Guitar scales defined and how they benefit your guitar learning process
Guitar scales are simply groups of notes that sound good together.
We use 12 different notes in Western music. (There are many more notes than those on the guitar fretboard because the same notes are repeated in different places, either in unison or at the octave.) For example, if you play the lowest and highest strings of the guitar, you will hear the same note – an E, but at a different octave).
The chromatic scale is formed by playing those 12 notes in succession.
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.
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.
The minor and the major pentatonic scale:
The major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales:
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.
The minor and major blues scale:
The above are not all of the scales you can play on the guitar, but they are the most common and should give you a good idea of the various sounds scales can produce.
Why learn guitar scales?
I was introduced to scales by being given a book full of guitar scale patterns and instructed to learn them 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.
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.
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.
To get the most out of this, practice scales slowly and carefully while listening to how they sound.
Singing along with the scale will benefit your ear training even more.
4. Using scales in 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 the key I’m going to play in (based on the chord progression backing the solo) and choose the appropriate guitar 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.
Start learning guitar scales
I’ve explained what guitar scales are and why you should learn them in this lesson.
If I have managed to convince you that scales benefit your guitar learning process, the next step is to actually start learning them.
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