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What are guitar scales? (5 reasons why you should learn them)

Simply put guitar scales are groups of notes that sound good together.

In Western music, we make use of 12 different notes. (The reason there
are many more notes than that on the guitar fretboard is that these
same notes are repeated in different places either in unison or at the
octave. For instance, if you play the lowest and highest string of the
guitar, the same note is sounded – an E, but at a different octave)

Playing those 12 notes after each other gives us the chromatic scale. 

While this scale has its uses, in most cases guitar players make use of a select group of notes within that scale.

The notes in these groups and the order in which they’re played give us all the other scales we can use on the guitar.

Pentatonic scales use 5 notes out of those 12.

Heptatonic scales (major and minor scales) use 7 notes while hexatonic scales (the blues scale, whole tone scale) make use of 6 notes.

The following are examples of some of the most commonly used pentatonic, heptatonic and hexatonic guitar scales played in one octave.

Note that all the scales seem to have an extra note – for instance the pentatonic scale examples have 6 notes. That’s because the last note is the same note as the first, the root note, played an octave higher.

Pentatonic scales

The minor and the major pentatonic scale:

Heptatonic scales

The major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scale:

Note that the harmonic minor has the same notes as the natural minor except for the 7th note which is “sharpened”, that is, raised by one semitone (or one fret). The melodic minor is the same as the natural minor with the 6th and 7th notes sharpened.

Hexatonic scales

The minor and major blues scale:

The above are not all the scales you can play on the guitar but they are the most common and they should be enough to give you a clear idea of the different sounds scales can offer.

Why learn guitar scales?

I was introduced to scales by being given a book full of guitar scale patterns and instructed to learn it by the end of the term, when I would be assessed on my scale memorization skills in an exam.

And I didn’t feel motivated to learn it at all.

Not because it looked like a lot of work, I never considered practicing the guitar hard work, quite the opposite.

I just couldn’t see any link between learning the scales in the book and my musical goals.Will I be able to learn and write songs with this stuff?

I did learn the scales in the book and I passed my exam, but I only understood the real value of scales much later.

Thus I’m going to give you a few reasons why you should learn scales. If you’re a beginner guitar player some of these reasons will actually affect your playing later on, while others will start giving you results right now.  

If you’re an intermediate player, you should start using scales to create your own compositions and improvisations (no matter how simple they are at first)

1. Finger strength, dexterity and muscle memory

When I was given the scale patterns to learn, this was the only benefit I could see.

Scales make good exercises and train your fingers to build the right strength, stretch and above all muscle memory.

Thus, when learning scales it is important that you use the correct finger positions (such as fretting each note with the tip of your fingers, close to the fret) so that you actually reap these benefits.

Needless to say, scales are not the only exercises that help achieve this but most spider and other guitar finger exercises don’t come with the other benefits that scales have.

2. Fretboard knowledge

Learning the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard is a good first step to understanding the guitar neck.

With guitar scales (as well as with chords and arpeggios) you will take things to the next level and start seeing patterns that make musical sense all over the fretboard.

3. Ear training

Ear training is an important but often neglected skill every musician needs to acquire.

One of the benefits of ear training is acquiring the ability to hear the sound of a note in your head before you even play it.

For instance if I play the first four notes of the minor pentatonic scale, I would be able to easily sing the fifth.

The reason is that I have played the scale so many times that in my mind’s ear I can hear that note, or any other note in that scale for that matter.

In order to benefit from this it’s good that sometimes you practice scales slowly and carefully listen to their sound.

Singing along with the scale will train your ear even more.

4. Improvisation and composition

If you intend to improvise or compose your own music on the guitar, scales are the handiest tool you can have.

Before I come up with a solo, I find what the key I’m going to play in (based on the chord progression backing the solo) and choose the appropriate scale that helps me express the emotions I want to express in that solo.

By leaving out the notes that are not in the scale, it’s much easier to choose the right notes.

Note: As guitar theory teacher Tommaso Zillio states “there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions”. This means that there is nothing musically wrong in playing notes outside the scale, and many guitar players occasionally do that. 

However notes can sound bad if you don’t resolve them correctly and if the notes are outside the scale, you will probably need to be a more experienced musician to do that.

I suggest that if you’re a beginner in composition or improvisation, you stick to a scale. As you get more experienced, you may choose to use notes outside the scale to create more dissonance in your music.

5. Playing with others

When very experienced musicians jam together, one guy starts playing a guitar, keyboard or bass, and everyone else starts improvising stuff that perfectly fits with what he’s doing.

But when non-experienced musicians jam together, they would make a complete cacophony until someone raises a finger and suggests they decide to play in a key (say A major or B minor)

Once the key is chosen, every musician knows what scales (as well as chords or arpeggios) he should be using and it’s not a cacophony anymore. It will start sounding good (unless they mess up the rhythm or some other musical element)

Learn scales, and if you notice that what the others are playing doesn’t match, be the one who suggests using them.

Conclusion

In this lesson I have explained what guitar scales are and why you need to learn them.

If I have managed to convince you that you need scales in your guitar learning process, the next step is to actually start learning them.


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