The Fractured Sound of the Whole Tone Scale

King Crimson Performing

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?

Impressionistic composer Debussy freely composed with the whole tone scale.

Impressionistic composer Debussy freely composed with the whole tone scale.

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?



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Friends of SD: Godin Guitars

41176_summitct_conv_gold_5Canada isn’t a country we normally associate with high-end guitars, although they should be. Godin have been making guitars in Quebec since the early 1970s, and have expanded to three factories in the region, as well as one in the northeastern US. Godin Guitars seems to be constantly coming up with new designs, from their retro Richmond series, to their innovative Multiacs. They are not afraid to design new classics or deviate from what we all grew up with. Doing so has amassed a very devoted group of followers who will sing Godin’s praises to those who will listen. I spent some time in Godin’s room (yes, they had a whole room) at NAMM this past winter, and I now know what everyone is raving about. This article will feature several new models this year, happily equipped with Seymour Duncan Pickups. Continue reading

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Cage Match: Batteries vs. AC Adapters


The stage at any club or festival is usually a maze of wires. Guitar cables, microphone cables, speaker cables, and more snake their way under our feet and around the amps and guitar stands. Some club designers don’t have the forethought to put AC outlets on all sides of the stage either, so the pedals by our feet might have long extension cords to get the power they need. Batteries are an option too, which saves space and looks cleaner, but they have drawbacks too. Until someone can develop a device to power the pedals with the kinetic energy harnessed from your drummer’s blast beats, we have to make a choice of how to power the pedal collection we have curated over the years. This article will look at all sides of the pedal-powering game, and hopefully help you decide what can keep those LEDs at our feet shining brightly. Continue reading

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Win A Pedal Pack With Premier Guitar


Our pals at Premier Guitar are giving you the chance to win six Seymour Duncan pedals: the 805 Overdrive, Dirty Deed Distortion, Pickup Booster, Vapor Trail Analog Delay, Vise Grip Compressor and the new Shapeshifter Tremolo. Enter here for your chance to win before June 22, 2015.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about our pedal range.

The giveaway is open to all territories except where prohibited by law. Click here to read the official rules.

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Introducing The Shapeshifter Tremolo

shape shifter tremoloIntroducing the new Shapeshifter Tremolo pedal! Whether you’re looking for a flickery vintage shimmer, extreme choppiness, backwards swells or rhythmic stabs, the Shapeshifter is designed to do it all. Built on the legacy of the original Shapeshifter, it’s now significantly smaller to give you back more pedalboard real estate, and it now features stereo inputs and outputs, Phase control and an expanded rate range. There’s also a blinking LED knob like the one found on the Vapor Trail analog delay to give you constant visual feedback of the tempo, even when the unit is bypassed. Continue reading

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Introducing The Pedal Board

Seymour Duncan

Do you love pedals? Us too. That’s why we have an ever-expanding range of Seymour Duncan effect pedals which you can see here. But whether you want to discuss Seymour Duncan pedals or any other brand, you’re invited to join us in The Pedal Board, the newest section of the Seymour Duncan User Group Forum. We’ll be hanging around to answer any questions you may have and to discuss our favorite pedals. Feel free to ask your fellow forum members any questions you might have about rig setups, pedal mods, recommendations, tricks, repairs, cool new models, rare finds, your own pedal builds – anything you like!

You can read The Pedal Board (and join our forum if you haven’t already) here.

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Wes Hauch Demos The Dimebag Signature Set

seymour duncan dimebag signature set

We all have our guitar heroes, and our buddy Wes Hauch has been quite upfront about his love of Dimebag Darrell. Wes is a very accomplished player with his own identifiable style, which you may have heard from his time in The Faceless or making guest appearances on record with Periphery and live with Thy Art Is Murder. The guy’s very capable of sounding like himself. But when Wes turns his attention to honoring Dimebag, you can hear in every note just how much that music, those riffs, those leads mean to him.

Which is to say, we pretty much flipped out when we saw this video.

This is Wes demoing the Dimebag Signature Set, which combines Dime’s signature Dimebucker pickup for the bridge position a ’59 for the neck. And as per Dime’s choice, this is the bridge version of the ’59 instead of the neck model.  Dime felt the hotter bridge version was a better match for the massive output of the Dimebucker. We talked to Dime’s tech Grady Champion about this a while ago, and you can read that discussion here.

Dimebag SetThe video (and associated audio) were produced by Keith Merrow at Merrowsound Studios in Portland, Oregon, USA. Here are some links so you can keep up with what Wes and Keith are up to:

Social networks for Wes:

Social Networks for Keith:
Facebook- (personal)
Facebook- (fan page)


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Flying High On The Majestic Pegasus


When it comes to low-tuned, high gain metal many people think a high-output humbucker is the best type pickup to go with. It’s certainly great for some styles, but what if your style involves a lot of complex chords? Sometimes a high-output pickup and high-output amp can turn your well-chosen combination of notes into complete mush. And sometimes the best way to get that perfect heavy, face-smashing tone is to dial it back a bit on the pickup front and go for something that has a more moderate output. The Pegasus is a moderate output pickup designed to give you the perfect tight aggressive tone with enough articulation to let all your clever chord work shine through. Continue reading

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Adjusting Your Action: Shimming and Micro Tilt


There are many different factors that go into the playability of a guitar, including the string height, the quality of the frets, the smoothness of the fretboard edges, the shape of the neck – the list goes on and on. One often-overlooked aspect for bolt-on guitars is the neck angle; get it wrong and you can run into difficulties in maintaining consistent action. Get it right and the guitar becomes a slick, playable machine. Let’s look at some common problems and how to fix them.

Neck Angle Too Shallow Continue reading

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An Introduction To The Seymour Duncan Blog

Wiring and ModificationsIf you love modding your guitar and tone-tweaking, the Seymour Duncan Tone Garage is the place for you. If you’re new to guitar wiring, grab a cup of coffee and prepare to take the Guitar Wiring Diploma Course. There’s even a tutorial that walks you through how to learn to solder. If you’re just about to make your first pickup change (congratulations!), then you might want to check out this article and watch the videos. If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to try active and passive pickups in the same guitar, you should check out this actual attempt. And you might have heard of coil-splitting but what if you could blend between full humbucker and split coil sounds? This article on the the Spin-a-Split Mod will help you do just that. Continue reading

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