You might not know this scale on guitar, but if you’ve ever seen a dream sequence in a movie, you’ve heard the whole tone scale.
Used to solo over 7th chords when you want to highlight the #4 and #5 notes, this 6-note scale is built with whole tone intervals, hence the name.
Though you may not use the whole tone scale on a regular basis, it adds a secondary color to your dominant 7th chord solos.
And hey, you never know when you’ll get called for a studio gig playing dream sequence music for a movie.
If and when that happens, you’ll be glad you studied the whole tone scale on guitar.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to build the whole tone scale, apply it to the fretboard, use it in your solos, and study patterns and licks.
Whole Tone Scale Quick Facts
How Many Whole Tone Scales Are There? There are two different whole tone scales, C and C#, the rest are those two scales starting on different notes.
What is a Whole Tone Chord? The whole tone chord, built from the whole tone scale, is 9#5,#11. For C whole tone the chord is C9#5,#11 for example.
How Do I Use the Whole Tone Scale? You use the whole tone scale to solo over dominant 7th chords when you want to bring a #11/#5 sound to your lines.
How Many Notes in a Whole Tone Scale? There are 6 notes in the whole tone scale.
What is a Symmetrical Scale? A symmetrical scale, such as whole tone, is built with a symmetrical (repeating) interval pattern. For whole tone that pattern is whole tones, for chromatic scales it’s semitones, for WH diminished it’s whole+semi for example.
What is the Whole Tone Scale
The whole tone scale is built by starting with a root note and playing whole steps until you reach the next root note.
By doing so, you create a six-note scale that divides the octave into 6 equal steps.
Here’s how those notes would lay out in C:
Or as an interval pattern the scale would be:
Because is has a major 3rd and b7 it’s used to solo over dominant 7th chords.
When you play whole tone over 7th chords, you bring the #4 and #5 sounds to your lines.
Those two notes, #4 and #5, are used to create tension.
This means you need to resolve that tension over the same chord, or to the next chord, in the progression.
Now for the coolest part about this scale, which you’ll dig into further in the next section.
For each whole tone scale you learn, you can use that one scale over 6 different 7th chords.
You heard me right.
If you play C whole tone, you can solo over C7, D7, E7, F#7, G#7, and Bb7, all with that one scale.
How’s that for efficiency?
Now, this might not be the easiest way to think about the scale in your solos, as starting a shape from the root is easier to visualize.
But it’s a great little theory tidbit to have down.
And, it might just get you out of a tight musical jam sometime.
Whole Tone Chords
Here are 8 whole tone chords that you can learn and add to your comping, chord soloing, and chord melody arrangements.
Start by learning these 4 shapes with a 6th-string root, before moving on the 5th-string root shapes below.
Here are 4 chords built from the whole tone scale that you can learn and add to your rhythm guitar playing.
Whole Tone Scale – One Octave
Now that you know how to build this scale, you’ll take it to the fretboard.
To begin, here are one-octave scale shapes that you can learn in the key of C.
From there, you can take it to the other whole tone key, C#.
That’s right, there are only two keys for this scale.
If you look at the notes of C whole tone you get:
Then for C# whole tone the notes are:
Between those two scales you’ve covered all 12 notes.
Pretty cool right?
Now you know that you only need to learn two keys, you can learn fingerings for this scale on guitar, starting with one-octave shapes.
One-octave shapes allow you to solo over fast moving chord changes, where two-octave shapes are too bulky to move quickly and accurately through the changes.
Here are four scale shapes beginning with your index finger.
Once you’ve learned any of these scales, put on the C7 backing track and solo to take this scale to your soloing practice routine.
C7 Backing Track C7 Backing Track
Here are four scale shapes starting with your middle finger on the first note, with the exception of the last shape, which starts on your index finger.
Lastly, here are four scale shapes that begin with your pinky finger.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also apply the Whole Tone scale to any 7th chords in a 12-bar blues chord progression.
Whole Tone Scales Two Octave
You’ll now move on to learning two-octave shapes.
These shapes are useful when soloing over slower tunes, as well as where you have longer chord changes and can stretch out across the fretboard.
When you can play these shapes from memory, jam them over the C7 backing track to hear how they sound in your studies.
C7 Backing Track C7 Backing Track
Once you have these two-octave scale shapes down, mix them with one-octave shapes over the C7 backing track to get the full picture of this scale on the fretboard.
Whole Tone Scale Patterns
One of the big issues when soloing with whole tone, is that it’s tricky to make it sound like you’re not just running the scale..
The first pattern that you’ll work on with this scale is the enclosure.
With this pattern, you play one fret above, then one fret below, followed by each note in the scale.
This means for a D note, you play Eb-C#-D.
To help you learn this pattern, here’s a C7 backing track that you can jam over with these scale patterns in your solos.
C7 Backing Track C7 Backing Track
Click to hear whole tone scale 1
The next pattern uses two chromatic approach tones into an enclosure to add more tension to your line.
This pattern starts two frets below each note, and then runs up three frets before playing an enclosure on the note that you’re targeting.
While this pattern sounds cool, it’s tricky since it is a six-note grouping.
Take your time and practice it slowly.
As you move the pattern up the scale, then up the neck into different fingerings and different keys.
Click to hear whole tone scale 2
The last pattern starts two frets above your target note, and then moves down chromatically before resolving from one fret below your target note.
Again, this is a pattern that you can work through the whole scale, but it’s tricky to get down.
So, take your time and work with a metronome as you build this pattern up to speed across the neck.
Click to hear whole tone scale 3
When practicing these scale patterns, run them up and down the 5th and 6th-string fingerings.
Then, once that’s comfortably with a metronome, put on the backing track and solo using the Whole Tone Scale and these patterns.
After that, take it to a tune such as “Take the A Train” to bring this scale and patterns into a real-life playing situation.
Whole Tone Licks
One of the best ways to learn a new scale is to study common vocabulary that uses that scale.
Here, you’ll learn three whole tone licks that you can learn, analyse, and apply to your guitar solos.
The first line is played over a two-bar G7 chord, a common application of this scale.
Click to hear whole tone scales 1
Next you’ll apply a G whole tone to the G7 chord, the V7, in a ii-V-I chord progression in the key of C major.
Click to hear whole tone scales 2
Lastly, here are G and C whole tone applied to the first four bars of a G jazz blues chord progression.
Click to hear whole tone scales 3
Once you have learned these licks, write out 3 to 5 of your own lines as you study whole tone application further in the woodshed.