An ambiguous scale that has more applications than you might think.
• Understand how to create a whole-tone scale.
• Learn how to apply the scale in classical, jazz, and rock settings.
• Develop syncopated parts that exploit the nuances of the whole-tone scale.
The whole-tone scale is an elusive and, for most musicians, problematic series of notes. Constructing the scale is rather simple—six whole-steps and you’re there. But because any note of the scale can be considered the root, it does create a sound that seems to wander aimlessly.
This inherent ambiguity is also the scale’s strength. Rather than try to force the scale into something, for lack of a better word, “melodic,” we’ll simply let the scale be mysterious, unsettling, and alchemical.
Before we get to some points of reference and practical uses of the scale, let’s get some fingerings together. In Ex. 1 and Ex. 2, you can see two different whole-tone scales. Since we have only 12 notes to play with and each scale uses six, there are only two scales to remember. As we continue through the lesson, you’ll see that the symmetrical shape of this scale makes playing many of the examples quite comfortable and easy. Now on to the music!
Though the whole-tone scale appears sporadically in European classical music before the 20th century, it was the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who really brought it to the forefront by using it as the basis for several works. Voiles, his famous composition for piano, is composed almost entirely using notes from the whole-tone scale, and the piece emphasizes the scale’s floating and capricious quality. Debussy went so far as to include instructions to play “smoothly and caressing … with tender contentment.” Ex. 3 shows the piece’s opening phrase.
Most players who have any practical knowledge of the whole-tone scale probably know it from the world of jazz. Almost every solo the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk ever played contains a couple of whole-tone runs. Ex. 4 provides a Monk-eqsue lick over a D7 chord resolving to G. This line colors the D7 chord with G# (the #11 or b5) and A# (the #5). These altered tones give the lick an outside sound.
My personal, all-time favorite use of the whole-tone scale is by King Crimson’s guitarist and composer, Robert Fripp. I think “Fracture,” from the album Starless and Bible Black, is one of the greatest pieces of guitar music ever composed, period. It’s also one of the most challenging pieces you will ever try to play. And it’s also composed exclusively from the whole-tone scale. Ex. 5 offers a variation on Fripp’s masterpiece.
Inspired by the preceding examples, I set out to compose my own piece. What resulted is the third movement of my song “The Quince Tree,” which was recorded by Boud Deun on the band’s album Astronomy Made Easy. The composition consists of three different parts, each of which uses the whole-tone scale. These parts are simultaneously played by bass, violin, and guitar (shown in Ex. 6, Ex. 7, and Ex. 8, respectively). The result is a driving, dizzying piece that spirals out of control into the next movement.
Once you get those parts together, check out the clip below to hear how they all interact.
There are many more examples of practical ways to use the whole-tone scale in almost all genres of music. Classical and jazz dominate, from Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg to John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. But you’ll also find it in recordings by such bands as Kraftwerk and Dream Theater. Even Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” has a distinctive whole-tone phrase snuck into the intro. So keep your ears open for those haunting and enigmatic sounds, and be sure to incorporate them into your own playing.
Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
Mystery Stocking is coming soon! Sign up for PG Perks below so you don't miss it.
Sign up for PG Perks on the form below to make sure you don't miss the launch announcement!
About Mystery Stocking
Each year, Premier Guitar likes to put out these mystery boxes as a part of bringing some fun to the holiday season. Remember, this is supposed to be a fun holiday treat! If the contents of this box will ruin your holiday, deplete the last of your bank account, or end your ability to see the good in humanity, it may not be for you.
- This year's Mystery Stocking will cost $44.95. ($39.95 + $5 Flat shipping)
- Each box will be guaranteed to contain $40 or more in value.
- US only. (Sorry World.)
- Make sure your shipping address is correct.
- Have your credit card ready to go before you refresh the page. Paypal is not available. Autofill may not fill in your information.
- There will be NO REFUNDS given.
- There has been a huge demand for these in the past. We really did sell out in less than 4 minutes last year. When they are gone, they are gone.
- One per household, one per person.
Q: What's in the Mystery Stocking?
A: It wouldn't be much of a surprise if we told you, now would it?
Q: Will I definitely get my money worth?
Q: Can I return it if I don't like it?
A: Nope. All sales final.
Q: What if I live outside the US?
A: Sorry, US only.
Q. How much is it?
A. $39.95 Plus $5 shipping
Q. When will it ship?
A. On or before December 10, 2022.
Q. What form of payment do you accept?
A. Credit cards only. Sorry, no Paypal for this.
Q. Can I ship to a different location than my billing address?
Q. I tried last year and didn't get one. Will I get one this year?
A. There is an overwhelming demand for Mystery Stocking. Be sure you have a fast internet connection and be ready when they go on sale. Last year we sold out in 3 min 33 seconds.
Q. I want to buy 5. How can I buy 5?
A. You can't. This year, we're limiting to one per household, so more people can get in on the fun!
Featuring the Adaptive Circuitry recently introduced on their Halcyon Green Overdrive, Origin Effects have brought us a pedal with a character all of its own and a new flavor of drive.
Origin Effects introduce the new M-EQ DRIVER mid booster & drive pedal. Based on a vintage Pultec studio EQ, this unique pedal offers a range of mid-focused tones, from a subtle mid boost to thick, resonant overdrive. Featuring the Adaptive Circuitry recently introduced on their Halcyon Green Overdrive, Origin Effects have brought us a pedal with a character all of its own and a new flavor of drive.
A choice of three mid-range frequencies ensures that you can boost just the right part of your guitar signal and, when pushed harder, can elicit a range of saturation from a classic “mid-hump” overdrive to fierce “cocked wah” distortion. Thanks to the Adaptive Circuitry, the high-end roll-off of the Cut control is reduced as the pedal cleans up. This allows for a smooth transition from warm overdrive to bright clean tones in response to playing dynamics or guitar volume knob changes.
Introducing... M-EQ DRIVER || Mid Booster & Drive
Built-in the UK to the highest standards, the M-EQ DRIVER continues the Origin Effects tradition of vintage, studio-inspired tones in modern guitar pedals. The Origin Effects M-EQ DRIVER is available now from Origin Effects dealers worldwide.
RRP: 259 GBP (Inc VAT) / 319 USD (Ex TAX)
For more information, please visit origineffects.com.
The new finish, according to Lava Music, is “inspired by the beauty of the golden hour,” a shining time just before sunset and after sunrise when photographers covet to capture stunning pictures.
With bright and warm golden hues, the new finish adds a brilliant metallic glow to the surface of Lava ME 3, complementing its AirSonic 2 carbon fiber unibody which features L3 Preamp with FreeBoost 2.0, delivers industry-leading sounds by breakthrough acoustic technologies, and houses a multi-touch display powered by Lava-developed HILAVA system.
Speaking of the HILAVA system, Lava Music also added four new effects: Nebula, Desert Rose, Cassette, and Edge of Breakup. As unique as their names sound, they are very much different from what we normally know about effects. Programmed into the HILAVA system, each of the four is powered by the company’s latest ArctanDrive algorithm and incorporates effects like Pitch Shift, Delay, and Reverb. And every one of those incorporated sub-effects comes with various parameters that players can adjust to design unique, overdriven sounds by just tapping on the multi-touch display. That said, those effects enable users to play with overdriven tone on an acoustic-electric guitar without even plugging in any external gear.
LAVA ME 3 | Now in Golden Hour | LAVA MUSIC
Lava Me 3 in Golden Hour is now available starting from $999 on LAVA MUSIC, Amazon, and local guitar dealerships near you.
For more information, please visit store.lavamusic.com.