Why learn guitar scales?
Does it really make you a better player if you're just memorizing a pattern?
In that context, I would say no. You shouldn't learn guitar scales just for the sake of the scales themselves. Sitting down and memorizing a pattern does you no good if you're not able to apply what you've committed to memory.
Patterns swirling around in your brain aren't useful until you know what they mean and how they can help you actually do something on the fretboard.
You should be able to get from patterns to applied melody.
I would argue that learning guitar scales should occur in three parts:
If you learn guitar scales this way, addressing why they matter in the first place is a lot easier. You memorize a pattern, understand the reasoning behind that pattern (the music theory), then apply what you've learned in a real-life musical context.
You memorize a pattern, understand the reasoning behind that pattern (the music theory), then apply what you've learned in a real-life musical context.
With that in mind, let's go over some of the most compelling reasons to learn guitar scales and draw a road map of how they can actually make you a better musician.
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1. To begin understanding intervals
Guitar scales are built from intervals.
Each step within a scale - from one note to another - is an interval that can be identified based on the number of frets between notes. Once you know the intervals within a scale, you can start to hear and understand how those intervals sound and how they make up the larger scale pattern.
Scales allow you to practice intervals in a structure. In an ideal scenario, you would learn intervals before you learn scales.
For example, take the following diagram:
In the above diagram you have a basic C major scale where we've identified the root note (the C on the third fret).
Every note in that scale is an interval of the root C and one another. For this particular example, we've identified the E note and listed its interval value - major third - in relation to the root.
Since scales are just a series of melodic single notes, they can help you recognize and apply the intervals you've learned, within a helpful structure.
Armed with an understanding of intervals and scale structures, we can start to apply technique.
2. To build structures for learning lead technique and improvising
Scales provide a grid on which to work.
In an of themselves they are not creatively melodic, but they provide structures on which you can experiment and practice more complex ideas. For example, before you practice lead technique and improvising, you need to have scales or some kind of pattern that helps frame these concepts.
Here are a few lead guitar techniques that can use scales as a sort of training ground for working on them:
- Single note bends
- Single note vibrato
- Pre-bend and release
Now, you don't need to play more than one note to practice a single note bend. However, it can be helpful to play through parts of a scale before you apply your bending technique to one of the notes.
This gives you a more musical and practical experience with bending notes on the fretboard, as opposed to just bending one note in isolation.
Take the following tab:
Though the above pattern isn't a full scale, it's the first three notes of the C major scale we looked at earlier. In this example, you're bending the third degree (third note) of that scale.
It's a simple example, but it helps you understand how a scale could be useful for this type of technical study and lead guitar application.
Though scales can be helpful even beyond concepts relating to single notes.
We can also use them to better understand how we construct and use chord progressions.
3. For understanding chord progressions
Common chord progressions are derived from scales.
When you hear someone say, "This song is in the key of E." they're saying the chord progression or bass line of the song is derived from a scale that's also in the key of E. This is because chord progressions can be derived from scale degrees, of which each becomes a root note for a chord in a progression.
This is where you get the Roman Numeral designation for chord progressions.
Here's how it would look over a C major scale:
This is why you might see a chord progression written like this: I, IV, V
All that means is you take the first, fourth, and fifth degree of the scale, using each note as a root for the chord you play. Sticking with our above example, we'd have a bass line of C, F, and G, thus a C, F, and G chord progression.
This is why you have so many songs making use of a small grouping of chord progressions.
The first, fourth, and fifth degree of a scale just sound good, which means they get used over and over in different keys. While you can memorize the chord progression itself, learning scales helps you understand why and how the chord progression makes sense.
4. For finding fretboard root notes
As you've seen, scales all have root notes.
In a chord progression, these root notes show up as distinct points on the fretboard.
For example, you'd play a C chord on the third fret with the bass or root note on the fifth string, like this:
This illustrates that learning root notes can be supplemented by a thorough and proper study of scales, since they have to be repeatedly placed on the fretboard based on a given chord or bass line. Stick with our C chord example, you could theoretically place a C chord anywhere you can find a root C note.
For example, the following diagram shows us the fretboard notes on the sixth string (the thickest string), and we can see there's a C note at the eighth fret.
Since we already understand how chords and scales fit together, we should now know that at this spot we can do either of the following two things:
- Build a C chord
- Begin a scale pattern with C at the root
Let's say we want to start the C major scale pattern at the eighth fret. Here's what it would look like:
This process of playing scales and chords at fret position based on their root notes helps us memorize notes on the fretboard quicker, as opposed to using only a brute force style of memorization.
Some Beginner Guitar Scales
Since we've taken the time to understand the benefits of learning scales, I want to provide a few basic scales to start with. As mentioned, a guitar scale will theoretically extend the entire length of the fretboard. However, for actually using them on guitar, it's most helpful to break them down into small segments between octaves.
If it's helpful, refer to this finger guide which correspond to the yellow numbers on the scale notes (roots and octaves are labeled with their note value).
E Major Pentatonic Scale Segment at the Seventh Fret
For example, if you want a small segment of a pentatonic scale to easily memorize, you would use the five notes ("penta" means five) between an octave in a given key. Let's start with the Pentatonic major scale in the key of E, at the seventh fret position:
And here's the tabbed version:
This pattern gives us a short, memorable scale that's only six notes, including the root and octave. If you wanted to continue the pattern, you would just keep going up the fretboard, repeating the pattern we see here. Let's look at another guitar scale with a little more length.
C Major Scale Segment at the Eighth Fret
The major scale, which we've already used for a couple examples, has seven steps between each octave, giving us a little more to work with. If we start at the eighth fret and build a scale in the key of C, we get the following diagram:
And again, the tabbed version:
These are two simple scales that you can use to apply some of what we covered earlier. Use them for building patterns, melodies, and practicing lead technique, all of which will help you memorize them more easily than if you just sit down and try to memorize the pattern itself.
Eventually you should know the pattern because you've used it.
That's a much more effective way to memorize something than the flash card method of just trying to recall it.
You'll also learn the scale in a way that's more useful, so that when you do have it memorized, you'll know how to use it and what to use it for.
To summarize, we've highlighted four reasons for learning guitar scales:
- To understand intervals
- To build structures for learning technique
- To understand chord progressions
- To understand root notes
All of these are goals that we should have when memorizing and learning scale patterns. Because, again, it's important that scales lead you to do something and that they don't just terminate on themselves.
They're tools in your hand that help you become a better player.
Use them that way, and they'll be far less boring to memorize.
If you have questions about this lessons or other thoughts to share, feel free to do so via the comments section below.
We'll chat then.