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Chromatic scales for beginners

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This tutorial is designed for beginners and aims at exploring chromatic scales, also known as finger exercises. These exercises can be done by everyone and help improve left-hand skills.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

Today’s tutorial deals with chromatic scales, and provides some exercises especially designed for beginners. These chromatic scales, also known as finger exercises, help develop left-hand skills by improving finger dexterity, independenceflexibility and precision.

This exercise can then be twisted in a hundreds different ways, allowing to practice rhythm, accents, string skipping and many other things. But let's not deal with that right now, as today's tutorial is aimed at helping beginners.
So let's start with the first part that shows a basic exercise that can be done by everybody, and lays the grounds for chromatic scales. In the second part , let's take a closer look at what the left hand does and practice. And finally, let's deal with permutations, as this will bring many possible variations from the initial basic exercise and will provide intensive practice of left-hand movements.

A basic exercise

Foreword

You can practice this exercise on an acoustic guitar as well as on an electric guitar, the choice is yours! There are no instructions regarding what to do with the right hand on this video, so strum as you like.You may do the Down/Up movement with your pick if you manage to do so; if not, never mind, another lesson will provide more details about the Down/Up movement. Now, first thing for you to do is focus on your left hand!

Basics

First, let's start by placing the left index on the fretboard, wherever you want. As an example, let me use fret 5 on D-string (fourth string) as a starting point, but feel free to choose any other fret or string
Once the index is positioned, let's play thisnote. So far, this is not difficult. In terms of tab writing, it looks like this:

Tablature étape 1 : case 5 corde de ré

Once this note has been played, let's place the middle finger on the fret right next to it - so in my example, on fret 6 - and let's play this note too. Then comes the ring finger, to be placed on fret 7, let's play it and sequence it with the little finger on fret 8. In terms of tab writing, it looks like this:

Tablature étape 2 : case 5 6 7 8 corde de ré

Watch out: when placing new fingers, do NOT remove the other fingers. So at the end of the exercise, you should end up with the four fingers pressing on the string, each one placed on its own fret.

If you are having problems

Before we move on to the next part of the exercise, let’s take a short break in case some of you have a hard time doing this. As a matter of fact, some may find this exercise easy, but others may struggle (especially those with small/not so flexible hands). Here are two quick tips to help you get there:

  • Shift to the high-pitch notes. Frets are smaller on high-pitch notes so your fingers will ­be closer to one another, which will make it easier for you ;
  • If it doesn't do the trick, despite playing on high-pitch notes, forget about the little finger. Although the exercise will not be as efficient, it is better to be able to do it without using the little finger than failing when using the little finger. So just do the rest of the exercise using only the index, middle and ring fingers on three frets, and try again with the little finger later on.

Let’s shift

On multiple strings

Well, now that we made it through the initial preliminary exercise, let's make it a little more complicated. In order to do so, let's start by extending the exercise to all the strings. Start playing it on the lower E-string and then move on to the A-string, then to the D-string, then on to the G-string, then to the B-string and finish on the higher E-string. It looks like this:

Tablature décalage sur plusieurs cordes

Pay attention to the beat: the goal is to have all notes last the same duration, including when you change strings. Obviously, you have to start at your own pace, without rushing. When in doubt, check out the video!

On multiple frets

Now that the basic exercise has been extented to all the strings, let's also extend it from one fret to another, upward or downward. Once you played it on frets 5-6-7-8 (for example), you can then shift down one fret to play it on frets 6-7-8-9, still keeping the fingers in the same order. Then shift again, and again, in the direction you want, as on the following example:


Tablature décalage sur plusieurs cases

Of course, you are free to move around and play wherever you want, you do not have to strictly follow the tab. Just pay attention and make sure you always follow the beat.

Practice Plan Suggestion

As you can see, this simple and basic exercise can be shifted from strings to strings and from frets to frets, in just about every way. Yet, for an exercise to be effecient, it has to be practiced in the same way day after day. The goal is to create a small practice pattern, that makes you play on several strings and on several frets, and which you'll practice every day. You are obviously free to create your own pattern, but let me suggest you one below that helps you practice all that every day, and which you may use as a basis to create your own practice plan.

  • begin the exercise on a fret that's low enough (around frets 3-5, not necessarily on the first one as it requires a large finger stretch)
  • play all the strings from the lower E string to the higher E-string
  • once you reach the higher E-string, shift one fret down and repeat the exercise on all the strings until you're back to the lower E-string
  • Shift again to a new fret, going down the fretboard
  • repeat 5 or 6 times, or even more if you have the time to do so
  • once you reach the final note you were "aiming" for, you can play all the way back up the fretboard

On a tab, it looks like this (click to enlarge):

Tablature plan de travail

Once again, adapt this plan to your own way to practice. If you don't want to spend too much time on it, just shift down 3 or 4 frets. However, if you want to spend a lot of time on this exercise, or if you are very brave (or crazy), you can totally start from fret 1 and go all the way down the fretboard and then all the way back up. It is up to you!

Important remarks

Before you move on to the next part, make sure that you can do this exercise correctly. Practising poorly an exercise will do you no good! Therefore, you should pay attention to four things:

  • be steady: playing with a steady pace is very important in this exercise, especially when changing strings and frets. Using a metronome can help!
  • make it ring: You must make each and every note ring. The goal is not to play fast, playing it right is what matters. A note that doesn't ring is a wrong note and makes you fail on this exercise. So take your time and press hard on the fretboard with your fingers.
  • repetition: doing an exercise once is completely useless. The movement must be repeated over and over, hundreds and hundreds of times. So make sure you practise the exercise long enough (practising for a few minutes is enough to repeat the movement ten times) and do it every day for several weeks. Otherwise, you will get absolutely nothing out of it.
  • the left hand: you must use the appropriate playing position and movement, otherwise you will take on bad habits and the exercise will have the opposite effect of what you are expecting. This is what we are going to deal with in the second part!

Positionning your left hand

What? A second part fully dedicated to the left hand? Well yes, it is very important because this exercise is pointless if you practise it using a bad position. One of the first challenges for anyone starting to play on the guitar is to learn how to place his fingers correctly to make sure that the strings don't crackle and that each note rings. However the only way to achieve such finger positionning is by practising it constantly until it becomes natural to the point that you manage to do it even with your eyes closed. So let's use this exercise to practise positionning the fingers correctly.

All that is explained below is essentially a sum-up of what is covered in the tutorial on positionning your left hand so if you're already an expert in that respect, this section is optional. And since everything explained here is very visual, I strongly encourage you to watch the video for further details.

Placing your fingers

  • First thing to highlight, your fingers should bend as much as possible in order not to touch the other strings or the bottom of the fretboard. Obviously, depending on your morphology, your guitar and the strings you use, this may be more or less difficult, but give it a try at least!
  • Angulate your wrist, almost right-angled. If not, you won't be able to bend your fingers correctly.
  • Be sure to press down on the strings with your fingertips. Your nails may actually be in the way so do not hesitate to cut them.
  • One more very important thing: Always get as close as possible to the frets (on the body side, not the head). The further you are from the frets, the harder you will need to press for the notes to sound right. But be careful not to go beyond the fret, you must be right in front of it.

Hand movement

A rookie mistake with this exercise is to start from the low E string, and as you gradually move towards the high strings, your hand position changes and you end up with flattened fingers and a wrist that's no longer angulated. And this is very bad for your left hand practise. Later on, when playing chords, you will have to play both the lower strings and high strings, so one of the goals of the exercise we work on in this lesson is to practise having your fingers placed on both lower and high strings, while keeping the same left hand position.

Therefore, the trick is to start from the lower strings and to bend your fingers in order to reach the high strings, without changing your hand position at all. It may sound dumb but many people don’t think about it and end up having a hard time.

In the beginning, you may find it difficult to reach all  strings without moving the left hand but it's not a big deal if you move your wrist a little, although you should try to move it as little as possible.


One way to check if you are doing the exercise correctly is by starting on the high E string and try to reach the lower E string with one or two fingers, just by unfolding them, without moving the wrist. If you manage to do so, congratulations - it's not easy. If you don't, it is because you have not yet acquired the "unique position" thatt we've been practising for your left hand. Do not give up, it will come eventually, even if you have small hands.

Finger movement

One last yet very important thing to mention regarding the left hand is how to move your fingers one after the other.

When performing the basic exercise (5 6 7 8 on a string), fingers should not be released from the fretboard. Start by putting the index, then the middle finger WITHOUT removing the index, then put the ring finger and finish with the little finger, and in the end, you must have all four fingers pressed down on the string. This is very important if you want to correctly build up your finger strength.

When switching to another string, remove all fingers and repeat the same thing on the following string.

One last tip

To wrap up this second part, let me remind you of a piece of advice I already gave you in the first part: do it properly, don't do it too fast and the wrong way. Take all your time to practise this exercise and check on your left-hand position: do not go too fast, you're not in a hurry. You will learn much faster by practising slowly and properly rather than practising quickly and the wrong way.

Permutations

This third part is reserved for those who already master the basic exercise. Let's learn how to make it more complicated by creating variations, still following the same concept, to further improve finger skills.

Fingering

In order to deal with this appropriately, let's forget about fret and note numbers and let's use numbers for fingers. In guitar theory, yhere are rules to refer to left-hand fingers, as a specific number is assigned to each finger:

  • index is number 1
  • middle finger is number 2
  • ring finger is number 3
  • little finger is number 4

Note: In rare occasions, the thumb can be used to fret a note, and it will be noted with a "T" (for Thumb)

Basic chromatic scales

Going back to basic exercise practised in the first part, it boils down to playing finger 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, with each finger on a different fret and then repeat this movement on each string.

Let’s change the order!

Let's now change it all and more specifically, let's change the order. Frets to be played remain unchanged (the index will remain on fret 5, for example, the middle on fret 6, the ring finger on fret 7 and the little finger on fret 8), but the order in which these notes are played will change.

So instead of playing with fingers "1 2 3 4", let's now play, for example, "1 2 4 3". It comes down to playing fret 5 with the index, then fret 6 with the middle finger, then fret 8 with the little finger and end on fret 7 with the ring finger. And this movement can be repeated on all strings, just likeB the basic movement.

Pay attention to the fingers!

In the second part, it was important not to lift your fingers after having played a note. This is now going to change, since according to the sequence played, it may not necessarily be possible to play all notes without lifting some fingers. Going back to the example "1 2 4 3", once you have played the note with the little finger, you will have to remove it to play the note with the ring finger, otherwise it will not work.

Other permutations

Obviously let's not just do one single permutation and stop. Let's see what else we can do using the same principle. There are 6 basic permutations, which will use the index as first finger. These are:

  • 1 2 3 4
  • 1 2 4 3
  • 1 3 2 4
  • 1 3 4 2
  • 1 4 2 3
  • 1 4 3 2

This alone gives us a lot more work than the first boring exercise on scales, and it will allow you to better develop your finger skills.

Do not practise them all

However, even if it is very interesting to practise all of these permutations, you will not necessarily have the time to do so. In which case, I would advise you to try them all for a few days in order to identify those that pose the greatest difficulties to you and work those out first. And obviously, if you have plenty of free time, you can work all of the permutations if you want, it is not prohibited.

To go even further

What, that’s not it? No, you can still play other variations. So far, the 6 permutations listed above all started with the index so let's change that. You can totally start the exercise with the middle finger, it is just a matter of playing "2 1 3 4", for example. And as for the index, you will find 6 permutations that begin with the middle finger:

  • 2 1 3 4
  • 2 1 4 3
  • 2 3 1 4
  • 2 3 4 1
  • 2 4 1 3
  • 2 4 3 1

But you will also have 6 combinations that begin with the ring finger:

  • 3 1 2 4
  • 3 1 4 2
  • 3 2 1 4
  • 3 2 4 1
  • 3 4 1 2
  • 3 4 2 1

And to wrap it up, here are the 6 variations that begin with the little finger:

  • 4 1 2 3
  • 4 1 3 2
  • 4 2 1 3
  • 4 2 3 1
  • 4 3 1 2
  • 4 3 2 1

Which gives a grand total of 24 possible variations for the chromatic scale exercises.

Practise a variety of exercises

As I said earlier, you do not have to practise all exercises and it is more interesting to practise the hardest ones. However, the more you practise the hardest ones, the more you will improve, and it won't be long before the hardest exercises no longer seem that difficult to you. Therefore, you must vary the exercises you practise and change the combinations that you practise on a regular basis. It is up to you to decide when this is the right time to do so, based on how you are improving. Anyway, this will allow you to really improve your skills.

To wrap it up

The lesson ends here, but not the possibilities. There are many other variations and exercises that can be done on chromatic scales to improve finger skills or other things, but there will be another for those! Just focus on practising it all the right way and come visit us later on to get new challenges.

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