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.

Make sense?

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 a more in-depth look at the major scale, click here.

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.

Grab the TAB of My One String Scale Workout | Get it for GuitarPro 6

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?

16 Responses

  1. Great lesson! I was stuck in the box pattern for a while myself. My teacher and most of the books I read sort of discouraged learning each scale on one string. I guess the idea was that with the box pattern, you could move up the neck, but this method seems more common sense and straightforward. P. S. I took piano lessons as a kid, so I can identify with how learning scales on a piano is definitely not the same as learning them on a guitar. The one-string method seems a bit more piano-like. 🙂

    1. Thanks @PatriotGal2257:disqus

      I think both methods have their place, but I could never connect the boxes fluidly until I started using this one string approach. Really helped me open up the fretboard…so I had to share 🙂 Glad it made sense to you.

      PS – I couldn’t play piano if my life depended on it…I’ve tried. It’s bad. +1 You!

  2. This lesson was brilliant!
    Iv never had a guitar lesson in my live and have been self teching myself for around 8 years now and am only recently just learning scales/chords ect ect despite being able to play numerous Hendrix, RHCP, Clapton, Mayer songs including live performaces (sounds rediculous I know)
    Anyway this one string tenchinque will really help me get out of those box patterns!

    Thanks a lot man 🙂

    1. @Will thanks so much for your comment and I’m glad your getting some use from this technique – it helps me a ton. By the way, no shame in digging some sweet licks from Mr. Mayer. He’s an incredible blues player. Thanks again!


  3. I dont understand, doing the one string approach will only help you visualize the scale on one string. Dont you HAVE to learn 5 shapes for each scale so you can play it everywhere on the neck right? My only problem is changing keys in each scale because you have to move ALL the 5 shapes around wich is kinds confusing, do you have any tips to make that easier thx. Also what are box patterns anyways, thx again.

    1. The one string approach is to internalize the note relationships inside the scale. This allows you to know that from the the root note, you go up a whole step in the major scale, followed by another whole step, then a half etc etc as explained above. This allows you to learn the relationship of the notes. So you will internalise the idea that playing in A major, you will know how many notes up from the root A note to move to remain in the scale. This applies to every key, as the relationships for the notes is the same no matter the key. Once you know this inside out, the box patterns will make more sense, and be more moveable as you will know where the notes land in relation to the root note of the scale. This will also help with starting the box patterns from any octave (starting on any root note on any string).

      Hope that makes sense for you!

    2. Rather than trying to move all 5 shapes, learn each shape in this way:

      With my root on THIS string, THIS pattern is higher on the neck, and THIS one is lower. Picture them surrounding the root note. They will always follow the same order in relation to each other.

      Taking, for example, the minor pentatonic scale, with the root on the low E string, patterns 5 and 1 surround that root note. But say you are playing up the neck and the root is on the A string… Now patterns 3 and 4 surround that root note.

      Hope that makes sense! Learn each scale pattern not only in terms of the pattern itself, but where in the pattern the root note is. Then practice using that root note to move around to different keys, getting away from associating everything back to only the low E string root.

      1. Hey Tom,

        Great comment. This is the method I teach in the pentatonic scale boot camp course in the premium library. Huuuge lightbulb for me and it’s the simplest way to “patternize” the scale from a guitaristic point of view in my opinion. The one string approach gets at the heart of the scale…intervals. they work great together!

  4. You definitely got something there. Believe it or not I’ve been “trying” to learn my scales this way that way and everything in between too. Thanks for the inspiration. Your lessons are a breath of fresh air.

    1. Thanks for the comment and I’m really happy to hear that this is helping. Stick with it and it gets better and better. I still practice scales this way. Good luck!!

  5. Great stuff, this is one of those guitar lessons every one takes lightly or goes through it too fast, then ends up imprisoned in a box for the remainder of his musical career.

  6. I too had succumbed to the crutch that is chord/scale shapes and patterns for 15 years. Recently I gained this very insight which is to learn a scale string by string as you suggested. Now i see where these shapes and patterns come from. I started learning a scale on one string. Learned it on a second. Then learned to play it on both strings at the same time (dyads). i learned it on a third string. I then practiced different combinations of those three strings (dyads still). currently playing three strings at once (triads). I feel like my brain is split into three right now. Its really hard to keep track of a scale on three strings but as i practice its getting easier and the music flows naturally now. Due to this pravtice im gaining insight on a variety of things such as key progressions, which is probably where mixo- scales come in. Another is that the guitar is 6 instruments (each string is a complete instrument like a harmonica or a flute). Also, by learning one scale you automatically learn 4 scales: major, minor, diminished, augmented, as well as all the different chord shapes. I plan to learn the blues scale this way afterwards then maybe some exotic scales. I feel im on the right path and im glad to see more like minded guitarists. I agree that this is how scales should be taught to beginners willing to suffer.

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