Classical Guitar Scales: Shapes Explained

Many people I have met have strong emotional responses, one way or the other, when they think about practicing classical guitar scales.

Perhaps some anti-scale types have been “damaged” by some militant childhood piano teacher.  Thwacked knuckles and forced regimes can turn one off.

On the other hand, some people, like myself, really enjoy practicing scales.  For me, I appreciate a clearly defined goal that is primarily physical in nature.  I can just turn on my metronome, fine-tune my hearing, and get lost in the challenges I set for myself.

These challenges could be

Scales: as the “re-set” button

Scales are also a great way to change gears in the middle of practice. Practicing scales can refocus your attention on details and sharpen your hearing.  Especially if you approach them with specific goals or desires.

The Five Major Scale Shapes for Guitar

What’s interesting about these five shapes is that they form the structure for most other scales in western music. What that means is that minor scales, modes, altered scales, and others are mostly based on these five basic shapes.

In many instances, they are unchanged. They simply start with a different note within the shape!

Knowing about all these other scales is what we call theoretical knowledge (or music theory). It’s all great to know, but the way we are using scales here is mainly as a technical exercise (getting your fingers to work better).

I encourage you to study music theory, as it is an essential element to mature musicianship. (You can find the basics here.)

Yes, you should memorize them.

learning classical guitar scalesTo memorize these five shapes, you can go about it in a variety of ways.

People who learn well visually may simply memorize what the grids look like and work from that.

What helped me initially was to memorize the numerical patterns of these shapes.

For instance, using the E shape as an example, the pattern would be 24 124 134 134 24 12.

If you take five minutes and write it out as many times as you can, you will have it pretty close to memorized.

Take one of the five shapes per week, and you can have them all memorized in about a month.

Classical Guitar Scales on Your Air Guitar

(There is a demo video of this in the Site Resources (see the form below, or go to the Member’s Area), along with the scale shape pdf, so be sure and watch that.)

You can also practice these shapes away from the guitar. Simply in the air, or on the arm of your chair, or on the table top in front of you, you can go through the order of fingers with your left hand.

If you are a dominantly kinesthetic learner (about 25% of the population) then this could be a great way to help you quickly memorize the shapes.

If you want to go for extra points, you can go forward and backward through the patterns.

3-2-1 GO!

Regardless of how you choose to memorize them, I highly recommend you do so. Adding scale practice into your daily routine will help everything you do. My recommendation: Download the free PDF of the shapes and print it.  Put it on your music stand and commit to memorizing the first of these classical guitar scales this week.

Baby-step through them, and in no time you will be a completely different musician than you are now.

Why are the Shapes Named as They Are?

As you explore the five scale shapes, you may wonder why they are named as they are.  After all the “E shape” may not even have an E in it.

The scales are actually related to the common chords (aka “cowboy chords”).  In the video below, you’ll see how scales and chords are related.  And you’ll discover why the scales are named as they are.

Other Resources for Practicing Scales

I have written on scales before, and those posts are nice companion to this one.  I suggest you at least skim them.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.

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