How To Get Started With Scales On Guitar

Scales are intimidating when you first start out on guitar, but they don’t have to be.  Like anything, it’s complicated in proportion to what level of new details you take on while learning.  Medical students don’t go right into doing surgeries and you shouldn’t go after complicated solos when you first start playing either- tempting as it may be.  The key is to give yourself enough level of complexity to make it interesting, but not so much that it becomes frustrating.  This will keep you coming back to your guitar, and consistency is what will get you where you want to be.

Unfortunately for some bizarre reason when people start learning guitar, either on their own or often with instructors, they start with the pentatonic scale.  Penta, being the prefix for 5, means that the scale contains 5 of the 7 unique notes comprising a 1 octave range in western music.  If the student has musical training from a previous instrument or study, maybe this is comfortable and acceptable- maybe not.  But many of us start because of the guitar and this is just too much.  We don’t have music theory knowledge and the notes on a guitar neck aren’t as obvious as they are on a piano.  I suspect instructors make this mistake because pentatonic seems so easy and comfortable to them.  But lessons need to be tailored to the student.  And for some reason only pentatonic and diatonic scales are ever talked about, as though those are the only possibilities.

We’re here to change all that and break scales down as needed- down to a single note if necessary.  Although just one note is technically not a scale, it may be thought of as the most basic of scales.  Maybe dedicate one letter to each day of the week- A on Sundays, B on Mondays, etc.  Go on YouTube and find a backing track in the key of that letter.  Even a single note pedal tone works as a reference in this case.  Map out the two spots on each string that the letter note occurs at ahead of time.  Then while the music is playing randomly jump between strings, hitting the target note.  The downside of this technique is that it is not musical, though straight full scale runs done at speed aren’t very musical either.  You’re trading musicality for the simplicity you need.  What you’re playing won’t sound very interesting, but it will sound “right” when you don’t miss your note(s).  At the start you’ll have to think about moving around.  Eventually you won’t and this practice will feel very boring.  Congratulations, that’s exactly what you want!  You are now ready to proceed to the next biggest scale.

Now use two notes- the first note you had and add a fifth above.  I won’t get into the theory behind the order of the notes being selected for addition, but the motivation is to start with strong, mild notes that blend in and gradually add more color notes.  Technically you can go in whatever order you like, but some more care will be needed to make it fit with your backing tracks and we’re trying to keep things simple.  When you’re ready for a third note, add the fourth note above the root.  Next time add a seventh- major or minor.  And after that you are at 5 notes- the pentatonic scale that is so well documented.  You now have a solid foundation- much better than most at your level you’ll find.  You picked up a beautiful skill on the journey too- you can play any note on the fretboard on demand.

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