A better way to learn scales

July 10, 2018
A better way to learn scales

Guitarists tend to learn scales by memorizing finger patterns.

To some extent, that’s because of the tactile nature of the instrument and the way we learn it. On piano, there’s an obvious linear logic to way a scale lays on the instrument. On guitar, most students find it challenging to see scales as anything other than a series of finger moves at first.

Many student players struggle to get beyond this initial, limited view. They memorize licks that can be strung together, or walk up and down the scale, but have a hard time using those memorized scale patterns to create melodies. After all, we want to be able to sing on the instrument, not just play licks. You know the difference when you hear it: one takes you somewhere, and one doesn’t.


The trick is to get beyond the fingerings into the sounds.

This means knowing the patterns to the point that you don’t have to think about them. When that happens, you can simply think of melodic gestures: a scalar climb, a melodic leap, a sequence. It doesn’t mean you’ll never play a lick again, but it does lead to more musical coherence and drama in your improvisations.

It’s also a big part of developing style. Eric Clapton once said in an interview that he might play a Buddy Guy lick followed by an Albert King lick, but that they would be connected by something that was his. No musician plays without influences, and the ones that put them together in original ways are often the players that define a sound. You can use this perspective to help create your own style, but first you need to internalize those scales.


Practice method

First of all, we need to feel the musical vibe of the scale. Play it slowly up and down, one octave at a time from root to root. Hear the difference between a bright major, a bluesy minor pentatonic, the exotic phrygian mode or harmonic minor. Notice the notes that the give the scale its definitive sound.


1. Play through the octave and count the notes, assigning a number to each one (root, second, third, and so on).


2. Make a mental note of the position of each root and their visual relationship on the fretboard.


3. Starting, from the root, play each interval: root to second, root to third, root to fourth, continuing up to a ninth (one step beyond the octave).

If you can sing along, that’s even better, and continue to do so throughout this process.For a pentatonic or whole-tone scale, find the relationship between the scale tones and the corresponding major and number accordingly. For example:

C major: C D E F G A B C

C minor pentatonic: C Eb F G Bb C

Matching up the letters with numbers, the minor pentatonic would be 1 b3 4 5 b7.


4. Repeat the process, filling in the scale steps in each interval:

1 – 2 – 1

1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

and so forth.


5. Play an arpeggio from the scale, up and down:

1 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 1

1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 5 – 3 – 1

1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 7 – 5 – 3 – 1


6. Extend the scale by repeating the process in another octave. If the position doesn’t cover a full second octave, identify the notes you can reach and adapt the exercises accordingly.


7. Play through the entire position using a sequence like one of these:

1 3 – 2 4 – 3 5 etc
1 2 3 1 – 2 3 4 2 – 3 4 5 3 etc

This process is a variation on the sequence Jamey Abersold introduces in his excellent book How To Play Jazz and Improvise Vol. 1. This book also includes an extended set of patterns and sequences you can try. If you’re interested in the jazz vocabulary it’s a must, but it’s helpful to anyone.

So far, we’ve only covered one position at a time. Ultimately you will want to be able to connect positions in a linear way, and I’ll cover a practice method for this in a subsequent post.

One Response to A better way to learn scales

  • This is great! I was thinking what I can do for scale practice besides reading the notes? These are the same patterns used in vocal training to learn your intervals and sing in tune accurately. In fact, when I was in the Nashville barbershop harmony group, the i-i-2 1, 1-2-3-2-1 etc was a standard vocal warm up. So guitarists who also sing will find playing these intervals with level up all around in our musicianship. I think after reading this I will be able to memorize my scales more easily. Thanks!

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