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Why you don’t need to learn all guitar scales It's better to know a few guitar scales and milk them, than trying to learn them all

When a teacher presented me a book showing the diagrams for all guitar scales, or rather, the most common guitar scales, I was like “Holy crap, do I need to memorize all this to become a good guitar player”

Not to mention that there were all the guitar chords that needed to be learned, as well as the techniques, reading standard music notation, rhythms and a whole lot of other things.

Still, I went head on and started memorizing all guitar scales in the book like crazy. I was playing guitar scales up and down while watching TV, trying to memorize visually the scales while on the bus, playing them in my head before I sleep, and a whole lot of other things to make learning all guitar scales possible.

The result?

Well, I did learn a lot of scales but my progress on guitar was very slow.

In my frantic attempt to learning all the guitar scales in the book, I was ignoring the single most important aspect of scales: Using them to create music.

What are guitar scales anyway?

Scales are nothing more than patterns of notes.

The chromatic scale refers to, basically, all the 12 notes possible in music. (You will see later that there are actually more than 12 notes since the same note is repeated again at different octaves)

All other guitar scales are made of less than 12 notes, in most cases 5 or 7, as we’ll see below.

Each of these scale patterns, chosen from the chromatic scale, produces a different flavor when played on guitar.

And when you use any of these guitar scales to create licks or solos, you will know beforehand how the notes are going to sound which makes improvisation on guitar a much less daunting task than it would have been, had scales never existed.

Another way to think of guitar scales is to see them as a map through the notes.

Now, while maps are one of the most convenient tools humanity has ever created, you don’t really need to memorize the whole atlas!

You only need to learn which path you’re going to use to reach your destination.

After you learn which path you’re going to use, you don’t usually don’t start trying to learn which path you’ll be using tomorrow – but actually, walk through the path you found today.

And it’s exactly the same thing with scales on guitar. If you had to learn all guitar scales, as I was trying to do, it will keep you from focusing on actually using those scales to create music.

But if you learn those guitar scales one by one and milk them, that is, use them, to create your own licks and solos, you will not only memorize the scale in a way you will never forget it, but actually understand the true value of guitar scales.

And you’ll be honing the craft of improvising on guitar at the same time!

Ok I get it, but which guitar scales should I learn?

I would only be able to answer this question to perfection if I knew what your goals are, as well as the genre of music you play.

What I will do, is answer the question based my own goals and genre of music so that you’ll understand the process.

If you share more or less my goals and the genre of music I like, you can basically start learning all guitar scales you need in this order. If not, you can apply the same process based on your goals.

My goal for learning guitar scales: To be able to express myself the way I want in guitar licks, riffs, and solos. To write songs. To know what note to expect before I play it so that I can improvise fluently.

My genres of music: Rock, Punk, Blues, Heavy Metal.

Based on the above, these is the order I would have recommended myself to learn all guitar scales I need:

  1. Minor pentatonic (so that I could improvise in all minor keys)
  2. Major pentatonic (so that I could improvise in all major keys)
  3. The blues scale (the name should give you a hint why I needed this scale)
  4. Minor natural scale (pentatonic scales have 5 notes, the minor natural has the same notes and 2 more, thus I have more options when improvising my solos. These 2 notes are among the more dissonant in the scale, thus give me more opportunity to create melody by resolving dissonance into consonance)
  5. Major scale (same reasons as for the minor natural scale, applied to major keys)
  6. Harmonic minor scale (With a simple alteration to the natural minor scale you’ll get a somewhat Arabic sound that tends to sound great in Heavy Metal music)
  7. The modes (to expand my horizons and be able to play modally).

Among others, a scale that is missing is the melodic minor scale. The reason is that it’s Jazzy flavor doesn’t appeal to my musical needs. So is the whole tone scale whose sound doesn’t enable me to express myself the way I want.

Also, after 25 years of playing guitar, I’m still learning new scales. For instance, lately I’m experimenting with using the diminished scale for my solos.

And the reason I learnt the diminished scale and started using it isn’t to get one step closer to learning “all guitar scales” possible.

It was to get myself out of a plateau where my solos were kind of sounding similar to each other. I wanted to try a different flavor and use it in different contexts. To jog my mind into coming up with new things.

(Read more about overcoming plateaus if you’re an advancing beginner or intermediate guitar player)

Guitar scale positions

If you learn all guitar scales above in just one position, you will still be limited in your choices.

While it’s true that the chromatic scale includes all 12 different notes in music, those same notes are repeated at different octaves over and over again.

In order to understand this, pick the open low E string on your guitar. Now put your finger on the 12th fret and pick that note.

It’s still the note E, just repeated an octave higher.

You may notice that the E note on the 12th fret does not sound exactly the same like the open E. And it doesn’t, since it’s an octave higher. But try playing the note on the 11th or 13th fret and compare them to the same open E.

They sound much more different, don’t they?

Now, if you learn a scale like the minor pentatonic in just one position, like this:

You’re only limited to the notes that fall within the couple of octaves that happen to lie within the range of that position – excluding all the other notes.

You can still write a great solo staying in one position, but in general you want to have the option to move up and down the neck at will.

This means that every scale pattern, should be learned in different position so that you have a wider range of notes you can choose from every time you play.

Connecting scale patterns

Learning a scale in different positions may not be enough for you to be able to move up and down the neck at ease.

You also need to connect these different scale patterns. This is not a very easy task but in this article I show you a creative way you can go about it.

Conclusion

In this lesson I’ve tried to convince you that you don’t need to learn all guitar scales in the book.

And…

That there’s much more to learning a scale than memorizing it’s pattern up and down.

In this lesson, I’ll show you the process of learning a scale and milking it – before moving to the next.

PS: Is there any topic related to guitar theory, practice or songwriting you would like me to write a detailed lesson on? Leave me a comment below.


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