Last Updated on May 14, 2019 by Klaus Crow
Knowing how to build a scale is essential for understanding music theory, learning how the guitar works, to able to communicate with other musicians and to grow towards becoming an accomplished guitar player.
Every piece of musical knowledge adds to your musicianship and makes you become a better guitar player. Applied knowledge is power.
The whole-half Step formula is the perfect way to build and recognize the pattern of any scale. The scales you need for soloing, chord construction, chord progressions, arpeggios and a dozen of other things. It gives you insight in the whole matter.
So let’s see how this baby works.
The whole-half step formula is similar to the scale formulas only it uses whole and half steps to explain the construction of a scale.
A half step = one fret. A whole step = two frets. So going one fret up or down the neck is a half step. Going up or down two frets equals a whole step.
Let’s take the major scale as an example:
Major scale = Whole step – Whole step – Half step – Whole step – Whole step – Whole step – Half step
or simplified: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W = Whole, H = Half)
You can also notate the fret intervals: 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 (W = 2, H = 1)
Let say you want to create an F major scale. The Formula = W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
So you start on the 1st fret, low E-string (6th string). The first note is an F note. Then you move up a whole step (2 frets), that note is a G note. You move up another whole up (2 frets), that note is an A note. Then you move up a half step (1 fret), that note is a Bb. You move up a whole step, that note is a C note, another whole step and you’re on D, again a whole step, you’re on E and finally a half step and you’re back on an F note.
So F major scale = F G A Bb C D E F
F major scale in whole and half steps:
F major scale in Tab:
You can use the formula for any key.
Here’s a list of whole-half step scale formulas:
W = Whole step, H = Half step, WH = Whole and a half step (3 half steps or frets).
Major scale = W-W-H-W-W-W-H (2-2-1-2-2-2-1)
Natuaral Minor scale = W-H-W-W-H-W-W (2-1-2-2-1-2-2)
Minor pentatonic scale = WH-W-W-WH-W (3-2-2-3-2)
Blues scale = WH-W-H-H-WH-W (3-2-1-1-3-2)
Major pentatonic scale = W-W-WH-W-WH (2 2 3 2 3)
Harmonic Minor scale = W-H-W-W-H-WH-H (2-1-2-2-1-3-2)
Melodic Minor scale = W-H-W-W-W-W-H (2-1-2-2-2-2-1)
Ionian scale = W-W-H-W-W-W-H (2-2-1-2-2-2-1)
Dorian scale = W-H-W-W-W-H-W (2-1-2-2-2-1-2)
Phrygian scale = H-W-W-W-H-W-W (1,2,2,2,1,2,2)
Lydian scale = W-W-W-H-W-W-H (2,2,2,1,2,2,1)
Mixolydian scale = W-W-H-W-W-H-W (2,2,1,2,2,1,2)
Aeolian scale = W-H-W-W-H-W-W (2-1-2-2-1-2-2)
Locrian scale = H-W-W-H-W-W-W (1,2,2,1,2,2,2)
Whole tone scale = W-W-W-W-W-W (2-2-2-2-2-2)
Whole-Half Diminished = W-H-W-H-W-H-W-H (2-1-2-1-2-1-2-1)
Half-Whole Diminished = H-W-H-W-H-W-H-W (1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2)
In order to play a scale vertically across multiple strings instead of horizontally on a single string you need to know how to play a whole step interval from one string to the next.
To move up a whole step from the low E-string (6th string) to the A-string (5th string) choose a starting point, then move up one string higher and then move down 3 frets (See diagram below).
A whole step from the A-string to the D-string: Move up one string higher and move down 3 frets.
A whole step from the D-string to the G-string: Move up one string higher and move down 3 frets.
A whole step from the G-string to the B-string: Move up one string higher and move down 2 frets.
A whole step from the B-string to the high E-string: Move up one string higher and move down 3 frets.
Let’s take the G major scale for example:
Major scale = W-W-H-W-W-W-H (2-2-1-2-2-2-1)
Building G Major scale using whole and half steps = G-W-A-W-B-H-C-W-D-W-E-W-F#-H-G
G major scale = G A B C D E F# G
In the diagram below you can see the whole steps from one string to the next that occur in the G major scale. I left out any other notes of the G major scale for the sake of visibility.
You can see a whole step from A to B, moving up one string and down 3 half steps (3 frets). A whole step from D to E, up one string down 3 half steps, A whole step from G to A, up one string down 3 half steps, A whole step from C to D, up one string down 2 half steps, A whole step from E to F#, up one string down 3 half steps.
All the notes of the G major scale with whole and half steps:
1 – Write down the notes for a C major scale using the whole half step formula.
2 – Play an C major scale, horizontal approach (on a single string) on the guitar.
3 – Write down and play a C major scale, vertical approach (played across multiple strings)
4 – Build a pentatonic minor scale on a single string.
5 – Memorize the whole-half step formulas for the major and natural minor scale.
6 – Play a vertical A major scale on the spot using your memorized major scale formula.
7 – Play a vertical E natural minor scale on the spot using your memorized minor scale formula.
8 – Create a short melody on the spot using the E minor scale from assignment 6.
Remember: Applied knowledge is power!