QuickStart Guide to Practicing Scales on the Guitar
Major Scales: The unloved step-child of guitar practice
- Brush your teeth!
- Eat your vegetables!
- More exercise!
- Play your scales!
Scales get a pretty bad rap sometimes. Some call them tedious. Some think them unglamorous. Some find them too much work and not enough immediate payoff. And to some they may bring back nightmarish memories of childhood piano teachers.
No one (normal) really gets impressed when you play them your scales. They often are thought of as something distasteful that perhaps “should” be done, but get bypassed for something more immediately attractive.
I used to feel the same way, until I found that playing scales can help make us better musicians and better players. There are other factors involved in great playing, and scales are a wonderful tool to hone and master.
I also found that scales can be great fun on the guitar, as long as they are properly challenging and we can see regular improvement and advancement.
So when you finally do decide to jump on the major scale bandwagon and make them a part of your daily practice, the question is, “What exactly do I do?” That is what I hope to answer in this article.
Guitar Scales 101
Okay, buckle up. Here we go!
There are a number of ways in which we can play scales on the guitar. The one I will introduce here can be learned in small steps, and is easy to build upon later.
On the guitar, we often play in what we call a “position“. This means that the four fingers of the left-hand cover four frets, and each finger plays its respective fret.
We make shifts from one position to another, and back, but within each position, this basic rule holds true.
The position is named for the fret that the first finger covers. For example, if your fingers are covering the first, second, third, and fourth frets, you will be in the first position, because that is the location of your first finger.
The beauty of learning scales on the guitar, is that if we know something in one position, we can easily move it to another position. This way if we know scale patterns in one key, we can easily transpose to any other keys simply by moving up or down the guitar fretboard.
The 5 major scale shapes on the guitar
There are five primary shapes of major scales. Now, before you freak out about learning so much at once, know that you can learn them one at a time, with no hurry. The main thing is to memorize them correctly using the correct fingering.
Learn correctly and more quickly using guided practices on the scale shapes and right hand scale technique in The Woodshed.
These grids (sometimes called the CAGED system) represent the neck of the guitar. The vertical lines represent strings, and the horizontal lines represent frets. The dots behind each fret represent one of the notes in the scale.
In playing up and down these shapes, you begin with the sixth string ( low E string), represented by the vertical line on the far left. Play the lower pitched note first (which is closer to the top of the page) and then the subsequent notes on that string. Next, move to the fifth string, and play the notes in the same fashion. Continue through all the strings.Side note: You will notice that the dots (on the grids below and on the downloadable pdf) have numbers on them. These are their order in the scale (R=root note, or tonic) and also their distance from the root note, as an interval name (i.e. 3 is a “third” from the root note, 4 is a “fourth”, etc.). This is the music theory behind the pattern. If you experience any confusion about this, just ignore them all. While music theory will be useful later, at this point it is just trivia. Stay focused on learning and playing the scale shapes, and everything will make more sense in time.
To play back down the scale, simply reverse the order. If you listen, you will hear the pitches going steadily up and down. The notes from one string will connect musically to the notes on the next.
For now, let your right hand play with whichever finger it wants. Soon, you’ll be more intentional with this hand as well. But one thing at a time. I do recommend that you focus on your right hand as soon as you get comfortable with your left
The E Shape Major Scale
I recommend starting with the E shape. Notice that the
first note you play is
represented by a red dot. This indicates that this note is the root note, or tonic, of the scale. This is the note for which the scale is named (also known as the key of the scale).
Notice also the other red dots. These are also tonic notes (or root notes), in other octaves (this means that they all have the same letter name, but are lower or higher in pitch).
Some people find it confusing to differentiate between the key of the scale, and the name of the scale shape. We are working with the E shape. The key of the scale is determined by which note the red dot covers. So in the first position, as this is written, the key is F sharp. The name of the scale shape (E), refers to a movable chord shape that coincides with, and is built from, this scale shape. Don’t worry about any of this now. Just memorize the shape and know it as the E shape. We’ll get to the other stuff later.
Go slowly at first, and make absolutely sure that each finger is assigned to one fret only. Only let that particular finger play on that fret. This will train your muscle memory, and allow you to memorize the major scale shapes and play them more quickly and smoothly.
I recommend that you stop here, and get familiar with this major scale shape. Play it through a few times, and get used to the pattern a little bit, Then continue reading.
Interesting Patterns in the Major Scale Shapes
Now, I would like you to look at just a small part of this scale shape. Starting with our lowest sounding note, and moving up the pitches to the next red dot (up one octave to the next tonic note).
Play up and down through this one octave scale a few times, and get familiar with it. Memorize the order of fingers for each string. 24, 124, 134.
Similarities between shapes
What we are going to do now, is to notice how this same pattern is used in other scale shapes.
If you take a look at the A shape major scale, you’ll notice that the root note (Or tonic) is on the A string. If you begin playing from the red dot, up to the next red dot, you will notice that it is exactly the same shape and pattern as the E shape! (24,124,134) This makes learning the A shape considerably easier.
If you now look at the D shaped major scale, you will notice that it only uses four strings. There are, of course, scale tones on the other strings as well. However for this diagram, I have omitted them because they call for a little bit of finger-stretching that plays by different rules then the rest of these scale shapes.
If you look at the D shape major scale, and follow from the first root note (red dot) up to the next, you will notice that it is similar to the E and A shapes (24,124,134), except that a shift takes place.
To play this shift, your first finger moves up one fret and the other fingers fall in place in turn. On the way down (in pitch), your pinky finger (4 finger) squeezes in and moves down the fret. This type of shift is sometimes called a compression shift. (I like to think of an inch-worm and how they move, which is similar to this.)
The inherent funkiness of guitar
Now, something funky happens between the third and second strings. As in the D shape major scale, your basic scale shape that we have been looking at (24, 124, 134) is chopped up a little bit. It’s like the pictures you see of roads that have been shifted around by earthquakes, and are displaced a few feet.
When we are moving from the third string to the second string, everything shifts one fret up in pitch (towards the body of the guitar). This is crazy, I know. I will not explain why this is right now. Simply know that this is the way it goes.
As a side note, one funny magazine article I was reading years ago in a rock guitar magazine called this shift the “warp refraction threshold“. I always thought this was a wonderfully geeky name for it! It gives it an aire of intergalactic intrigue.
So as long as you adjust for the one fret shift, our basic pattern still holds true. Also, if you take this one fret shift into consideration, you can further generalize the other notes or scale patterns in the E shape to further fill out the other notes in the A and D shapes.
You can also look at the similarities between the C and G shapes.
Right hand major scale technique on the classical guitar
As soon as you are familiar with these basic shapes in the left-hand, I recommend that you begin playing them with your index (i) and middle fingers (m) of the right-hand, alternating steadily between the two. This is called “I and M Alternation”.
When doing this, make sure that you maintain strict alternation even when you move from one string to the next. This becomes a whole lot going on at one time.
It may help if you actually say, “I, M I, M, etc.” as you play. This can help you keep track of which right-hand fingers should play when.
Ok, now how do I actually practice scales on guitar?
To start, play through the scale shape (ideally from memory) as smoothly and perfectly as possible. Pay attention to your left hand finger placement just behind the frets, with your knuckles always rounded (instead of collapsed!).
Take as much time as you need and ensure that you are alternating your right hand I and M fingers. No extra points for speed! Just focus on getting it all clean and organized in your mind.
As you become confident that you know the notes in the scales and that your fingers know what to do, set a metronome to a slow speed and listen to it intently as you play your scales. If you are not used to playing with a metronome, be patient. The key is to listen constantly and actually hear each beat.
Note: Listening to each beat of a metronome is the way forward. It does no good to listen for a second, start tapping your foot or nodding your head, and then abandoning your listening as soon as you start playing. When playing with a metronome, rhythm and exact timing is more important even than notes. If you are struggling with this, slow down, or let the metronome beat more than once for each note you play (or in other words, play every other beat.)
If it helps, you can also play each note of the scale more than once so that the rate of change slows down. This may spare you some “mental RAM” and help you to get used to listening.
Over time, increase the tempo of the metronome. But remember: It’s not about speed. Quality over quantity of notes. Clear, strong, smoothly connected notes are better than fast, sloppy notes.
Watch out! Common guitar practice pitfall ahead
Extra warning: Speed creates the illusion of perfection. The faster you play, the less time you have to notice mistakes. So they tend to slip by. Other people can hear them, but you can’t. Your best bet is to slow down and make quality your top priority.
As you get proficient at playing your scales, you can then explore a number of variations, patterns, rhythms, etc. There are countless ways to keep yourself challenged and moving forward using guitar scales in your practice.
Other Scale Links:
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 other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, 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.
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