For this column I’d like to take a look at the Whole Tone scale. As its name suggests, the scale is built entirely of whole steps (two frets apart on the guitar). It only contains six notes and is symmetrical, since each note is equidistant to the next.  As such, any scale tone can be considered the root note. With no strong tonal centre, it has an unsettled and ambiguous sound – you hear it quite often in dream sequences on TV shows. However, when you crank up the distortion and rip out some whole-tone licks it can sound pretty evil and demented!

The basic chord that goes with the Whole Tone scale is an augmented triad (see issue #91 for more on augmented chords/arpeggios). Most commonly, you hear it in a jazz setting over functioning V7#5 chords (since it can be viewed as 1-9-3-#11-#5-b7). Since you don’t hear too many of those in metal(!), I thought I’d show you how the scale can be used when soloing over metal tracks. Not altogether different to how it’s utilized in jazz, the basic idea is to use it to create ‘outside’ sounds but to then resolve those tension notes to stronger chord tones.  


Here’s a basic ‘box’ pattern for the Whole Tone scale (notice how every note is two frets apart). A great thing about the scale is once you know one fingering, you can move it around the neck by simply shifting up or down two frets at a time. Although starting  here on E, there are in fact only two possible ‘keys’ – one starting on any given note and another a half step higher.

Hear Exercise 1


This is a three note-per-string fingering for the scale. After you play three notes, you simply move up a fret and play the same pattern on the next string. The only trick is between the third and second strings where you have to move up two frets. This is a pretty easy finger pattern to remember so it works great for all your stock three note-per -string ‘shred’ licks.

Hear Exercise 2


I’ve written a short solo passage to demonstrate how the Whole Tone scale could be used in a heavy metal situation. If you were to base an entire solo (or riff) on the scale, it would sound too atonal and unresolved (although you’re welcome to give it a try!) So as aforementioned, the goal is to surround the ‘outside’ whole-tone passages with stronger chord tones and scales that are diatonic to the key. In this way you can use it over any type of riff. The example is in the key of E minor using a basic metal chord progression (E5-G5-A5-Bb5). The solo starts by firmly establishing the tonality with a repeated and sustained bend to the tonic of E (bars 1-2). Next, the whole-tone wackiness starts with an alternate-picked descending scale run using 16th notes and covering two bars. This is resolved to a G note (b3 in E minor) as it moves up a blues scale and lands on the b7 (bars 5-6). I then play another whole-tone lick that ascends using hammer-ons with 16th notes grouped in six. After a bend to the b5, once again the tension is resolved by finishing on the E root note.

Hear Exercise 3

Check out the Jason Becker song ‘Eleven Blue Egyptians’ and Michael Angelo Batio’s ‘The Finish Line’ for more examples of the Whole Tone scale in action. Give it a try and come up with some ‘unholy’ licks of your own!