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Introduction to Movable Scale and Chord Shapes for Guitar

Updated on November 8, 2015

Pentatonic and Blues Scales

This graphic shows the basic box positions of pentatonic and blues scales. With these you can improvise in any key.
This graphic shows the basic box positions of pentatonic and blues scales. With these you can improvise in any key. | Source

Why are movable shapes are important on guitar?

Guitarists have a huge advantage over keyboard players in that the fretboard is intensely visual and that it can be seen as a series of movable shapes. Whereas a pianist has to learn a different finger configuration for every key and every chord a guitar player with a little knowledge can get away with just a few finger patterns starting in different places. The problem is learning which shapes are key, relating them to each other and learning the basic theory to make them a reality. In this lesson I want to introduce a few very basic movable shapes with a guide how to use them to the best advantage.

Basic Improvising Patterns

Playing in the box - a larger image of the intro picture for you to work with.
Playing in the box - a larger image of the intro picture for you to work with. | Source

Working with the Pentatonic and Blues Shapes above

  • The first thing I want you to notice is how very similar these are. Ignore the numbers and letter for a moment and just focus on the four shapes. Play them starting at the fifth fret which is comfortable for most people. What do you notice?
  • They are almost identical aren't they, but here we have four different scale types. Those shapes will serve you well in lots of different types of music. The two major shapes have a more country vibe and emphasizing the different anchor notes gives a bright and poppy feel. The two minor shapes have a more rocky vibe.
  • You can expand on this by extending those scales along the fretboard and being familiar with those patterns over the entire fretboard will make you an excellent improviser in most rock, blues and jazz formats.
  • You need to know one more thing. The bass notes (roots of the scale) let you know what key you are playing in. This is very important to sound right with the chords. For instance the C blues scale will work with C minor, but not C major. For C major you need a shape based on the A blues scale, but starting on C.


Movable Pentatonic Positions

These five positions can be  used all over the fretboard but you need to know where the root is... Check your anchor notes and note names.
These five positions can be used all over the fretboard but you need to know where the root is... Check your anchor notes and note names. | Source

Using the five positions on the pentatonic scale

This chart shows minor pentatonic positions with the root marked in blue. What this means, if you know your note names, is that you can work out where to play any position of the pentatonic for any minor key. (To play in major keys you need to use what we call the relative minor and change the anchor notes. More to follow later on that!) I have included a chart of the note names on string six and one for string 5 which will be useful to you when deciding where to play each position. The first and last shapes (positions 1 and 5 of the pentatonic scale) go well with the root 6 note name chart. Postions 3 and 4 of the scale fit nicely with the notes on string 5.

Notes on String Six (Bass)

Here is a chart showing you the note names on string 6. You need this to work with movable chords and scales that have their ROOT on string 6.
Here is a chart showing you the note names on string 6. You need this to work with movable chords and scales that have their ROOT on string 6. | Source

Notes on String Six - the Chart.

Feel free to print my chart out for personal use so you can have it available to check as you play with the scales and chords. It is a handy reference.


Note Names on String 5

The notes on string five will help you use a second shape to move across the strings instead of sliding along and wasting energy.
The notes on string five will help you use a second shape to move across the strings instead of sliding along and wasting energy. | Source

Chart of Note Names on String 5

It would be great to memorise this, but if you feel it is too hard right now, then just print my chart for personal use.

Note Names on String 4

The final note name chart for bass notes gives you the notes on string 4.
The final note name chart for bass notes gives you the notes on string 4. | Source

Note Names on String 4

The note names on string four free up the use of shape two from the five positions of the pentatonic. They also give free access to movable chords with root on string four. This includes power chords, major, minor, seventh shapes with an emphasis more on the treble range which gives lighter sounding voicings that don't get lost in the bass and drums..

About those relative minors - choosing the right blues scale

Choosing where to play the pentatonic scale, where major and minor versions are effectively the same, is really just a matter of choosing the correct position to start in. You can usually hear if it is "off" too but knowing where the root of the scale is is a huge advantage. That is why I marked the roots on my charts with blue, but this applies to the minor pentatonic not the major. The major version needs to be played in a different place. I have found the easiest way to tackle the problem is to learn about and use relative minors.

A relative minor is the minor key that shares the very same key signature or usual sharps and flats. It is basically a mode of the major scale (aeolian). The pentatonic minor is the aeolian mode, minus a couple of notes. For instance if you want to improvise in C major then use the relative minor which in this case is A minor. The only thing you need to do is change the focus of your playing and use different "anchor notes" (tonic and dominant).

This is even more important with the blues scale. If you choose the wrong one the result can be pretty discordant. In the past I have had pupils do this and become quite upset when it didn't sound as they hoped. Simply moving back three frets with the same pattern but emphasising different notes solved the problem.

Below you will see a chart of all the usual keys, with relative minors, key signatures and "anchor notes" of tonic and dominant. This little bit of theory will serve you well with scale choice and improvisation.

Common Keys with Relative Minor and Key Signature

Major Key
Relative Minor
Accidentals in Key Signature
Pentatonic or Blues Scale to Use
Anchor Notes for Major
Anchor Notes for Minor
C major
A minor
None
A minor or A blues
C and G
A and E
G major
E minor
F#
E minor or E blues
G and D
E and B
D major
B minor
F# and C#
B minor or B blues
D and A
B and F#
A major
F# minor
F#, C# and G#
F# minor or F# blues
A and E
F# and C#
E major
C# minor
F#, C#, G# and D#
C# minor or C# blues
E and B
C# and G#
B major
G# minor
F#, C#, G#, D# and A#
G# minor or G# blues
B and F#
G# and D#
F# major
D# minor
F#, C#, G#, D#, A# and E#
D# minor or D# blues
F# and C#
D# and A#
Gb major (enharmonic with F#)
Eb minor
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
Eb minor or Eb blues
Gb and Db
Eb and Bb
Db major
Bb minor
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
Bb minor or Bb blues
Db and Ab
Bb and F
Ab major
F minor
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
F minor or F blues
Ab and Eb
F and C
Eb major
C minor
Bb, Eb, Ab
C minor or C blues
Eb and Bb
C and G
Bb major
G minor
Bb, Eb
G minor or G blues
Bb and F
G and D
F major
D minor
Bb
D minor or D blues
F and C
D and A

Movable Whole Fretboard Pentatonic Scale

Understanding pentatonics thoroughly is the hallmark of a successful lead guitarist and until you can do more than solo in the pentatonic box your solos are going to sound a little cliched. The next step is to learn the whole fretboard shape. If you do that for each individual scale it is a huge task, but if you start with a movable pentatonic is is so much easier. Remember that shape is going to work for all major and minor keys provided you choose the right place to start. The shape I am giving you next will work very well from 1st fret upwards but obviously as you move along you lose some notes at either end of the fretboard. Doing a little homework about scales and note names will help you fill in the blanks.

Movable Pentatonic Whole Fretboard Map

Combining all five positions of the pentatonic produces this whole fretboard map and this can be learned to facilitate lead guitar in any key.
Combining all five positions of the pentatonic produces this whole fretboard map and this can be learned to facilitate lead guitar in any key. | Source

Mahavishnu Orchestra - Jazz Fusion

If you thought pentatonic soloing was just for simple stuff check out John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was a pentatonic master!

Finally if you thought Pentatonic was just for simple stuff...

Root 6 Power Chord

The most basic movable chord shape is the power chord, from this you can buils movable major, minor and seventh chords with or without a barre.
The most basic movable chord shape is the power chord, from this you can buils movable major, minor and seventh chords with or without a barre. | Source

Moveable Chords

We have to start somewhere and I have chosen to begin with a root 6 power chord. This shape forms the basis of movable major, minor and seventh chords. To get full chords you can use a barre, but to play bass heavy four string chords you would just mute strings 1 and 2 by laying the index finger over the strings and not pressing them down.

Root 5 Power Chord

The root 5 power chord shape means you can move acroos the strings instead of having to jump along them. This is much better.
The root 5 power chord shape means you can move acroos the strings instead of having to jump along them. This is much better. | Source

Avoid Chord Jumping...

While one movable shape will get you started, two is much nicer. Unless you are sliding shapes around for effect it can get very tiring jumping along the strings and going across the strings cuts the effort in half (and is also MUCH better for your poor wrist and fingers). To use this shape effectively you also need to learn (or reference) note names along string 5.

Power Chord with Root on String 4

You need to extend that pinky to play this shape but it is worth it for the brighter sound.
You need to extend that pinky to play this shape but it is worth it for the brighter sound. | Source

Power Chord with Root on String 4

This shape tends to be overlooked by many modern rock guitarists in favour of the more usual power chords or even the drop D versions which are a "cheat" but sound effective in really heavy nu-metal riffing. This is a shame, because the root 4 power chord provides a lighter and more sharp sound that will cut through the bass and drums to produce some strong riffs. Classic rock players use it more. It is worth trying in a few power chord riffs,

Movable Major Chords Built from Power Chord Basic Shapes

Just as you can use two power chords for rock, you can build on those shapes to produce major chords that are moveable.
Just as you can use two power chords for rock, you can build on those shapes to produce major chords that are moveable. | Source

Moveable Major Chords

These take their name from the lowest sounding bass note or root of the chord, which is shown. You can adapt a power chord quite easily to a four string major shape if you have used the correct fingering for the power chord ( 1,3 and 4 for the E shape not 1, 2 and 3). The root 5 shape can be double barred on electric but fingering 1, 2, 3, 4 allows for better control and later you can use sus 4 shapes. These shapes are handy in rock music and some bands use them interchangeably with power chords.

The full barre chords can be hard work, but they are fairly standard in guitar playing.


Movable Minor, Minor 7th and Dominant 7th Chords

Moveable minor shapes can also be built from power chords. The minor seventh (m7) is lush sounding and the dominant seventh (7) is bluesy.
Moveable minor shapes can also be built from power chords. The minor seventh (m7) is lush sounding and the dominant seventh (7) is bluesy. | Source

Minor 7th (m7) and Dominant 7th (7) Chords

These chords add more colour to your playing. Dominant seventh chords give stronger part movement at end cadences and used in combination they sound bluesy. It is important not to confuse minor sevenths, which are basically minor with dominant sevenths which are basically major or major 7ths which are another thing altogether. You can find out about those on my website if you want to go beyond the basic level.

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