Once you reach an intermediate level of playing, you’ll naturally develop an interest in playing in a more “intelligent” way.
Up until then, you have been learning the basics, learning to play your favorite songs, chords and strumming.
The next step is learning guitar scales.
Why learn guitar scales?
Once you start learning guitar scales, and even better, start using the scales, you’ll be able to play up and down the neck, write music of your own and improvise.
This is a huge step, and it is something all beginner guitar players aim for.
You might not realize, but scales are the building blocks of music. When you think of
- musical keys
- notes in a chord
- chord qualities
- any style of music
you are, in fact, thinking of scales and the notes in a scale. Like numbers in math.
What are guitar scales?
Simply put, scales are patterns of notes.
Ah, but what are notes? You already know that the musical alphabet is made up of 7 notes:
A – B – C – D – E – F – G
These are the natural “notes”.
And some of these notes have sharps/flat in between them, bringing the count of notes over an octave to 12:
A – A♯ – B – C – C♯ – D – D♯ – E – F – F♯ – G – G♯
These are the chromatic notes in an octave. Once you reach the top, the notes start over at a higher pitch of course.
You should know that:
- Notes that have a sharp (#) of flat (♭) are called accidentals.
- Two pairs of notes don’t have an accidental note between them: E and F, and B and C.
As I mentioned, scales are patterns of notes.
They are movable patterns of half steps (1 semitone) and whole steps (2 semitones).
The major scale – aka the mother of all scales
The very first scale you need to start learning is the major scale.
The formula (pattern) for the major scale is (W = whole tone, h = half tone):
W – W – h – W – W – W – h
Above, you are looking at none other, than the foundation of Western music. It’s kind of a big deal.
All scale patterns are movable. This means that you can start it on whichever note you like, the pattern will be the same.
To illustrate, here are the notes of the major scale in all keys:
|Root||-> W||-> W||-> h||-> W||-> W||-> W||-> h|
Depicting the major scale on the fretboard:
Now since you don’t really move along a single string like this in practice, you can create a vertical pattern of notes along a single position.
This is where scale shapes come into play.
Major scale shapes on the guitar
Here is the C major scale played on all string, rooting at the 8th fret (C note).
You can create neat patterns of notes, to help you remember each major scale shape on the guitar.
The black dots are all of the C notes on the fretboard. They are the root of the C major scale.
These scale shapes are movable, so if you wanted to play the D major scale, you would move the entire diagram to the right by 2 frets.
Of course, learning the major scale takes time and dedication.
To gain a deeper understanding of the major scale, watch this video as well:
Most important scales to learn
There are several scales, all of which are derived from the major scale.
I know this sounds weird right not, but at this stage, you don’t need to learn all of them.
The most important scales you should learn are the:
Many guitarists build careers using just these scales, perhaps you will a well.
How to practice guitar scales?
During my career teaching the guitar to my students, I’ve found that these methods are the easiest ways to practice scales.
Each method requires a metronome to develop your rhythm skills as well. Set it to a low BPM at first, than speed up as you can.
- Play the entire scale shape up and down until you can do it without even thinking about it. Use alternate picking, so up-down plucks.
- Play the scale shape, but change direction randomly. For example, play in one direction for 6 notes, than back down for 3 notes, than back up for 10 notes, than down for 5 notes, etc.
- Play octaves within the scale shape. So sticking with the C major scale, play the C notes along the scale shape. Than the D notes. Than the E notes. And so on.
- Play 3 notes at a time, moving up by a note each time. So first play the 1st 3 notes of the scale. Than go to the 2nd note of the scale, and play 3 notes starting there. Than go to the 3rd note of the scale, and play 3 notes starting there. This is a really nice, musical way to learn scale shapes.
- Play 4 notes at a time. This is an extension of the previous exercise.
Of course, the best way to practice any new technique or scale you learn is by using it.
Once you are comfortable with the scale shapes, search for backing tracks that use the C major scale, and start improvising.