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5 Guitar Scale Practice Ideas

Scales | Joke

5 Guitar Scale Practice Ideas

by Matt Wong

Thanks for checking out my post on sight reading last week. I appreciated all the questions and comments that I got on Facebook for it. In case you missed it, go check out 10 Guitar Sight Reading Tips.

This week's topic is scales. Although arguable not the most glamorous part of your practice routine, scales are an introduction to improvisation for many musicians, and like sight reading, if you practice smart, you can work on many aspects of your musicianship simultaneously. Below are 5 guitar scale practice ideas that I believe will make practicing scales more effective for you. In addition, I have included at the end, a free PDF of 22 commonly used in contemporary music that I have my students learn.

I encourage musicians to leave comments with their thoughts/ideas/opinions on practicing scales. If you have any questions, leave a comment, or send me an email.

1. Play 3 notes per string, starting from every degree. This method of practicing scales helps us master the fretboard by making us think of the neck as one whole unit rather than a couple positions. Take the scale you are practicing, and pick any scale degree to start from. Find that note on the low E string, and play the scale ascending. Play only 3 notes on each string until you reach the high E string (it's ok to end on a different note that the one you started from). Finally, descend playing 3 notes per string until you reach your starting pitch on the low E string. Repeat this process with each degree of the scale. Here's how that would look like for a C Major scale if we start from F (the 4th degree).

C Major | 3 Note Per String Example | Guitar

Fingerings - the first and third note of each set will naturally be played with your 1st and 4th fingers. My recommendation for the second note is to use your 2nd finger, unless there is a half step between the second and third note. Use your 3rd finger in those instances.

2. Practice scales to a drone. This idea helps with ear training, and organizing music in our heads. We tend to hear music based around a key center. Therefore, if we're playing a C major scale, we want to hear the root as C. Going back to the example above, If we start on F, which is the 4th degree of C major, we may hear the scale as F Lydian, rather than as C major. However, if we practice to a C drone, we can hear each degree's relationship to the key, and properly hear the scale that we intended to practice. Physically, C major and F Lydian are the same notes, but aurally, we want to make a distinction between the two scales.

3. Understand the theory behind every scale you learn. When many guitarists begin learning scales, they are focused with learning fingering patterns, and have little or no understanding of what they are playing. Here are a few things you should know about the scale you are practicing.

  • The names of the notes in the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B)

  • The scale degree of each note in the scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

  • Possible chord applications for the scale (Mixolydian - Dominant 7 chords)

Knowing this information will help you learn more challenging scales. I believe the easiest way to learn the modes is to learn how to alter the notes of the major scale to produce the particular mode you are learning. For example, a Mixolydian scale is derived from flatting the 7th degree of the major scale. Thus, if you wanted to play a C Mixolydian scale, by knowing that the 7th degree is flatted, you would play C, D, E, F, G, A, and Bb. Armed with this knowledge, you can take it further when you want to learn a scale like Mixolydian b2 b6. By knowing that a regular Mixolydian scale has a b7, all you need to do now is play the Mixolydian scale, but lower the 2nd, and 6th degrees of the scale in addition. That would become C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, Bb.

Major | Mixolydian | Mixolydian b2b6

4. Use scales to practice feeling music at the macro level. Lets say we are practicing a scale with the metronome in 4/4 time with each note being an 8th note. Rather than having the metronome click on every beat, try having it click only on beats 1 and 3. Once you can play the scale in the pocket at that level, try having the metronome click only on beat 1 of every measure. By working with music at the macro level, it teaches us to FEEL time, instead of counting it. This will not only help you develop a better sense of time, and help you play more in the pocket, but it will help with things like following musical forms (4 and 8 bar phrases, 12 bar blues, etc.), and developing speed. If you can use a drone that also serves as a metronome, even better!

5. Pay attention to your technique while practicing scales. Practicing scales is a great way to identify and fix any flaws in your technique. Every one of my students has heard me say, "playing an instrument is already hard enough, don't make it harder." If you have good technique, you set yourself up for success to develop the other aspects of your musicianship. Here are a few things you should look out for in your technique.

  • Grip the guitar neck so that there is enough space to place a ping pong ball in your palm, and make sure your wrist is pulled back in a natural position. If you have smaller hands, it's ok for you to push your wrist out slightly to reach the low E, and A strings.

  • Your elbow should form roughly a 90 degree angle, and should not touch your body.

  • Make sure you fingers are curved and stay as close to the strings as possible. Your thumb should be behind the neck, approximately in between your index and middle fingers. Sometimes, you may find it necessary to use your thumb to reach over the top of the neck to grab low notes for larger chord voicings.

  • Don't make un-natural stretches with your fingers to reach other notes. Shift your entire hand position, including your thumb.

  • Your fingers should press down with just enough pressure to make a note sound clear and not muted. Pressing down too hard, not only adds tension to your entire hand, but will result in intonation problems.

  • Make sure your pick moves the least amount of distance away from the string possible when picking.

Recommended Scales: Download Free PDF

Helpful Resources:

Guitar Lore (Dennis Sandole)

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