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Some Thoughts on Scales

Scales are a huge topic that applies not only to guitar but to all music. Like most things in guitar, getting overwhelmed by the topic of scales is practically unavoidable and may actually be the essential first step to understanding them. Trust your own ability to learn and work patiently. The huge mountain of info on scales will start to make sense EVENTUALLY, you just have to give the key concepts time to sink in a bit. …You also have to get started right away and stick with it.

I have several books and pdfs filled with hundreds of examples of scales, but most of them do a very poor job of explaining what a scale is or why we need to learn them. It is really funny how the terms these books use to describe scales are so esoteric the only people who can understand their descriptions are people who already understand what is being described! I have read many books and I wish I could tell you one that would answer all your questions about scales, but I can’t.

But maybe I can outline the key things to always remember as you are researching scales:

Key Concepts

1.) A scale is a set of notes that are played one by one in oder of pitch in either ascending or descending order.

2.) The simplest scale is the CHROMATIC scale which consists of all 12 tones that divide up the octave.

3.) You can play the CHROMATIC scale on a single guitar string by just playing every fret one by one in order from 1 – 12.

4.) Every other scale you could possibly come up with is simply a subset of the CHROMATIC scale.

5.) Refer to the Diatonic Worksheets we used in lessons to see how the major scale is made by selecting a particular 7 tones from the 12-tone chromatic.

6.) These 7 notes of the major scale were selected because, when played in sequence they produce a certain sound.

7.) If we had chosen a different set of notes, the sound of would change and we would describe that different sound by naming that collection of notes as a different scale.

8.) Being a linear selection of pitches, guitar scales are most easily understood as points on a single guitar string between frets 1 and 12. Indeed any scale can be played all along one string, but this is really never efficient. It is much easier to stack the scale tones across several strings in a 4 fret position on the guitar neck.

9.) This stacking of scales gives rise to 2 or 3 note-per-string patterns which look very similar to chord shapes. The main difference between chord shapes and scales shapes is that there are more notes in a scale shape and you play those notes one by one instead of strumming them as a chord. But the ability to visualize a dozen or so notes as an instantaneous scale shape is similar to how we think of all the 5 or six notes in a chord: as one thing, with a root note and major/minor tonality.

10.) Lastly, scales really can’t be understood in the abstract. You have to play them. Over and over… and over… You have to hear them over and over and your fingers have to learn to play scales automatically just like they learned to do with chords. So the best thing to do is to pick just one scale pattern and play it over and over. Up and down. Backwards and forwards. Side to side? Once you start doing scale drills you will start to understand everything.

What scale should I learn first?

Start with the blues scale, or it’s slightly more general from: the Minor Pentatonic Scale. It is the easiest to play. Don’t try to memorize them right away. Just play them a lot and memorization will occur.

If you get a chance to come in for a lesson I can show you some efficient drills to practice scales effectively in a reasonable amount of practice time. If there is one mistake I feel I made when I was first learning scales it was spending too much time trying to crack the intellectual code behind scales and not enough time simply drilling them! If you get the sound of the scales in your ears and the ability to access them into your fingers, the understanding a what they are and when to use them will follow right away.

Hope that helps. good luck!

P.S. Some special thanks go to Anthony whose questions about scales prompted me to post these thoughts. The bulk of this post is an excerpt from our email correspondence on scales. If you have any questions about scales or other guitar topics, send me an email:

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