There is something about open-position guitar riffs that makes them impossible not to love. The sound of a ringing open string mixed with the punch of the low-end range of the guitar has made open position riffing a staple of just about every style of guitar-oriented music, from blues to death metal and everything in between. But despite how cool open-positon riffs may sound, many guitarists who are still learning only know one open-position scale shape, and it’s almost always an E-minor.
While that open E-minor shape is a great scale that one can get a lot of mileage out of, its usage is by its very definition limited to songs in the key of E-minor or its relative major of G (just a heads up, you don’t need to worry about the theory behind that fact to understand this article). This means that if you only know the one open string position and you’re hoping to come up with an open string riff or solo in any key other than E-minor or G, it’s pretty much a non-starter.
Luckily there are far more open position scale shapes other than just E-minor, and learning them will allow you to utilize the lowest-end of the guitar in a variety of keys. In this piece, we are going to use a concept called modes to go over six of the most common other open scale shapes, plus a refresher on the open E-minor for completionist sake. Using modes, we’re going to learn seven different open position scale shapes that all use the open E-string as their root note. Despite all having the same root note, each one of these scales is in a different key, thus allowing you to use an open scale shape in seven of the most common keys.
This open E-major scale shape works in the keys of E-major and C#-minor. While it doesn’t have as many open strings as some other open-position scale shapes, three out of six isn’t too bad! If you want to get a fourth open string into the mix, you can play the open B-string in place of the 4th fret on the G-string, although I’ve found that fingering to feel slightly less natural. When playing this scale, try using your index finger for all notes on the 1st fret, your middle finger for all notes on the 2nd fret and your pinky for all notes on the 4th fret. If you follow this fingering pattern, you won’t ever have to shift your hand on this scale.
The open E-Dorian scale will work in the keys of D-major and B-minor. A little more comfortable on the fingers than the open E-major scale, this Dorian shape fits nicely over the fretboard and gets plenty of open string action. To play it efficiently, try anchoring your index finger over the 2nd fret of the guitar, keeping it hovering just above the fretboard. Then use that index finger to play all the notes on the 2nd fret, your middle finger for the notes on the 3rd fret, and your pinky and your ring finger for the notes on the 4th fret.
The open E-Phrygian scale will work in the keys of C-major and A-minor. Although it’s a little more awkward on the fingers than most of the scales discussed in this piece, it’s still worth getting down because it’s in what’s probably the most common key in all of western music. Additionally, it involves all six open strings, which can give you a lot to work with if you’re going after that open string sound. When playing it, grab the notes on the first fret with your index finger, the notes on the second fret with your middle finger, and the notes on the third fret with your ring finger. Also, make sure to watch out for the fact that in this scale, the G-string has only two notes while the B-string has three, which is a reverse of the previous two scales.
The open E-Lydian scale will work in the keys of B-major and G#-minor. Like the open E-Phrygian, it’s another slightly awkward shape with two notes on the G-string instead of the B-string. The main thing that can make this shape odd to play is the lone note on the 3rd, but the truth is this somewhat unusual shape is only a mild inconvenience that’s easy to get past. When playing this scale, use your index finger on the notes on the 1st fret, your middle finger on the notes on the 2nd fret, your pink on the notes on the 4th fret, and your ring finger on the lone 3rd fret note on the G-string.
The open E-Lydian scale will work in the keys of A-major and F#-minor. It’s one of the most comfortable, fluid-feeling open position scale shapes, due in part to the identical fingering on the bottom three strings. The only thing that may trip one up is the lone 3rd fret note on the B-string, one of two spots where the otherwise consistent open string, 2nd fret, 4th fret pattern is broken. When playing this scale, use your index finger to play the notes on the 2nd fret, your ring finger to play the notes on the 4th fret, and your middle finger for the one note on the 3rd fret.
While there’s a good chance that you already know this open E-minor scale shape, there’s a good chance that you might have been taught a slightly simplified version of this scale with some notes missing, such as an E-minor pentatonic shape. Such shapes are often taught because the full open E-minor scale is probably the trickiest of the open scales and can be a little daunting to beginning improvisers. However, the extra notes available to you by learning the full open-minor scale shape make the endeavor worth it, and I promise that it really isn’t all that difficult. It can be used in both the keys of G-major and E-minor.
The main thing that makes this scale tricky is the shift you’ll need to make at the end of it. On the bottom four strings, play the 2nd fret notes with your index finger, the 3rd fret notes with your middle finger, and the one 4th fret note on the D-string with your ring finger. Then, one the B-string, shift down so that your index finger plays the note on the 1st fret, your ring finger plays the 3rd fret notes on both the B-string and the high E-string, and with your middle finger play the 2nd fret note on the high E-string.
Open E-Locrian Scale
The final scale we’re learning, the open E-Locrian scale works in the keys of F-major and D-minor. Another natural feeling scale shape, you play it efficiently by using your index finger to play the notes on the 1st fret, your middle finger to play the notes on the 2nd fret, and your ring finger to play the notes on the third fret. Something to watch out for is that this scale is the first in a while to have two notes on the B-string and three notes on the G-string instead of the other way around, as did the first two scale shapes.
And there you have it, seven different open position scales! These scale shapes can help you through low-end solos as well as writing riffs in a variety of keys other than just E-minor and can be a great tool for whatever your guitar playing goals may be.