Chris Eldridge

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Scale Degrees and Melody

Finding your way around the guitar can be confusing. There are a lot of different notes and sorting them into patterns that make sense can feel daunting. To help cut through the fog we're going to take a look at scale degrees and the number system. The basic concept is pretty simple. A major scale (think the white keys on the piano starting at C or do, rey, mi, fa, so, la. ti, do) can be counted out as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Each note in the scale, or scale degree, has it's own color relative to the tonic (aka 1, or "Do"). If this seems confusing to read about I think it will make perfect sense when you hear it. Having a basic grip on scale degrees will not only make picking out and learning melodies much easier, but it will lay the framework for understanding how and why chords are built.

We'll also take a look at the melody of White Dove and how to decode it using scale degrees.






Topics and/or subjects covered in this lesson:
White Dove
Chris Eldridge
Scale Degrees
Learning by Ear

Print Print Chords & Tab

Loop 1:04 Scale Degress

Loop 4:25 Noticing the Color of Each Note

Loop 6:22 Chord Numbering

Loop 11:32 White Dove Melody with Scale Degrees

Loop 14:13 White Dove Melody Example - Capo on 3rd Fret


Download the Sheet Music PDF


Loop 16:21 The Importance of Learning by Ear





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James Reed
James Reed Apr 29, 2021

Early days of practicing with this one and I'm focussing on trying to keep the melody distinct around the other notes. Do you have any tips on my articulation here? I know that my timings are loose - the rhythm on the slurs doesn't feel natural just yet but I'll be metronoming shortly.

I noticed that you're not using vibrato in your playthough - is this a stylistic trait for Bluegrass? It's going to feel weird restricting when I use it if so!

James Reed
James Reed Apr 29, 2021

I had a quiet afternoon so had a chance to get more practice in and tidy up those rhythms; I think that this feels a lot better now.

I was using a 1.5mm Primetone in this take; is anyone else hearing an odd tone in the pick attack?

Chris Eldridge
Chris Eldridge May 19, 2021

Hey James, 

You sound great and the difference between the first and second video is wonderful. The way I played the melody the first time through is probably less adorned than I would perform the song at a show. It was more to present it with simplicity and clarity. The second is a little more dressed up for presentation. However, the first time through does speak to some of the simplicity of the style. Namely, not much vibrato, a fairly direct melodic sense, crisp timing and rhythmic feel, and a pleasant tone. I hadn't figured out how to record the guitar well when I made the video, but the other elements come through well enough. 

By the second video I feel like you nailed all of these elements plus a lovely sense of heart and musicality. Beautiful! For what it's worth, I'm not hearing anything out of bounds with the pick noise. 

Robert Heaton
Robert Heaton Dec 15, 2018

Good, day; Chris your last TWO minutes of this video about learning the melody and singing it instead of being a tab junkie. THIS is my fork in the bluegrass guitar, change I will LEARN the melody by using the D scale and, numbering it out, THANK- YOU, Best to you, and yours; Robert

Bryn Nov 25, 2018

Chris, your response to David (about a year ago) regarding scale degrees and becoming familiar with the tonal identicalities (is that even a word?) between a 3rd and a 5th (or whatever) relative to the root (no matter the key) was super helpful. I've been wrestling with how best to internalize the whole Nashville number system, and I think you've unlocked a pathway for me that will make that process a lot more intuitive. Thanks man!

Micah Feb 25, 2018


Thanks for the lessons!  I'm primarily a rhythm player and songwriter, and I'm looking forward to pushing myself across the board through your videos.  I'm self-taught - or more appropriately, self mis-taught.  I'm focusing a lot right now on keeping my right arm loose, keeping my fingers from flying too far off the fretboard, and changing my pick and pick hold.  This is the first time I've used a flatpick, instead of an electric pick - went w/ the Dunlop Primetone 1.5mm - and I'm going from a weird thumb+two-finger hold to just thumb+index finger.  It's been a couple of weeks now and it's finally starting to feel natural.

I've never used rest strokes before, will be woodshedding those.  Thanks again for the lessons (and man am I glad that SonicJunction has the 50% and 75% slow motion options)


Chris Eldridge
Chris Eldridge Mar 05, 2018

Hi Micah! 

First of all, welcome! There's a good crew of people here - happy to have you join us. 

You clearly have a knack for music - this excerpt sounds really good. The main thing I would suggest you take a look at for now is keeping your right arm, hand, and, most specifically, wrist more relaxed. And to be honest, it's something I see more than hear, but that tension will present more problems as you move through more lessons and music. You might try playing and singing the song in front of a mirror and watching your wrist. Sometimes that can be very enlightening and you can get immediate feedback as to what it feels like when it looks more loose. Then you can try to file that sensation away and call upon it later as you're dealing with tension. Does that make sense? 



Micah Mar 07, 2018

Chris - that makes a lot of sense.  I'm been noticing problems with tension as I'm practicing Honey You Don't Know My Mind and Soldier's Joy, and a tendency to tense my arm from elbow to pick on fast phrases.

Just watched your 1st White Dove video again, and seeing what you mean about starting from a totally relaxed position.  I think I'm  starting with my wrist straight, not relaxed, and then it ripples from there.  I'll try to start from a truly relaxed position, and watch in a mirror to try and get some good mental snapshots.


David Nov 12, 2017


Thanks so much for your lessons. How much do you think of the scale degrees when you're playing or putting together a solo? Is it mostly useful in identifying the chords, or do you really use this idea to help craft the color of your solos?

I'm especially interested in getting into your head about how you shape solos through a chord change. In the White Dove example, you explain that the melody goes 5,5,5,3,2,1,6,1... (approximately). But when the melody hits that first 6, it triggers the G chord, so do you think about buiding a solo in G at that moment? So in the G scale, the 6 is now a 3, relative to G.

Am I completely over thinking this? Trying to keep track of the separate scale degrees through each chord change seems kind of confusing, but I think there might be value in knowing which notes to play through a key change, especially if you're improvising. Hitting the 1, 3 or 5 of the new chord at the beginning of a key change seem like pretty safe bet.

What are your thoughts on how much it's helpful to do all this metal math, or is developing a less structured feel for the music more helpful?



Chris Eldridge
Chris Eldridge Nov 22, 2017

Hi David, and thanks for your question! 

When I’m playing I’m not doing a bunch of quick calculations as in your example in the second paragraph. But I do know the sound of a 3rd or a 5th or a 6th over a given root or chord. So it’s less a math problem, and more me applying a label to a subjective experience of sound. Or said another way, by using scale degrees and I have labels for the “color” of a given note relative to the key center. And actually, knowing the sound or color of intervals between any two notes is important as well. Any major 6th interval will sound like any other major 6th interval, regardless of where they fall relative to the root. 

That said, different people process information differently and if you’re someone who is interested in the puzzle of tracking the scale degrees through different chord changes then more power to you!

Another way of looking at it involves keeping track of what scale degree you are on relative to the root of the chord at any given time. So as the chords change you can always try to see the root, 3rd, 5th of the new chord. I use that approach a lot!

Does that help?


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