The Unmitigated Weirdness Of The Whole Tone Scale


When I think back on my favorite scales to play in, they tend to have a certain elegance in common. The simplicity and intuitiveness of the Major Scale, the floaty dreaminess of the Lydian Mode, the exotic Jason Becker-like vibe of the Hirajoshi Scale - they're all beautifully melodic, and they all have a built-in ability to resolve nicely, providing a satisfying emotional and musical conclusion to a musical phrase.

Then there's the Whole Tone Scale.

What is it? It's simply a scale built out of a whole bunch of whole tones. Every note of the scale has a two-fret leap either way to find the next note of the scale. And whatever string you're playing on, the notes on the next string will simply be one fret along from the frets of the first string, so it's easy to remember.

Let's have a look at one way to play the Whole Tone scale. This is in the key of F, because that's the starting note, but due to its very nature the key isn't as much of a concern here:

Wholetone scale tablature

Notice that it's essentially a symmetrical scale which moves down one fret per string. The exception, of course, is when you get to the B string, which is a mysterious zone where the rules of time and space break down, thanks to the way the guitar is tuned. When you get to that guy, you need to jump down two frets, then continue on your merry way.

Another fun way to play it is to take advantage of the doubling-up of notes that happens when you play the same note on two adjacent strings consecutively. Check it out:

Wholetone scale tablature

Of course, then there's the utterly yet enjoyably brainless way:

Wholetone scale tablature

Okay, but what on earth are you going to actually use this scale for?

Well that's the thing. It can sound kinda ugly. Remember the beauty of the scales back in the first paragraph? Ain't none of that here. The Whole Tone scale has a feeling of continuing to rise up and up and up and up, never seeming to resolve even when it returns to the octave of the first note you played. I like to use it for angular, avant garde melodies like this:

Wholetone scale tablature

Or eternally climbing, hammer-on licks like this:

Wholetone scale tablature

Oh and then there's the chaotic collection of filthy-sounding chords available. Pretty much everything in this scale is a horrendous clash of some kind. I won't even try to give names to these abominations. Let's just put eight of them together in a two-bar riff:

Wholetone scale tablature

And yet there's something kind of intriguing about this kind of intentionally-clashy-yet-adhering-to-a-particular-scale chord. It builds a kind of tension that you simply cannot resolve from within the scale. Instead you need to switch to another scale altogether in order to bring things back to solid ground.

By the way, one of my all-time favorite uses of the Whole Tone scale is in the version of "Outside Now" from Frank Zappa's Broadway The Hard Way. Frank performs a particularly stirring, melodic solo over a lush instrumental backing, but right when things start to get a little too pretty he slips into Whole Tone gear and just takes off. And it's a reminder that in the right hands even a dissonant scale like the Whole Tone can be beautiful, melodic and appropriate.