If you’ve been learning guitar for any length of time, you’ve probably run up against someone who insists you need to learn to play scales. Or maybe you’ve met other guitarists who do practice scales. Are they really necessary? The fact is, it depends on your goal as a guitar player. If you long to play exciting lead riffs in jazz or rock music, scales will help you. They will also help you if you are an aspiring classical guitarist. Bluegrass flat pickers can benefit from learning scales, too.
If you like strumming along at sing-alongs, or are primarily a rhythm guitarist, you may never need to practice scales much. You might enjoy learning to finger pick arpeggios with your right hand, and you’ll definitely benefit from learning as many chords as possible, but scales might be overkill.
Chances are, though, that you wouldn’t be reading about scales unless you fit in one of those previous categories. So here’s the skinny on guitar scales. A scale is simply a progression of notes in a certain key. A major scale follows the basic “do, re, mi…” sound. A minor scale is altered to give that haunting sound of minor chords. A third type of scale used in jazz and other popular music is a pentatonic scale. Penta means five, and this type of scale repeats the five notes that sound like the black keys on a piano.
The main thing that makes the types of scales different is the interval between the notes. For instance, a major scale consists of eight notes, where the eighth is the same as the first, only an octave higher. There is a whole step (two frets) between each of the notes, except there is a half step (one fret) between the third and fourth notes and between the seventh and eighth notes. Add to this the fact that you can start a scale anywhere on the fretboard, and you can see why you could find yourself learning many, many different scales.
For classical guitarists, learning and practicing scales is excellent practice for playing more advanced pieces. Playing scales should be part of the practice session. Classical guitarists read music, and would benefit from following written scales as part of their practice sessions. They don’t improvise, so they need to be able to follow the music that is written.
Jazz, rock, and other popular styles of guitar playing are usually done with less written music and more improvisation. This makes learning any sort of music theory valuable, and scales are part of the picture. There may be hundreds of scales you could learn, and the prospect might seem daunting. Just focus on the first two or three scales you need to know and practice them faithfully. Don’t get frustrated or in a hurry to know everything. Consistency is the key to building any musical skill.