Guitar scales for beginners: What you need to know before you start learning them
Beginner guitar players are usually told harrowing stories about the number of scales that need to be memorized in order to learn the guitar, usually without being told how to actually learn guitar scales and use them.
This has led to myths among many beginner guitar students that scales are boring, useless, something in between, or else, something you will find useful only once you become a great guitar player and everything magically fits together.
If you believe any of these myths, or else, are confused about what scales are and how they’ll be of any use during your musical journey, this lesson on guitar scales for beginners is for you.
These 10 points should clear the confusion you may have on guitar scales (if they don’t, leave me a comment below and I will answer your specific question)
1. Understanding the terminology
Before we move on to what scales are and how you’re going to find them useful in your guitar playing, let’s clear the air on some terminology that will be used a lot in the study of guitar scales
a. Interval – The distance between two notes.
b. Semitone – The distance between two notes next to each other on the guitar. In music theory terminology a semitone is referred to as a minor second interval.
c. Tone – The distance between two notes if you skip a fret. A tone is also referred to as a major second interval.
d. Octave – If you play the lowest string on a guitar, you’ll get the note E.
If you press the 12th fret on the lowest string of the guitar, you’ll also get an E.
Between those two E notes lie all 12 different notes in music.
The distance between those two E’s is the interval of an octave.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand how everything works out yet. It’s going to get more clear. Just make sure you understand the meaning of the terms.
2. The chromatic scale
Scary as the name may sound, the chromatic scale is nothing more than those 12 notes played in succession.
Most Rock and Pop music is not written in the chromatic scale, but uses a pattern of 5 or 7 notes from that scale – these form the major scale, the minor scale, and their equivalent pentatonic scales as we’ll see below.
3. Major and minor scales
While most Rock and Pop music is not usually chromatic, in many cases it’s written in either a major or a minor scale.
These are nothing more than 7 notes chosen from the chromatic scale that follow the same pattern of tones (T) and semitones (S).
The pattern for the major scale is: TTSTTTS
Thus, the pattern of notes for the E major scale played on the lowest string (guitar scales are not usually learned like this, neither by beginners nor by advanced players, as we’ll see at a later point) would be:
The pattern for the minor scales is TSTTSTT
Thus the pattern of notes for the E minor scale would be:
4. Pentatonic scales
The major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale have the same notes as their equivalent major and minor scales – but have two notes less.
These two notes are pretty dissonant compared to the others in the scale thus these scales are easier to use. In a way, pentatonic scales can be considered the best guitar scales for beginners to start improvising on.
That said, pentatonic scales are not just used because they’re easy, but also because they ended up having their own flavor.
These are the notes for the E major pentatonic scale
And the notes for the E minor pentatonic scale
Note: I did not give you the pattern in tones and semitones for pentatonic scales because since they’ve got fewer notes, some intervals are larger than a tone, which goes beyond the purpose of this lesson.
It’s a good idea to memorize the tone-semitone patterns of the major and minor scale given in the previous point, though as we’ll be seeing below, this will not be the way you will learn guitar scales: As we’ll see you’ll be following a pattern which makes it much easier for a beginner to learn.
5. More minor scales
In the last example in point 3 I gave you the notes of the E minor scale.
To be more correct, those are the notes of the E minor natural scale.
Apart from the minor pentatonic (which is exactly like the E natural minor scale, but with two notes missing) there are other alterations to the natural minor scale that give us the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale.
Read this lesson to learn more about these different forms of minor scales.
6. But guitar scales for beginners are not learned this way, no?
I’ve shown you these scales in linear patterns (on the same string) in order to explain the guitar theory behind them.
In practice, beginner guitar scales are learned in patterns that make it much easier for you to play and eventually improvise on.
You will keep using these same patterns as you become an intermediate and advanced player, and along you would be gaining more, and refining, your phrasing techniques to improvise and compose licks and solos using these patterns.
For instance, this would be the pattern for the A minor pentatonic – the first scale you should learn on guitar because it’s both easy to play, as well as very useful and common in Rock and Blues music among others.
7. Scales on guitar are moveable
This is good news for us guitarists. A luxury many students studying other musical instruments don’t have.
If you know the pattern for the A minor pentatonic scale on guitar, you automatically know the patterns for all minor pentatonic scales on the guitar starting from the same note on the fretboard.
The first note in the example scale pattern in point 6, that on the fifth fret of the low E string, is an A.
If I want to play say, the scale of F# minor pentatonic, I will just go to the F# on the 2nd fret and play the same pattern of notes I played in the A minor pentatonic, starting from the F#.
8. Learn scales in different positions on the guitar neck
The minor pentatonic scale pattern you learned above will make it possible for a beginner guitar student to improvise in any music played in any minor key.
You just find the first note of the key and play the same pattern.
However, if you learn that scale pattern in only that position, you have only a select few notes you can choose from to improvise.
Different patterns starting from different A notes on the guitar will give you the possibility to play easily up and down the guitar neck, especially when you learn how to connect guitar scale patterns.
9. You don’t have to learn all guitar scales in the books
You may have encountered books with never-ending lists of scales to play on the guitar.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to learn all those scales.
In this article I explain why it’s better to learn a few guitar scales and milk them than trying to learn as many scales as you can that you find online or offline. Especially if you’re a beginner at guitar scales.
10. Scales are creativity tools
Many of the above points go into the theory behind scales.
It’s important to understand the theory in order to know what you’re doing.
However, though it may seem so for a beginner, using guitar scales is neither an exercise in theory nor in memory, but an exercise in creativity.
If the only guitar scale you know is the minor pentatonic you have learned in this lesson, don’t start learning a new scale (or even the minor pentatonic in a different position) yet.
Start using it!
But how, you may ask, especially if you’re a beginner.
It’s quite simple really.
Choose any notes you want from that scale and try to create a melody with it.
You don’t need to use all the notes in the pattern, you can make a melody from even two or three notes.
Your first melodies are going to start stupid especially if you don’t know any guitar phrasing techniques yet.
But that shouldn’t bother you because coming up with a great melody is not the point here.
The goal is to start training your creative juices earlier on and understand the real value of scales on guitar – different options you have when you want to create guitar riffs, licks, and solos.
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