Exotic Guitar Scales

Exotic guitar scales are great to add some new flavor to your music. In this lesson, you will learn 11 scales from different parts of the world. You will also learn how to practice these scales and get an introduction to Indian music for guitar (ragas). Each scale is in the key of A and comes with scale formulas and charts.

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Arabian Guitar Scale

This Arabian scale is an octatonic minor scale (it has 8 notes). It is the same scale as the diminished scale.

 

A Arabian ScaleABCDEbFGbAb
Formula12b34#4#567

 

Arabian guitar scale

 

Persian Guitar Scale

The Persian scale is a major scale with a b2, b5, and b6.

 

A Persian ScaleABbC#DEbFG#
Formula1b234b5b67

 

Persian guitar scale

 

Byzantine Guitar Scale

The Byzantine scale is a major scale with a b2 and b6. This scale is also known as the Maqam Hijaz Scale or the double harmonic scale.

 

A Byzantine ScaleABbC#DEFG#
Formula1b2345b67

 

Byzantine guitar scale

 

The Egyptian Scale

There are many scales used in Egyptian music, one of them being the Dorian scale.

This scale below is a typical Egyptian pentatonic scale. It is the 5th mode of our minor pentatonic scale.

 

A Egyptian ScaleABDEG
Formula1245b7

 

Egyptian scale

 

Oriental Guitar Scale

The oriental scale is a dominant scale with a b2 and b5.

 

A Oriental ScaleABbC#DEbF#G
Formula1b234b56b7

 

Oriental guitar scale

 

Japanese Guitar Scales

This Japanese scale is pentatonic (this means it has 5 notes). It’s neither major or minor because the 3rd is not included.

 

A Japanese ScaleABDEF
Formula1245b6

 

Japanese guitar scale

 

Another Japanese pentatonic scale is the Hirajoshi scale. This minor scale is regularly used in rock (and jazz) music, in search of new sounds:

 

A Hirajoshi ScaleABCEF
Formula12b35b6

 

Hirajoshi Scale

 

Indian Guitar Scale

This Indian music scale is called the Asavari scale or raga Asavari.

A raga is something between a scale and a composition: it is richer than a scale, but not as fixed as a composition. A raga is like a tonal framework for improvisation and composition, just as chord changes and standards are for a jazz musician.

Besides a particular scale, ragas also have a specific melodic movement, a hierarchy of tones, a specific intonation, ornamentation,  and duration. I’m not going into all the specifics of this raga, I’ll only tell you that it is played differently ascending and descending.

Descending, this scale is the same as the Phrygian scale, ascending it’s the Phrygian scale minus the b3 and b7.

 

Raga Asavari AscendingABbDEF
Formula1b245b6

 

Indian guitar scale

 

Raga Asavari DescendingAGFEDCBb
Formula1b7b654b3b2

 

Indian guitar scale 2

 

Hungarian Gypsy Minor Scale

This scale is the Hungarian gypsy scale (minor). Check out this video for a theme that uses the gypsy minor scale.

 

Hungarian Gypsy ScaleABCD#EFG#
Formula12b3#45b67

 

Hungarian minor scale

 

Romanian Guitar Scale

The Romanian scale is a minor scale with a #4. This scale is also known as the Ukrainian Dorian scale, the Miseberach scale, or the altered Dorian scale. It is the 4th mode of the harmonic minor scale.

 

Romanian ScaleABCD#EF#G
Formula12b3#456b7

 

Romanian guitar scale

 

The Hijaz Scale

The Alhijaz scale is a dominant scale that originates in Saudi Arabia, but is also known as the Spanish gypsy scale, the Jewish scale, or the Phrygian dominant scale (in jazz).

This scale is the 5th inversion of the harmonic minor scale. The Phrygian dominant scale is a common scale in jazz and is used to play over dominant chords that resolve to a minor chord.

A Alhijaz = A Jewish = A Phrygian dominant = D harmonic minor.

 

Hijaz ScaleABbC#DEFG
Formula1b2345b6b7

 

Jewish guitar scale

 
There is another Hijaz scale called the Maqam Hijazz scale. This is the same scale as the Byzantine scale above and also known as the double harmonic scale.

 

Playing Over a Drone

Written by by Mikko Karhula

A good way to practice these exotic guitar scales is playing over a drone. In this section, you’ll learn 6 exercises over a meditative drone with an E5 chord voicing. There are only two notes in the drone (e and b) so you can use different scales and chord types more freely.

It’s vital for any improvising guitarist to learn the relationship between chords and scales. However, sometimes it’s interesting to change ”scale-to-chord-thinking” to a more horizontal approach.

A good way of practicing this is playing over a backing track with a drone, note or chord that is continuously sounded. Playing with a drone leaves room for finding out how notes and harmonies work in constant chord harmony. That way you can concentrate on finding the best sounding tones or experiment with different colors or style elements within the chosen key.

 

 

Backing Track


 

Exercise 1 [starts at 0:03 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 1

 

  • Bar 1 has an almost Celtic style ringing Emaj9(add4) chord with first and fourth finger spreads.
  • Bar 2’s first four notes imply an Eadd9 chord. The next four notes form a F#add9 chord (from the E Lydian scale), that resolves into a Badd9 chord.

 

Exercise 2 [starts at 0:17 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 2

 

This example is influenced by bebop and gypsy jazz. Two important things to keep in mind to get clarity and speed in this example are alternate picking and rest-strokes. The Main color of this example is E dominant 7.

  • In the first beat there is a Bm7 arpeggio followed by some chromatism.
  • From the third beat on, the notes come from the E Lydian dominant scale (also know as Lydian b7 and overtone).
  • After that, there is an E11 sound in first beat, followed by E13(#11).

 

Exercise 3 [starts at 0:29 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 3

 

This example is influenced by the lute music composed by Bach, but it moves forward to modern harmonies at the end of it.

  • The first four bars stay in the tonic E.
  • The fifth bar has a C#m7(b13) chord that is in this case a substitution for an Amaj9 chord.
  • The last two bars imply a B13 chord.

 

Exercise 4 [starts at 0:52 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 4

 

The Idea in this example is to make a choral-like two-part canon.

  • The first and second bars are in B13b9(sus4) world.
  • Bar 3 contains an E7 and A7 chord.
  • The fourth bar has an A major and A minor chord
  • The fifth bar B7 and E minor.
  • Bar 6 is E major.
  • The Seventh bar is mostly B7b9(sus4).
  • Bar 8 has a turnaround: E5, Gsus4 and G, F#7 and B7.
  • The 9th bar: E7, A, Am6 and E.

 

Exercise 5 [starts at 1:20 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 5

 

This example is mostly in the E dominant diminished scale and consists of intervallic jumps and string-skipping.
 

Exercise 6 [starts at 1:32 in the video]

 
Guitar drone exercise 6

 

This example consists of three-part voicings in the E major scale.

  • The first bar has an Emaj7 chord with melody-line.
  • Bar 2 voicings: E major , F#m, Emaj7, A major.
 

About The Author

Mikko Karhula (born in 1981) is a Finnish guitarist and teacher who is mainly focused on acoustic guitar. His primary style is ethnic music like Balkan and gypsy jazz. Mikko works as a solo artist and is part of several bands and projects. He has composed music for Finnish artists in many different styles and composes for solo guitar from jazz to classical. Make sure you visit his YouTube channel for more videos and lessons!

 

An Introduction to Indian Classical Music for Guitar

Written by by Prakash Harry

This article gives an introduction to the Indian Music system and its core elements and provides insight into applying its grammar and technique on guitar.

Classical Indian music and jazz may sound very different but at least one factor is very important to both styles of music: improvisation.

 

The Indian Music System – Introduction

The Indian music system’s origins date back to the Vedic period (2000-6000 years ago). In this period, several literary texts and verses (Vedas) were sung in musical patterns which formed the base of the Indian music system.

In later years (14th -15th Century AD), Indian music got broadly classified into two classical forms of music:

  • Hindustani music (North India)
  • Carnatic music (South India)

This divide was mainly due to the difference in styles following the Persian/Mughal invasion of Northern India, which brought a lot of influence into Hindustani Music.

Though Hindustani and Carnatic Music share a lot of common aspects (phrasing techniques, similar ragas, etc.), each one has a distinct structure of its own. These systems have continued to live over the centuries and are still performed with traditional expertise, and at times also incorporating modern music elements into them.
 
 

Guitar Tuning: Western vs Indian Tuning

Although all examples of ragas discussed in this article will relate to the standard western tuning, this tuning is not the ideal guitar tuning for Indian music.

The ideal guitar tuning for classical Indian Music has alternate strings tuned to the tonic and the dominant (perfect 5th) notes. The Tonic is normally taken as D or E due to feasibility issues on the Guitar.

These 2 tunings are typical for Indian music:

Indian guitar tuning in D

Indian guitar tuning in E

In the first tuning, the first (highest) string on the guitar is omitted.

The reason to use this tuning is that the tonic and the dominant notes are the least difficult to play in a system that involves playing defined microtonal slides called Gamakas.

Gamakas are the main phrasing technique in Indian Music and it explains how different notes are phrased relative to each other for different ragas.

 
 

What Are Ragas and How are They Different From Scales?

Ragas form the basis of the classical Indian music system.

A raga may be defined as a specific collection of notes (semitonal values), played together with a specific grammar of Gamakas (microtonal slides).

Ragas and scales are quite common at the top level. In effect, both ragas and scales are merely a specific collection of musical notes played in a specific order, in ascent and descent. However the grammar of the Gamakas and its phrasing brings a completely different identity/texture to a raga and it cannot be musically compared to its equivalent scale, played as a collection of plain notes.

The raga is dependent on the specific Gamakas phrasing applied to it (which differs for each raga), in the absence of which it is merely a collection of notes aka a scale.
 

The Indian Equivalents for Western Notes

The following table relates the 12 semitones available in the Western tuning system to its Indian equivalent name references (Swaras).

The basic seven notes in the Indian musical system are Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni with variations for each note. These variations are notated as a number from 1 to 3 (these work similar to b and # in Western music).

The manner in which they are named as (Ri/Ga) and (Da/Ni) for same values, depends on the relative notes occurring in the raga, and differs from case to case.

Before reading the table, you need to understand that Indian music notes are not absolute values like their western counterparts. They are all relative to the tonic note (Shadjam), which is fixed to a reference value (for example C or D or any other semitonal value).

Here we assume our tonic to be D, for easy reference while playing (in the video more below we also use the tonic D as Shadjam). This table classifies the 12 semitones of the Western tuning system to their relative Indian Swara names.

 

SemitonesIndian SwaraEquivalent Tone Value
DS – Shadjam (Sa)
D#R1 – Suddha Rishabham (Ri1)
ER2 – Chatusruthi Rishabham (Ri2)G1 – Suddha Gandharam (Ga1)
FR3 – Shatsruthi Rishabham (Ri3)G2 – Sadharana Gandharam (Ga2)
F#G3 – Anthara Gandharam (Ga3)
GM1 – Suddha Madhyamam (Ma1)
G#M2 – Prati Madhyamam (Ma2)
AP – Panchamam (Pa)
A#D1 – Suddha Dhaivatham (Da1)
BD2 – Chatusruthi Dhaivatham (Da2)N1 – Suddha Nishadham (Ni1)
CD3 – Shatsruthi Dhaivatham (Da3)N2 – Kaisiki Nishadham (Ni2)
C#N3 – Kakali Nishadham (Ni3)

 

Melody vs. Harmony

The beauty of the Indian Music system lies in its complex melodic structure, brought out with the well-defined phrasing technique of Gamakas.

In Western music, scales are built with a strong foundation in harmony. Carnatic music focuses on permutation of all available semitonal values (swaras). This gives rise to the foundation of the family of ragas, called the Melakartha System (in Carnatic Music).

The Melakartha system is a set of 72 parent ragas. Each of these ragas contain all seven notes (swaras) of the octave in both ascending and descending order. These 72 ragas (parent) along with their derived ragas (child) exhaust all possible melodic combinations available to us through all music forms across the world.

That brings to light the depth of the melodic structure in Carnatic Music. Hence it is important to understand that melody and phrasing of Carnatic music is very complex compared to the Western music system, which in turn shows its complexity in harmony of musical notes.
 

How to Play Indian-Style Pentatonic Scales (Carnatic)

In this section, we explore the possibility of playing the well known pentatonic scales, as equivalent Carnatic ragas. The Ragas we will take for reference are Suddha Dhanyasi and Mohanam.

Here are the swaras for Suddha Dhanyasi. You’ll notice the notes of the Suddha Dhanyasi are the same as those of the D minor pentatonic scale:

 

Suddha DhanyasiSaGa2Ma1PaNi2
Western notesDFGAC

 

The video lesson below shows you how to play the runs in the ascent and descent, and some basic phrasing and improvisation for Suddha Dhanyasi and Mohanam. Try the phrase improvisation demonstrated in the lesson, after playing the notated ascent-descent run.

 

 

Below you can find the notation for these ragas. The tabs demonstrate the ascent and descent playing for Suddha Dhanyasi and Mohanam in order.

  • The ALL CAPS notes are the syllable of the swara played
  • The bold-italic notes are the notes to be plucked (on right hand)
  • The arrows depict the slide flow of notes from one to another (without plucking the string)
  • A point after a swara means one octave higher: Sa.

Let me give you the first line (ascent) in the notation below as an example:

  • Play an open D on the 4th strin
  • Then strike the open D again, and slide all the way up to G and come back to F on the same string (all in one flow), without plucking any more notes
  • Strike G and A on the same string
  • Strike A on the open-G 3rd string, and slide all the way up to D and come back to C on the same string
  • Strike D on the 3rd string again

Similarly try the descent approach, applying the same technique.
 

Suddha Dhanyasi Raga Ascent

 
Carnatic Notation:
SA     | Sa –> Ma –> GA  |  MA   |  PA   |  Pa –> Sa. –> NI | SA    |
Western Notation:
D      | d  –> g  –> F   |  G    |  A    |  a  –> d   –> C  | D     |

 

Suddha Dhanyasi Raga Descent

 
SA.    Sa –> NI        |  PA   |  MA   |  Ma –> GA  | Ga –> SA |

D      | d  –> C         |  A    |  G    |  g  –> F   | f –> D   |   

 

Mohanam Raga Ascent

 
SA     | Sa –> Ga –> RI  |  GA   |  PA   |  Pa –> Sa. –> DA |  SA.  |

D      | d  –> f# –> E   |  F#   |  A    |  a  –> d   –> B  |  D    |

 

Mohanam Raga Descent

 
SA.    Sa.–> DA  PA  | GA  | Ga –> RI  | Ga 3 –> Ri –> Ga2 –> SA |

D      | d  –> B   | A   | F#  | f# –> E   | f #  –> e  –> f   –> D  |

 

If you have any questions about this lesson, leave a comment below…

 

 
 
The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar

  • Joe says:

    You do good.

  • bert says:

    WOW, I love the dissonant soundscape. And the odd time signature adds so much to the tone and feel of the piece.

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Nice that you like it Bert!

  • 14strings says:

    Very nice. The Electro Harmonix Freeze pedal is perfect for this stuff. Is there a way to easily print the TABS?

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Thank you for the hint about Electro Harmonix Freeze-pedal. You can get tabs by emailing me.:)

  • LuzMarina says:

    What a treat! I love the divertisty, long and fast scales alterning the 1 and 4 finger in a very open hand. The sound is intriguing, I will add to my daily exercises, despite I may use my fingers instead the pick.Thank you for the gift, I will call this section the Autum Falling Notes. Beautiful.

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Hi Luzmarina! I consider every comment as a gift.:)So thank you!

  • peter says:

    Thanks Mikko this is great, I’ve trying to do an electric style of this lately it’s but nowhere near as nice as this!

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Thank you Peter! It would be nice to hear your version.

  • Andres says:

    This might just be the greatest lesson I ever came across.
    Also, fantastic playing, I hadn’t heard of Mikko before,
    but I just searched him on Youtube, such amazing artist.

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Hi Andres!
      That is so nice to hear. Thank you!

  • AztuRi says:

    Hi Mikko,
    I am a big fan of John M, and I am truly excited of your lessons. Thanks so much.
    I also go to your channel, watching your incredible Autumn Leaves version. You are like the modern day Django R….just wondering whats your favourite scales…are you a self-taught player…

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Hi Azturi! John Mclaughlin is truly fantastic player but I haven’t listened his work so much. I have been playing variety of styles in my life but somehow playing acoustic guitar is my thing. I try not to limit my self. Trying to listen and play everything that moves me. I have conservatory diploma from years 2003 to 2006. But the best “schools” has been life with its ups and downs and passion to music that I can’t prevent.:)

  • Mark Stephan says:

    That first example in the drone video drew me in with those wide spreads and open notes. I’ve been looking for something different to expand my horizons and this certainly helps. Thanks for the great lesson including the tonal theory behind it.

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      You are welcome Mark! Nice to hear that this lesson inspires you.

  • mikkoKarhula says:

    Hi Antonio! Joey said it.
    There is instruments for example sitar, bag pipe, gudulka that has strings or pipe that play continually one or several notes simultaneously while player plays melody line. They call that tone a drone. In my example I made with e and b notes continuous chord to different track while I recorded guitar to a different track.

  • mikkoKarhula says:

    Thank you Ric!

  • mikkoKarhula says:

    Hi Kevin! I’m happy that you find tabs useful.
    Cheers!

  • Paul says:

    Wow great – Mikko what brand model nylon string guitar you playing in video ?

    How does it intonate up the neck ?

    My kremona Vera is nice but action rather high beyond frets 9- 12

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Hi Paul! The guitar is Cordoba C7-CE. I had installed to it colpeadors and lower action just a little.
      Intonation depends a lot of strings. With right strings it’s quite good.

  • Johannes says:

    This is a great exercise!
    How did you produce the drone? And how could I make my own? For other harmonies?
    Have a great day!
    Johannes

    • MikkoKarhula says:

      Hi Johannes! I played keyboards through guitar amplifier with sound of grand piano, bass and choir. I added some distortion from amplifier while playing. Then I mixed them together, used some pan effects and others I can’t remember. Then I used copy and paste to get the sample longer.

  • Buddy Grisham says:

    Yes! Was fortunate to see Oregon in Memphis, and then attend a Q&A session at one of the colleges the next day. Inspired me to get a sitar and a set of tablas. Only person in Ripley, MS with that claim!….This is a fantastic way to practice and/or jam.

  • joey says:

    yes sure he will

  • joey says:

    drone for me is a continuing sound to give way to an improvisation like the Indian music, at least with this example, they also have the in classical music music, sustanined instrument use for accompaniment, i don’t want to elaborate more i might get too far out for my explanation, that’s what my perception on your question antonio

  • joey says:

    i’m speechless out of words, i find it really amazing, glad we had talents like this, thank you for sharing

    • mikkoKarhula says:

      Thank you Joey! I’m very thankful that people seem to like my playing sometimes.
      All good for you!

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