How Do I Start Learning Scales?

Most of the lessons in this blog are designed for fairly advanced guitarists, and rather a lot of them have something to do with scales. I wanted to write something for what I call the Beginning Intermediate player, who's ready to start learning scales but isn't sure what the roadmap looks like. I hope this will also give you an idea of how I ordinarily approach this subject with students, although since evrybody's different and I don't have a one-size-fits-all "programme" there's bound to be lots of room for variation.

Are You Ready?

The first question is: are you ready to learn scales? I honestly believe that the best way to learn scales is through the CAGED system, which uses five moveable chord shapes as its foundation. If you con't know those shapes then the CAGED system will be an uphill struggle, whereas it ought to make things easier.

You actually don't really need to know all five chord shapes, or at least not right away. But you must know the moveable E- and A-shaped barre chords, and it's extremely useful to know the C- or D-shaped one as well (the C and D shapes are very similar).

In addition to this, you need to know the names of the notes on the neck all the way up to the 12th fret. If you're having trouble with this, the notes on the E, A and D strings will do to get you started -- if you don't know these then

Start With Arpeggios

because I like the CAGED system so much, I think it's important to give it a strong foundation. That's why I encourage all students to learn the major and minor triad arpeggios before learning any scales at all. You can make real, albeit simple, music using these arpeggios -- in fact I bet you could give me any advanced guitarist and we could find some triad superimpositions in the Encyclopoedia that they're not familiar with, or some more complex applications of them in patterns of substitutions.

Not that the Beginning Intermediate sort of player needs to worry about that. Getting to the stage where they can mix up the major minor triad arpeggios over a static harmony, or perhaps play through a simple, slow-moving progression like a 12-bar blues, is sufficient. They must, though, know these arpeggios up and down the whole neck or, equivalently, be able to find one in the right key close to a randomly-selected fret ("give me a Gm triad close to the seventh fret").

The Common Pentatonic

The Minor Pentatonic is traditionally the first scale you learn, and I don't see any problem with that. It's just the minor triad with two extra notes, so it ought to be pretty easy. Plenty of OK guitarists, and a few really good ones, only really know this one scale.

Once this is securely known, move on to the major pentatonic, which is a mode of the minor. At this point the idea of modes needs to be made clear and precise, and all opportunities must be taken to dispel any misconceptions or confusions. Plenty fo time can be taken with these scales to make sure they're 100% familiar. In the process students can develop more advanced ideas if they wish -- playing the other three modes in the group, combining them with superimposed arpeggios and so on. The point is not to rush but to explore the material musically.

The Major Scale Modes

After the Major and Minor Pentatonics most students will want to learn the major scale modes. the order I recommend for most players is Aeolian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Locrian. Heavy metal players tend to enjoy the Phrygian and Locrian more than the major tonalities, so I'd bump them up the list. Students who are already playing a little jazz may want to learn the Lydian before the Dorian.

Nevertheless it's important, I think, to learn the Aeolian (aka "Natural Minor") and Ionian (aka "Major") scales first. These provide an important basis for playing in all tonal contexts because they give you the unaltered notes in a given key (minor or major respectively).

The student who knows the major and minor triands and the common pentatonics should have no difficulty in learning these scales, except perhaps the Locrian, for which she will need to learn the diminished triad arpeggio. This arpeggio has a good, usable sound, however, and learning it does not really present difficulties.

It's very important that the study of Major Scale modes be accompanied by a continuation of the study of chord tones that was begun with the triads and hopefully continued during work with the pentatonics.

The Rest

Once you've got this far it's up to you what you want to learn. Heavy metal musicians need the Harmonic Minor and some of its modes; jazz fans may prefer to start with the Melodic Minor. There are also the symmetrical Whole-Tone and Whole-Half Diminished scales to learn. By the time you've got these under your fingers you can probably call yourself an advanced guitarist, with some justification. It may take years to get this far; rushing ahead and memorizing loads of fingerings without spending time working on them is pointless. In the process your technique will grow stronger and your ears will have sharpened up too.

Then you're ready, if you want to, to start experimenting with more obscure material -- the advanced resources in the Encyclopoedia, say, or the patterns from Slonimsky's Thesaurus or whatever gets you excited, really. Or you might stop somewhere during this process of development and realise you've got everything you need to play the music you want to play.

I'll end with a clip of Allan Holdsworth, a man who seems to have known more scales and arpeggios than most and made wonderful, musical use of them.