Scales confuse me.
Well, they did for years.
I understand the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do stuff. Mainly because of that silly song from that movie I was forced to watch in the 3rd grade. You’re singing it your head now aren’t you?
Yep. I worked the Sound of Music into a blues lesson. Ha!
Back to scales, there’s just so many scales, it’s hard to make heads or tails of them. There are different types of scales like major, minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and blues to name a few. Then there is a version of each of those scales for all twelve notes (A minor, Bb minor, B minor, etc).
Like many of you, I just grabbed a book and started playing through the basic major scales without any real thought of why the notes were arranged the way they were.
I wish I would have taken a moment to learn the real key to unlocking the mystery of scales.
Learn How Each Scale Is Constructed
The guitar isn’t the most visual instrument. Let me explain that. Flying Vs, Vintage Martins and a Gold Top Les Paul are indeed visual. But as far as making sense of the way the fretboard is laid out, it’s definitely not very visual!
You can literally see the C Major scale on a piano. It’s the white keys from C to C. Very visual. Not so on a guitar.
The guitar fretboard is full of patterns that change as you go up the neck and change even more once you change keys. That’s why that book of scales is so thick.
Those books present each main scale type starting with each of the twelve tones. So just for the four scale types we mentioned before (major, minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and blues), that’s 60 different scales.
Or is it?
It would be nearly impossible to memorize that many scales. Impossible for my fading memory anyway. Instead, I look at things with a big picture view and really try to internalize the concept. Of those five scale types, you really only need to know 5 scales. Not 60.
The key to doing this is to learn the way each of those types of scales is constructed. To say it another way, learn each of the main scale formulas.
Once you do that you simply change where you start. In other words, play the A major scale in place. Move up two frets and it becomes the B major scale.
The best way that I know how to really learn the formula is to reinforce the formula visually. To do this, play the scale on one string up the neck.
Learn the Scale on One String
Playing a scale on one string connects the scale formula to the visual aspect of playing the scale on the guitar. I highly recommend approaching scales this way. I also recommend working this approach into your practice routine, even if you’ve been playing scales for years.
The scale formula for the major scale is:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
This means that there is a whole step from the root to the second note in the scale, followed by another whole step (two frets/two half steps), followed by a half step and so on.
For E Major that’s: E – F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E
Here’s an example of the E Major Scale one string approach.
How to Work This Approach Into Your Scale Practice Time
Even though I advocate learning scales this way, please understand that this is certainly NOT the only way you should be practicing scales. Start with this approach. But once you have this down, you should work in a more traditional approach of playing across the strings in position.
(In position – you don’t move your fret hand up and down the neck).
Here’s a comprehensive E Major Scale Workout for you to practice. This routine includes the one string approach on each of the six strings and the positional approach. Of course, work on this in all keys over time but take this in E as a quick start.
Apply this Approach to Each Scale Type You Learn
Keep in mind that when you approach a different scale such as the minor pentatonic scale, learn its construction first. Learn its bones using the one string approach. Then you can study the box patterns.
I have a love-hate relationship with the box patterns. So many people get stuck in the boxes and spend years thinking of creative ways to get out of them. Side step that whole trip and learn the actual scale first and you’ll be in much better shape.
To sum things up: Don’t learn the pattern, learn the scale.
Just for fun, let me hear from you in the comments below. How did you learn your first scale? A book? A teacher? Do you remember?