Playing Scales on the Guitar

Scales are the basis for the creation of chords and melodies. They are alos useful for worknig on guitar technique and they will help you develop an understanding of how keys work. Generally speaking, scales are NOT used in improvisation. The problem with using scales for improvisation is that they limit us to ONE set of notes from which to make melodies. Unfortunately, most good melodies use all kinds of notes…not just the notes found in one scale. That’s why using scales to create melodies never really works… But knowing scales as a BASIS for creating melodies and chords is very important. Eventually you must HEAR the relationship between chords and melodies – no amount of Jazz Theory will do that for you – and understanding how scales sound and what they are all about is an important first step. For the most part there are THREE scales that are the basis for 99% of all western music including almost all of modern jazz and modern classical music. These are the MAJOR scale, the MELODIC MINOR scale and the HARMONIC MINOR scale. The Major scale follows the intervalic pattern of two whole steps and one half step, then three whole steps and another half step: 1-1-1/2-1-1-1-1/2 in C Major it would be: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C The Melodic minor scale Simply Flats the third and the major scale. The Harmonic minor scale Flats the third and Sixth of the Major scale. We create chords on each scale degree by stacknig the scale in thirds. That creates 21 different chords, 7 from each scale. These ar ethe 21 chords that are the basis for almost all western music. From the C Melodic Minor Scale: Cm(M7), Dm7, EbM7#5, F9#11, G9b13, Am7b5, B7alt. from the C Harmonic Minor Scale: Cm(M7), Dm7b5, EbM7#5, Fm7, G7b9b13, AbM7, Bdim7 To learn how to play these scales on the guitar I suggest the following approach. Keep in mind that there are any number of systems and methods out there that will show you how to finger and learn different scale patterns. The differenc is ithat this approach does force you to think of scales in ‘my’ way or someone else’s way, as most “systems” do – This approach comes from the nature of the guitar itself and will [hopefully!} allow you to explore scale fingerings in your own way. We will learn major scales in three ways:

  1. Two Octave scales fingerings
  2. One Octave Scale fingerings
  3. ‘Perpetual Motion’ key changing exrecises

TWO-OCTAVE MAJOR SCALES The open ‘e’ strings on the guitar are two octaves apart. Therefore a natural starting point for practicing scales is to learn them in Two Octave positions, from each note on the low ‘e to the corresponding note on the high ‘e’ or thereabouts. Since the lowest note in the key of C on the guitar is an ‘e’ you wolud begin by playing a two octave scale starting on low ‘e’. For the C major scale play a two Octave C scale from open low ‘e’ to the open high ‘e’. Then play a two octave C scale from the Low ‘f’ to the high ‘f’ on the ‘e’ string and so on. Next move to the key of F. Since the lowest note on the guitar in the key of F is an ‘e’, your first two octave F scales will stoart on open low ‘e’ and end on open high ‘e’. The next two-octave F scale will start on open low ‘e’ and end on open high ‘e’. The next two-octave F scale will go from F to F, then G to G, A to A and so on. NOTICE that the only thing that has changed between the keys of C and F is that B’s become Bb’s. This is one of the most important benefits of learning scales this way – you will develop a natural awarenes of the COMMON TONES between keys by focusing on what notes stay the same and which ones change from key to key. Continue aronud the Cycle of Fourths adding flats as you go. From F to Bb you will simply replace E naturals with Eb’s. From the Key of Bb to Eb, A’s become Ab’s, and so on… MAKE SURE to explore playing these two octave scales with multiple fingerings. Start each scale with each finger of the left hand. you will find that for the most part, three of the fingerings will be pretty easy to play while one of thew will feel pretty uncomfortable. Just discard the fingerings you don’t like and practice the ones you do. Once you have explored MANY fingerings, choose your favorite ones and try to play all seven two-octave scales in one key WITHOUT STOPPING and at TEMPO. Set a reasonable tempo for yourself – maybe eights at quarter = 96 bpm to start. This wil build security and will help get the scale fingerings into your unconscious…which is where they MUST be if they are to be of any use to you. ONE-OCTAVE MAJOR SCALES While one learns a lot from practicing two-octave scale fingerings, the truth is that only occasionally does one use them. Most melodies span no more than one and a half octaves, and most improvisation therefore contains itself to one and one half octaves as well. Ultimately, One octave scales relate more closely to what we actually play when we improvise. A one octave scale played in one position will span three adjacent strings. To be thorough, practice these on the guitar in each of the 4 three-string ‘groups’: From the low ‘e’ string to the ‘d’ string, from the ‘a’ to ‘g’ strings, from ‘d’ to ‘b’ strings and from ‘g’ to high ‘e’ strings. Go through the same process that we went through for two-octave scales, going through the cycle of fourths and exploring different fingerings in each 3-string set. Again, choose your favorite fingerings and try to play all seven one-octave scales in each key WITHOUT STOPPING and at TEMPO. PERPETUAL MOTION This exercise will help with changing keys smoothly, and with moving around the fingerboard easily and efficiently. Start in the key of C and improvise straight eight notes at a reasonable tomepo. For now DO NOT LEAVE THE KEY, but stay in C, playing only scale tones. Try to use different melodic patterns and to shift smoothly from position to position. A few words about fingering…. While fingering is a huge subject, a basic few tips are useful at this point.

  1. ALWAYS play on the tips of the fingers
  2. Keep your wrist only very slightly bent away from the fingerboard, with knuckles straight in line with your hand.
  3. When ascending try to shift from 3rd or 4th to 1st or 2nd finger, so that you always have somewhere to go.
  4. When descending shift from 1st to 2nd finger or 3rd or 4th.

Once you feel pretty comfortable with Perpetual motion in C, try shifting between the keys of C (No flats or sharps) and F (Bbs in the key), still playing straight eight notes at a reasonable tempo. As you will have noticed by now, changing keys from C to F only involves changing Bs to Bbs. DO NOT leap to the next key, but make sure to continue smoothly in the same direction when you change keys. You might also try to keep a melodic pattern ascending or descending while changing keys. Next try shifting between F and Bb (Bbs stay and Es becomes Ebs). Once you can do this try perpetual motion between C, F and Bb. Add keys slowly until you can shift smoothly between all 12 keys. At first this may seem impossible, but if you go slowly, step by step, you will come to visualize the common tones between keys easily and effortlessly. The whole process can take a student from 2-6 months of hard work, so don’t be discouraged or overwhelmed. Steady practice is all that is required. If you find yourself away from your guitar with time to kill, try practicing in your head. VISUALIZE the fingerboard and go through different scales, fingerings and all. Don’t underestimate this kind of practice as it is some of the best study one can do. The clearer your mental image of the guitar, the easier it is to play what you want to. AFTER you are pretty fluent with major scales, flat the third on ALL OF THEM, and you have your molodic minor scales. Then you can go through the entire study again, this time learning melodic minor scales. Of course since by now you are pretty good at major scales, learning these will go much faster. ….and when that is done take all your melodic minor scales and FLAT THE 6 to get all the Harmonic Minor Scales….HA! This ought to keep you off the streets for a while.