Learning guitar scales can either be the most tedious aspect of your musical journey, or a fun aspect you can never get enough of. This all depends on how you learn guitar scales, when you learn them, and whether you use them to create music.
Before I show you how to learn scales, I’ll explain how not to learn guitar scales.
This is the way I learned my guitar scales, and the way many guitar students still do. While it works – you actually end up knowing the scales – it takes a very long time, a lot of frustration and, you will be missing the whole point of why guitar scales should be learned in the first place.
It basically goes like this:
You buy a book that has a lot of guitar scales in it and start learning them all, in all positions, using the suggested system of the book.
What happened when I did this, I realize in hindsight, was that guitar players I thought were way better than me, actually knew fewer scales.
However, unlike me, they did not learn guitar scales and had them stored in their memory but used guitar scales frequently to create music.
While I was focusing on quantity, thinking that learning all the scales in the book would make me a really good guitar player, they were learning a scale at a time and milking it.
This is how you should practice anything on the guitar since what matters is not how many things you know, but how many you can use.
The following is a method for learning guitar scales thoroughly and turning them into a useful musical tool.
Step 1: Learn your first guitar scale: the A minor pentatonic
For reasons that will be explained later on in this lesson, the first guitar scale you should learn is the A minor pentatonic:
Step 2: Play guitar scale sequences
After you play the scale pattern above up and down a few times to memorize it, start playing sequences on it.
The following is an example of a guitar scale sequence:
When playing guitar scale sequences, you’re still playing the same notes, but the order is altered systematically.
The reason why you should learn guitar scale sequences goes beyond just memorizing the scale better. Sequences will come useful when you start playing licks and solos because they give you a ton of ideas as well as train your ear.
It’s much easier to improvise a riff, a lick, or a solo when your ear knows how a note will sound before it’s actually played.
Step 3: Understand what scales are used for.
Why should you learn guitar scales in the first place?
When you know how to play a scale on the guitar, and want to improvise a lick or a solo, you have a path you can follow.
If you only play notes from the A minor pentatonic scale above, they will sound good with any backing music that’s being played in the key of A minor.
This does not mean that if the backing music is in A minor you can only use notes from the A minor pentatonic, but if you stick to just those notes, you have a guarantee that the notes you’ll be playing will sound good.
Step 4: Memorize the name of every guitar note on the low E string.
Let’s say the backing track you’re playing to is not in the key of A minor, but B minor.
Do you have to memorize the pattern of B minor pentatonic to be able to play with the backing track?
Luckily for us guitarists, you don’t. You only have to know where the note B is on the low E string and play the exact same pattern as the A minor pentatonic, this time to start from the note B.
The following are the names of each note of the first 12 frets of the low E string.
The only thing you have to do to learn any minor pentatonic scale is to find the right note and play the same pattern as the A minor pentatonic from there.
That said, while memorizing the notes of the low E string alone serves this particular purpose, it’s also a good idea to memorize the notes on the whole guitar fretboard and explore how this knowledge can be applied to learning guitar scales, chords, as well as anything you learn in music theory and want to apply to your guitar playing
Step 5: Learn the A major pentatonic scale.
The absolute majority of music is played in either a major or a minor key. While knowing the pattern of the minor pentatonic enables you to improvise with any kind of music written in a minor key, the major pentatonic enables you to play with any backing music written in the major key.
The following is the pattern for the A major pentatonic.
As you did with the minor pentatonic scale you can play the major pentatonic in any key by starting on the desired note.
Also, apply the same scale sequences as you did to the minor pentatonic to the major pentatonic.
Step 6: Create your first melodies.
Now is the time to start working on your creative juices.
Choose one scale and, rather than playing all the notes up and down, or in a scale sequence, try to use them to create a simple melody.
It doesn’t matter how simple it is because the idea is to actually get started thinking in terms of melodies.
Here is an example of a simple melody in the A minor pentatonic.
Come up with as many melodies as you can before you move to the next step.
Step 7: Learn guitar phrasing techniques
Though phrasing techniques like string bending and vibrato have nothing to do with the subject of scales, when you add these techniques to the melodies you’re creating from your guitar scales, your melodies will start sounding more exciting than the one I gave you in the example above, and, probably, the ones you’re coming up with right now.
Where to go from here.
If you started learning a guitar scale after each other from a book, like I did, instead of using this method, you would have memorized more scales than just two by now.
However, if you executed every step above, you don’t just know these two scales, you also know how to use scales to create music.
In order to widen your options, the next things you should be learning as regards to scales are:
1. Learn more scales on the guitar.
The major and minor pentatonic scales are easier to use than the major and the minor scale, though not necessarily less effective. The reason for this will be understood if you pursue the study of music theory.
That said, you don’t need to learn all guitar scales you find at random. Be strategic in your choices.
2. Play the same guitar scales in different positions.
The major and minor pentatonic scales you’ve learned in this lesson can actually be played in 5 different positions. While the major and minor scale can be played in as many as 7 positions.
Learning how to play scales in different positions, enables you to play up and down the neck rather than be restricted to those few notes in one pattern.
3. Connect different scale positions
In order to really be able to move up and down the guitar neck when improvising your licks and solos, you will need to not only learn guitar scales in different positions but also connect them with each other.
If you have understood the rest of this lesson, you may want to learn how to do this in this lesson on connecting guitar scales.
If you’re learning guitar scales, you probably know some chords already.
Did you know that using a few chords to write songs is something you can start working on now?
Follow this step by step process to writing a song on guitar and if you keep working not only on your guitar skills but also on music theory and creativity (actually writing songs), you can become a songwriter as well as a guitar player!
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