How to Learn Guitar Scales

Learning the many scales for guitar can seem like a difficult and complicated thing to do. There are so many scales where does one begin? We hope to give you a good start and a roadmap on how to learn scales without pulling out your hair.

How to Play Scales

Since scales are the foundation for playing guitar solos, it’s important to learn to play them properly and with fluidity. A good guitar player will use scales as the foundation for solos, but it won’t sound like he’s playing scales or exercises.

That’s one of the dangers of spending too much time on learning scales and playing repetitive exercises. Your playing can start to sound too “scalish,” and unnatural to the ear. So how much time should you devote to learning and practicing scales? A good plan might be to devote 1/3 of your practice time to scales after you’ve mastered playing basic chords.

After you’ve learned the basic Pentatonic, blues, and major and minor scales, I’d recommend you practice them by playing them in solos and riffs in real songs. For me, mindless repetition with a metronome never helped me improve much.

You don’t need to know every variation of the minor scale, the jazz scales, and the various modes that seem to stump so many guitar players, in order to play well. You need to be good at the basic scales I mentioned above.

Sure, as  you progress you may find it worthwhile to add the harmonic minor scale, and the Mixolydian mode to your playing vocabulary, but I wouldn’t worry too much about those scales when you’re just starting out. It will just be a distraction and make you feel like you don’t know enough.

Here’s the order I would learn the scales in the type of music each one is normally used in. These are not hard and fast rules as there is crossover in the use of scales.

  • Pentatonic
  • Popular songs and rock
  • Blues scale
  • Blues and rock
  • Major scale
  • All styles of music
  • Minor scale
  • All styles of music

     

    The Pentatonic Scale

    If you’re just starting to learn scales, you may want to start with the Pentatonic scale, which is one of the first guitar scales for beginners to learn. Penta means five in Greek, and it’s a five note scale that can be played in five different positions on the neck. Since it’s only five notes, it’s one of the easiest scales in guitar to learn.

    The chart below shows the five positions of the G minor Pentatonic scale.

    Pentatonic scale

    As you can see, the five patterns connect in different shapes, and there are two notes per string. I would learn them in the order they’re laid out in the diagram starting with the one in blue. Practice playing in just that first position pattern to any song in the key of G minor or Bb major.

    Or, to make it easier, move the whole pattern to the 5th fret and play to any song in C major or A minor. How do we know what key to play in for a given Pentatonic pattern? You have to know the root of the scale to know what keys you can play the scale in. For the first position, the root is the first note on the 6th string, which is G. Which makes it the G minor Pentatonic scale.

    Continue to add the different positions one at at time and start to connect them. Practice making transitions from position one to position two, or from two to three. Soon you’ll have them all connected in your mind and fingers and you’ll be able to play the whole scale up and down the neck.

    I would recommend practicing slowly and playing each note cleanly. There’s no need for speed at this point. All you’re trying to do is get the scale embedded in your brain and fingers. Speed will come later.

    In the video below, Marty Schwartz, one of my favorite Youtube teachers, shows how to learn the A minor Pentatonic scale in first position and what can be done with it.

    How to Play Blues Scales

    Blues guitar scales are similar to Pentatonic scales, except there are two additional notes added: the flatted fifth or sharped fourth degree of the scale. Take a look at the added notes in the blues scale chart below:

    Blues ScaleThe red notes in the chart are octaves, the added flatted fifth is the note you see that’s one fret away from another note. All other notes in the blues scale are separated by at least a whole step or 3 frets, and in some cases 4 frets or a whole step and half step. The “blue note” is that odd note that sits in the middle or just outside the typical Pentatonic scale pattern.

    The good news is that if you already know the Pentatonic scale, the blues scale is the same pattern plus one more note, the flatted fifth. Guitar blues scales will give your playing the true blues flavor when soloing.

    Here’s a short YouTube video that shows how to learn the A minor blues scale:

    How to Learn the Major and Minor Scales

    The major and minor scales are seven note scales that form the foundation of most music. When you sing “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Soh, La, Ti, Do,” you’re singing the tones of the major scale. The good news in learning the major and minor scales is that they share the same patterns with each other. They just have different starting and ending notes.

    The chart below shows the five positions for the G major scale:

    G major scale

     

    The E natural minor scale, which is the relative minor of G major, follows the same pattern above, except the starting and ending notes would be E. So the pattern is the same, but the sequence and order of the whole steps and half steps are different.

    Start by learning the major scales and when you’ve got those down, you’ll see what I mean when you start learning the minor scales. It is a whole new set of scales to learn, but at least the pattern is similar.

    What about the harmonic and melodic minor scales? I don’t think it’s worth your time learning those scales until you become a master of the scales above. The harmonic minor scale has some use in certain types of rock music, and the melodic minor was used to smooth out the large interval leap in the harmonic minor scale. Neither of these scales is necessary to play 99% of all songs in popular music.

    How to Learn Jazz Scales

    Since I’m not a jazz player, I’m not going to discuss jazz guitar scales. I’d recommend you take some lessons with a jazz guitar teacher. I know that many more scales like the Bebop scales, the harmonic minor, and the Lydian dominant scales are used, but I can’t give you much help with these.

    I think trying to learn these types of scales online, without a teacher, would be challenging. I’m not saying it’s impossible, and I’m sure there are players who’ve done just that, but I’d say they’d be the exception rather than the rule.

    I’m not saying you can’t learn the basic patterns and fingerings online, it’s learning where to use them and over what chord progressions that’s the tricky part.

    If you think you can do it, go for it and let us know how it’s going for you in the comments.

    How to Play Bass Scales

    The bass guitar shares the same four strings as the six string guitar, but an octave lower. Learning bass guitar scales is similar to learning them for guitar. Bass players learn the major, minor, and Pentatonic scales.

    Below is a good beginner bass guitar lesson on YouTube from Jamplay:

    Conclusion

    This should give you a good start on learning how to play the most important scales for guitar and bass. Start off slow, learn one scale type and pattern/position at at time, and remember, have fun. This is music we’re making.