I would be lying if I said that for quite some time, I knew how to play scales and the importance of them.
I didn’t honestly know why I was playing them and what purpose it really served. I would kinda hack my way through the major scale in one of the 5 positions on the guitar without any understanding of what I was practicing them for.
So if you’re asking yourself why are scales important…read on.
Guitar scales are important because all of music is derived from Scales. It is an essential part of learning the guitar. This includes
- Understanding chords and chordal structure
- Understanding why chords do or do not sound good together
- Understanding how to play single note guitar/lead guitar
Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest reasons guitar scales are so relevant to learn and have a basic understanding of how they work.
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Reason 1: Understanding Theory
This is often the answer that most guitar teachers will throw into your lap if asked why scales are essential.
The issue that I have with this, is learning theory is quite a process, it’s typically not something that you are going to learn and comprehend in a 30-minute guitar lesson in the back of guitar center.
So rather than trying to understand it all at once and spend more time in your head than fingers to frets, let’s just take a fundamental approach to understand this one.
A scale is just merely a set of notes that are played in a pattern of frequency or by pitch. The scales that we usually learn first on guitar are one of these three.
A major scale, a minor scale, and a pentatonic scale. The Pentatonic scale only has 5 notes before reaching the octave.
(The pentatonic scale is frequently used during lead guitar and soloing).
If you want to learn more about the pentatonic scale and how to use it check out my review of Guitar Tricks, this system is insanely beneficial.
I would keep the theory simple for now, having a basic understanding of the last few sentences is plenty to know when first starting out with scales, as the guitar is very pattern oriented.
The only other thing that I would recommend knowing is that there are 5 different pattern shapes to play these scales on the fretboard.
So for example, if we were practicing the C major scale.
There would be 5 different patterns available to perform the scale across the fretboard if you move up the neck.
Knowing these patterns and how to interchange them allows for total control of the fretboard.
That alone is a reason to strive to learn these shapes and patterns.
Reason 2: Handwork
The second reason that I believe learning scales are essential merely is handwork.
What I mean by handwork, is the muscle memory that is formed running scales not only for the fretting hand but the muscle memory that is created on the picking hand as well.
In case you are wondering what the heck muscle memory means it is straightforward.
Having muscle memory on guitar merely is being able to play something without having to have conscious thought of it.
For example, if you can play back and forth between 2 chords without thinking about it, that’s due to muscle memory!
Not only does running scales create muscle memory, but you can seriously increase technique running scales.
The possibilities you can come up with are almost never-ending. If you are stuck on how to practice scales, do a little bit of research on Youtube on how to use sequences, interchange musical notes from say quarter notes to triplets to 16th notes without dropping the beat.
That type of scale exercise will produce large muscle memory and help your internal timing.
I have also noticed that many beginner guitarists find it challenging to use all 4 fingers on the fretted hand.
The pinky is usually the most challenging finger when playing scales in the beginning. There are some great pinky exercises using this system.
You will be tempted to use your ring finger instead where you should be using your pinky.
I would highly suggest that you slow down that metronome and work that pinky!
Building muscle memory for your pinky is crucial to start doing it right from the get-go.
It is much harder to break a bad habit than just create a good one from the get-go.
Another reason that we have a difficulty with our pinky finger is that it shares a tendon with the ring finger.
Your other fingers have individual tendons allowing for them to move more freely.
For this reason, you must build up pinky independence through repetition and repetition.
Reason 3: Learning your way across the neck
This, in my opinion, is one of the “secrets,” from going from a beginner guitarist to an intermediate guitarist.
What I mean by this is having all 5 patterns down across the fretboard like we briefly spoke about in Reason 1.
Primarily because we are just learning patterns, if we learn where the root notes are within those patterns you can then just move the shape of the pattern horizontally across the fretboard.
The amount of freedom this unlocks across the neck of the guitar is mind-blowing.
I know for the longest time I only knew one shape with the root note being on the Low E string.
This kept me very restricted in my playing of just being able to move vertically down the scale and back up.
Once you can unlock playing shapes all the way down the fretboard horizontally by building enough muscle memory and interchanging scale patterns.
This is for example one of the reasons why during a guitar solo you see the guitarist go from a lower position towards the head of the neck and then shoot like a rocket to the high frets.
Allowing for dynamic change, octave changes, and overall an entirely different pitch even though you are mainly playing the exact same notes.
Once you get to this level of your playing the neck just seems to unlock the fret board in such a magnificent way.
So what I would like for you to know and understand from this post today is that there are 5 shapes/patterns for each scale across the neck of the guitar.
This means there are 5 shapes for a majors scale, and 5 ways for a minor scale, 5 forms for a pentatonic scale, etc…
So before you think that you have to go and learn 36 different scales really you are just learning 5 different shapes that you can only move the key that you are playing in, same shapes, different keys = fantastic!
Reason 4: Soloing or improvising
Learning to solo or improvise over a chord change on guitar can be quite a scary experience at the beginning for most guitarists.
If you have your scales memorized by shape now comes the second step which is learning to play licks inside the scale so that a scale starts to sound a bit more musical and a bit less robotic.
As fun as this part of playing can be, it can also be quite frustrating at times.
I believe that there are so many advantages to have so many ways to learn guitar today.
If there was one disadvantage to today’s world when it comes to learning guitar is the fact that we are so visual with learning now that we don’t ever take the time to listen and try and reproduce the notes being played by ear alone.
This one exercise has been exponential to my playing, and I highly recommend it.
If you are into blues guitar at all, listen to a slow blues solo. They are just taking notes from “usually,” the pentatonic scale and phrasing them and organizing them in such a way that the guitar starts to sound like it is having a conversation.
Try turning on a BB King song and merely try and play by ear the first lick you hear. Stop the track practice the lick, move on to the next one.
This is such an excellent practice for when learning how scales really develop into music.
This is when you learn not just to play notes, but how to play them in sequences and timing that makes the guitar start to sing, rather than robotically run through scale after scale.
This is the point in time of learning how to actually put solos to use, and learn to play true lead guitar.
Reason 5: Composition
Reason number 5 on my list for the need to learn guitar scales merely is composition.
Often guitarists like to look at chords and scales as two different worlds altogether.
Even though this is often taught in this form to simultaneously build up skill in both areas lead and rhythm guitar.
It is important to note and understand that scales and chords work together.
The scales are just the notes that individually build up a chord. Therefore playing notes from the C major scale, while a C major chord being played will sound beautiful.
Yet if you were to play notes outside of the C major scale over a C, there will probably be some odd notes played.
( Unless of course, you understand relative minor, etc.) But for straightforward terms that is a right way of understanding that.
So where does this all fit into a composition?
Well, understanding scales will allow you to write chord progressions that work well together allowing you to compose songs while actually having a basic understanding of why X chord sounds good with Y chord. Could you do this just by ear?
Of course, you can, and many guitarists have over the years, but having a basic knowledge is always a good thing.
Any time you can learn and work on understanding music theory you should.
I’m not against learning theory at all, but at the same time make it easily relate-able to playing.
You will obtain the information 10 times better if you can take what you learn theory wise and put it into your practice immediately.
These are just some of the fundamental reasons that I personally felt it was important to learn scales.
Yes, having an understanding of theory and why scales are scales and how they are formed is an excellent knowledge to have.
It is equally important though to realize that it doesn’t serve many purposes if we cant actively make sense of it with the instrument in hand.
This is why I wanted to briefly discuss some of the other reasons scales are essential, including the handwork, and learning the fret board!
I hope some of these are found useful and that you now have a few additional reasons to get those scales down! Most importantly have fun!