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Scales, who needs them?
Why and What For, Anyway?!
By Jamie Andreas
Somewhere along the way in our development as guitar players,
we start to get the idea that it would be a good idea if we learned
some of those things called scales. If we are new to the guitar,
and new to music, we are probably not even quite sure exactly
what a scale actually is, which certainly adds to the aura of
mystery that begins to surround the subject.
The next thing that happens, as we continue along in our development,
is that we begin to get the unsettling impression that there seems
to be an awful lot of those things called scales. In fact, there
seems to be hundreds of them. We may even run across an encyclopedia
of scales, and realize that there could be thousands of these
little buggers out there! The very prospect of learning all those
scales begins to make us weak in the knuckles!
It is at about this point that we start to get a little suspicious,
a little curious about this whole business of scales and what
they really have to do with us, and what we want to do on the
guitar. How many of these things do I have to learn, anyway?,
we ask, and what do I do with them once I learn them?
Then we go and try to find the answer to our questions. We read
magazines and hear a lot of advanced and professional guitarists
talk on the subject, and it leaves us even more confused. One
guy says we must know a hundred ways to play a major scale, and
then we should learn a hundred minor scales, and then start on
the more exotic type of scales. Another guy, who is also an advanced
player, perhaps professional and perhaps rich and famous, says
he only uses a few scales. So after all our agonized searching,
we are even more confused than when we started!
Well, I am going to try and provide some clarity on the subject.
I am going to lay out an overall view of the subject, and provide
you with an understanding of what scales are, what they are used
for, and how the way scales are used is DIFFERENT for different
types of players. Once you understand these things, you will be
in a much better position to achieve some clarity on the subject,
and make your own decisions about how you are going to include
the study of scales into your practice regimen.
What Scales Are, Musically, and Why We Practice Them
Musically speaking, a scale is simply a series of notes, following
one after the other. The really important thing about any scale
is the SPACE between the notes, and by space, I mean the space
in terms of PITCH. It is the distance in pitch between two notes
that contains the EMOTIONAL CONTENT of music. This is one of the
most important concepts that any musician can know, and most do
know it, if only on an intuitive level. For those wishing to develop
an understanding of music theory, this concept should be pursued
and understood. I cannot go into it in the depth it deserves in
this essay, but I will lay out the essence of it, and you should
pursue it with your teacher, and in books.
If I play a note on the guitar, and then play the same note again,
there is no distance in pitch between the two notes. If I play
a note, and then play the note on the very next fret, the distance
in PITCH, (which is the highness or lowness
of a sound), between those two notes is called a half step. If
I play a note, and then play the note two frets away (a note on
the first fret, then the third), that is called a whole step,
and the effect is very different than a half step. If I play a
note and then the note three frets away, that distance is called
a minor third.
All of these different spacings in pitch between notes are called
INTERVALS in music theory. In the interval of a minor third mentioned
above, you can really hear what I mean by the emotional
content of the interval. The minor third interval is contained
in the minor chord, and this particular spacing between
notes is what gives a minor chord its dark, minor sound.
When you play a blues scale, it is the sound made by the first
two notes, and gives the blues scale its bluesy feeling
(or at least contributes to it, as do some other intervals).
That is as far as I want to go with Intervals for now. I just
want you to know they exist, and that they carry the emotion
of music. I want you to know that every scale not only contains
notes, but that the SPACES, or Intervals between the notes are
what is really important. Scales come in different types,
major, minor, diminished, etc.. Each type of scale has its own
peculiar spacings between the notes, and these spacings give each
type of scale its unique emotional feeling or color.
You will see later that players of different styles use different
types of scales in their playing. A lifelong blues/rock player
may never need to play a major scale.
Because each type of scale has the same intervals between notes,
each type of scale has the same feeling, even if it
has a different letter name. In other words, if you play a C major
scale, or a D major scale, or a G major scale, they will all have
the same pattern of spaces, or intervals between each of the notes,
as well as each containing the same number of notes, so, they
will all sound the same in terms of the emotional
content or feeling of the scale. In fact, you could say
they all have the same color. Minor scales have a
different spacing between the notes than major scales, and it
gives them a dark color.
Using this analogy, you could think of a scale as a palette of
colors. If a composer wants to write a sad piece, he will pull
out a minor scale, and use those notes to write it. In this sense,
we could say scales are the building blocks of music.
What Scales Are, Technically, And Why We Practice Them
Musically speaking, we have seen that scales are the building
blocks of music. Many times in playing all types of music,
we find ourselves simply playing scales, backwards and forwards,
and in lots of other patterns. So it would seem natural that it
would be a good idea to know how to play them, and it is!
If we think about scales in terms of technique, in terms of what
it takes to actually play them on the guitar, we realize that
simply because a scale is a string of notes, the simple act of
playing a scale is quite a demand on the player. And the faster
the scale, the greater the demand. In fact, for guitar players,
scales are a whole lot more difficult than they are for most other
musicians. A piano player only needs one finger to play one note,
but a guitar player needs the co-coordinated action of TWO fingers
(or finger and pick) to produce one note, and that has profound
implications. As a guitar player, you would be wise to reflect
on and appreciate this fact.
Almost all guitar students are unprepared for effective scale
practice when the first scale comes along. The concept of truly
independent finger action must have already begun to become a
physical reality in the hands in order for scales to begin to
be practiced with benefit, and not harm.
Segovia wrote, in his famous collection of scales for the classical
guitarist the study of scales will solve a greater number
of technical problems in a shorter amount of time than the study
of any other technical exercise. In other words, if you
are able to successfully play scales, and get one finger after
another to do what it needs to do to get those notes, then there
are a whole lot of other things you will also be able to do. So
this means that the study of scales is one of the best things
we can do in our practice sessions to develop and maintain our
And this is one of the main points I want to get across here:
scales are, at the very least, a primary technical exercise for
all types of guitarists. For non-improvising guitarists such as
classical guitarists, this is, in fact, their main purpose. A
classical guitarist does not need a million scales at his fingertips.
Since scales are serving only the purpose of providing excellent
exercise for the fingers, we only need to select and practice
the ones we feel give us that exercise. In fact, in Segovias
collection, most of the scales are simply the same finger patterns
moved around the neck.
Of course, there is a world of things to know about the CORRECT
way to practice scales so that our fingers actually do learn to
play them well, and so that the practice of scales helps us technically,
rather than hurts us. For far too many students, scale practice
gets them nowhere. That of course, is a whole other subject which
I have addressed in other essays. At the least, you should realize
that practicing scales successfully is a complex matter, not to
be underestimated, and not to be undertaken without a lot of effort
to understand HOW to practice them correctly.
With this is mind, we could interpret Segovias statement
to mean if you can figure out how to learn scales well,
you can figure out a lot of other technical challenges that playing
the guitar poses.
What Scales Should You Know? How scales are used musically by
As you probably suspect by now, exactly what scales, and how many
scales a player should know, depends on the style that player
is playing. Here are some general guidelines to help you figure
out what YOU should be doing about scale practice in your own
ALL players should learn and practice major scales in the first
position in the common keys of C, G, D, A, E, and for the ambitious,
the relative minors of these major keys.
ALL players should learn movable scale patterns. Major scales
that begin with the 2nd finger on the 6th string, as well as the
pattern that begins with the 2nd finger on the 5th string should
be learned. After that, the major scale pattern that begins with
the 4th finger should be learned, first from the 6th string, then
Ambitious players should then learn the major scale that starts
with the first finger on the 6th and 5th strings. Having these
scales in your fingers (six major scales) also puts all the arpeggios
and modes into your fingers as well.
For those wishing to play blues and rock, you should learn the
first pentatonic scale inside and out, backwards, forwards, and
various patterns. There are 5 pentatonic scale positions in all,
and you should gradually learn them all. Of course, you must learn
the licks that come out of them as well, and how to use them in
improvising in the common keys (A & E first).
For players wanting to improvise in the more sophisticated styles,
such as jazz, or fusion styles, all the above should be learned.
After that, you are a prime candidate for one of those gigantic,
monster scale books we talked about earlier!
Of course, there is a whole lot more to know about the subject,
but I hope I have provided the basis for a little clarity, especially
for those new to the instrument. Good luck finding which scales
are right for you!
Copyright 2003 by Jamie Andreas.
All Rights Reserved.
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Free Download - 17 Essential Strum Patterns PDF