I generally compare scales to the alphabet…
They’re good to know, but if you’re only going to repeat them in order, in an isolated fashion and out of context, it won’t help you speak the language. They will fall out of your head over time and at some point you’ll wonder why you’re even learning any of them anyway…
Scales need using. Playing with. Understanding. Expressing. Taking apart and putting back together in a different order. They need context.
That’s the language of music.
When people ask me if they should learn scales it always depends on what their interests and capabilities are. For some it’s really not relevant. For others it is (grades, improvisation, creativity, songwriting, fun). For others it may be something they’re not sure they’re interested in until they have a go…
5 ways and reasons to play scales:
1. Learning your instrument: Scales can and will help you learn your guitar fretboard. Start by learning a basic open scale eg C Major. Name the notes as you are playing the scale C D E F G A B C. How many notes are there? There are 8 of them and this is relevant and important to know in building your understanding of some basic theory. Count them as you play them: 1C 2D 3E 4F 5G 6A 7B 8C.
2. Coordination Exercises: Use scales as a (relevant) coordination exercise. You’re learning to move your fingers in time with evenness and accuracy when you start learning guitar so you may as well do this with patterns that will be useful. (Doing this with scales will additionally train your ears to musical principles that can be applied as you build your language of music- see below). Use a metronome to develop your sense of timing and accuracy. Exercises: a) Play the scale in order up (ascending) and back down (descending). Play it all down strokes with your pick or thumb. Once you have that accurate, play alternate picking (down up down up etc). See if you can gradually speed up the tempo using the metronome as you get more familiar with the scale pattern. b) Play the scale up in 3s (using the numbers I mention above) 1 2 3 2 3 4 3 4 5 4 5 6 5 6 7 6 7 8
3. Ear training & Music Theory: Scales can help train your ear if you pay attention to the different sounds they make and compare them eg how does C major scale sound different to C natural minor scale? Exercises: Play a C Major chord and then a C Major Scale, play a G chord and then a C Major scale, how does it sound? Does it sound good or not? If you play a C Major scale over a D Major chord does it sound good? Music is about sound and the more you develop and build reference points and familiarity you will start to understand it a bit more. Music evokes emotion. What does C Major feel like? happy/sad?
4. Melody and songwriting: Scales are the building blocks of melodies. Exercise: Take a scale (in this case C Major) and pick out a few notes, say 5 notes. Next, mix up the order you play them in. This is the general principle to creating a melody. Play around with some different ideas and see if you can come up with a melody that sticks in your head. By using notes from one scale you ensure your melody is within one key (C Major).
5. Improvisation: Scales are also the building blocks of improvisation and soloing. Creativity in response to (and flowing with) music. Learn the scale shapes well. Experiment with them and aim to understand how the notes sound in relation to chords / riffs in a song. You can start to make up phrases, licks and melodies that can enhance and evoke different effects and moods. Exercise: Find a backing track in the key of C Major, play the C Major Scale at the same time as the backing track plays. Listen. Get a feel for the sound. Then just pick 3 notes from the scale and repeat them alongside the backing track. Pick 3 different notes from the scale and repeat them. Maybe bend one of the notes. Start simple. This is about creativity, listening and developing your language
Note: Don’t try to learn all of the scales at once. That would be like trying to learn a dictionary. I Start with C Major. Get comfortable with it. What does it sound like? Then maybe learn A Minor for some good guitar groundwork. Do the same. Next learn C Natural Minor so you can compare the differences to C Major.
Have fun learning and playing.
Scales are a fundamental aspect of music. Yes, they are important, but not if you’re really not interested. You may become interested once you’ve learned a few more other things though.
See you there!