Scales are strange beasts. History shows us that the practicing of scales consists of playing the same notes in the same order while a ruler-armed teacher barks “Faster! FASTER!” at us all the while assuring ourselves that the study of scales builds character, and one day it will all be worth it. While I practice my share of scales, I only practice them up and down in every key enough to get the muscle memory in my hands and the sound of them in my ears. After that, a scale is just a finger exercise until you hear their relationship to notes in a chord or chord progression. This relationship is worthy of an article by itself, so I wrote one, but here we are talking about a very specific scale, the whole tone scale.
Jumping Over Steps
The whole tone scale is a hexatonic (6 note) scale that seems to break the Western harmony relationship between tension and resolution. It is all tension, and never seems to resolve to any specific note. In concept, it is easy. Start on any note, and go up the string, hopping over every other note. You will hit 6 notes until you get to the octave of that starting note. Here is the A major scale compared to the A whole tone scale:
Notice that with the second scale, you can’t rely on your ear to ‘hear’ the end of the scale, as there is no resolution to the beginning of the scale again. Western music is largely based on tension and resolution, and without that, many musicians get a little lost. Don’t worry though, you don’t have to reserve this scale for only experimental playing, or music that comes from the soundtrack of Avatar. You can use the whole tone scale to make your blues/jazz/rock/metal playing sound deliciously outside, and have your beret-wearing, beard-stroking friends snap their approval at your expanded vocabulary.
Across the Board
One octave scales are pretty short on the guitar, and running up one string is terribly inefficient, so we will come up with a shape that works across the fretboard:
This is a pretty simple shape that we will use for this article, although there are several out there. Notice how playing it across the fretboard still sounds strange and unresolved. Coming up with chords to play over this beast makes just-as-strange-sounding-chords, and using the formula outlined in this article, we will select the first note, the third note and the fifth. These 3 notes are an A, C#, and E# (or enharmonically F). This makes an A augmented chord or A+. This is a pretty unstable, tension-filled chord. Add the 7th here and you get what we call an A7#5. This sounds weird to most rock and blues musicians, but is used a lot in jazz. This isn’t always a chord we’d hang on for very long due to the tension, but if we do, the whole tone scale fits perfectly. Here is a chord progression that works:
Play the whole tone scale over this progression, and then try to improvise over it. That’s some weird stuff. The fact that the chords and the scale don’t have any sense of resolution makes it difficult to listen to for long periods of time, like for a whole song.
Besides a #5, a whole tone scale also uses a #4, also called a b5. We can construct a chord progression similar to something above, but with b5 chords:
Improvising over such chords provides a similar result to improvising over #5 chords. There isn’t a sense of resolution, and it seems like every note of this scale is 1 away from landing on something that sounds ‘right’. The whole tone scale can be used over progressions like the last 2, but honestly, these don’t exist much in the musical wild. Most people tend to ‘dip into’ the scale over something that sounds a little less out there. If we add some whole tone spice to a funky groove in A7, we can combine it with the Dorian mode and the blues scale. Due to the E that exists in an A7 chord, the whole tone scale is not a great fit, but it works well in adding some spicy sounds alongside the more standard scales we have been playing for years. This is an A7 groove with a solo featuring the outside notes of the whole tone scale combined with familiar patterns:
If we take this further, we can use the #5 chords in a more natural habitat, like a bridge between the I and IV chord. It is a great transition between an Am and D9. Here is a more familiar sounding chord progression, and I used the A whole tone scale on the second chord:
Where Have I Heard You Before?
This isn’t a common scale in popular music, but it does appear a few times. Classical composers like Debussy and jazz piano great Thelonius Monk (who used over straight dominant chords) are 2 examples. Frank Zappa, the iconoclastic composer and guitarist twisted his listener’s ears with its strange sound too. Any list of whole tone compositions can’t be complete without mentioning the 1974 King Crimson classic Fracture, which features 11 minutes of Robert Fripp’s 1959 Les Paul Custom playing cleanly picked whole tone motifs, sometimes at terrifying speeds.
A cool thing to know about this scale is that any note can be the root! Not only that, but there are only 2 whole tone scales: one starting on A, and one starting on Bb.
Do you practice scales? Have you come across any that are especially strange?