced semitone motion here (D-Eb, F-Gb, Gb-G, Ab-G, B-C), along with all the associated arpeggios.

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John Wheatcroft

John is Head of Guitar at BIMM London and a visiting lecturer for the University of West London (London College of Music) and Chester University. He's performed with artists including Billy Cobham (Miles Davis), John Williams, Frank Gambale (Chick Corea) and Carl Verheyen (Supertramp), and toured the world with John Jorgenson and Carl Palmer.