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Introducing scales for beginners

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This lesson will focus on the basics to understand for any beginner who wants to start learning guitar scales.

Basics required for this lesson : Harmony for Dummies : the notes,
Practice this lesson : None

The scales' world is infinite, and not always easy to deal with. We feel quickly lost among the number of scales, exercises and multiple ways to use them. In addition, many beginners sometimes have distorted ideas about what a scale is, which does not help learning. This course therefore aims to give you solid basics and ways to use scales. We will not see anything specific, only important concepts that should not be overlooked. In this perspective, as always, the course will include three parts:

  • First, we start with the definition of scales, so as to understand what we will be talking about later in the course and in the subsequent courses
  • Then, we will see the purpose of the scales, so if you're wondering if you need to learn them or not, you will find the answer in this second part
  • Finally, we will end with work guidelines that I recommend to beginners, which will be explored later in other courses

What is a scale ?

This is a question that many beginners arise, but there are not always some clear answers. Sometimes answers are incomplete, or not very accurate, which makes it hard to learn scales. This first part is therefore to explain as clearly as possible what the scales are. I just want to say that if you have a few harmonic knowledge, you will understand better what I mean. Do not hesitate to see our harmony courses to improve your knowledge of scales.

The Theoretical Definition

A definition of scale that is often given is simply "a series of notes". It is a somewhat popularized definition, which is not quite true. A scale is defined from a theoretical point of view by two factors:

  • the starting note, which can be any note ( C, D , Eb , F#, etc ...) and will be called the base note
  • a series of intervals that share the base note and thus give us other notes


This sequence of intervals is very important because it is what will define the nature of the scale, and hence, its name. When we speak of a "major" scale, the adjective "major" means that we will apply a series of intervals corresponding to all existing major scales. A minor scale will be another series of intervals, same for a minor pentatonic scale. Each type of scale has its own sequence of intervals, which is applied to any base note.

There are tons of nature of scales, which can be applied to all existing notes, which gives us thousands and thousands scales.


All the above is the theoretical explanation of what a scale is. But in practice, on the guitar, we will often talk about scales "position". The position represents the physical place where you put your fingers on the fretboard to play a given scale. And it is often here that the confusion starts in the beginners' minds.


For those who have a little bit of harmony notions, let's do an exercise. Take the C major scale, which contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B. If we try to play this scale on the guitar, from where will we start? Which C should we take first? If you can find your notes on the fretboard, you know there are plenty of them. On the A string/3rd fret, on the B string/1st fret, on the E string/8th fret etc ... So which one to choose? And then we have the same problem for the D, which one to choose? So we quickly end lost, because there are so many possibilities, we do not know where to start from.

Scales positions are precisely there to help us: they were created by guitarists so that we can play the notes of a particular scale in a simple and easy-to-remember way. No need to ask yourself which fret to choose, just follow the scale's pattern and you will play all the notes of the scale.


We must understand one very important thing: there is virtually an infinite number of possible positions for a scale. As long as you play the notes of the scale on the neck, regardless of the chosen position, you play the scale.

Luckily, there are very "classic" positions that are often used, which are also usually easier to remember, more accessible, and most commonly used in music. These positions will be discussed in detail in subsequent courses. But remember that all the positions you will learn will all be special cases, all subsets of the scale. A scale in guitar is simply the set of notes spread on the neck, and a scale position is only a small part of it that can be learned easily.


Why do I bother you with all this? Simply because beginners often learn the scales positions without understanding the relationship with the scale or with other positions. And that 's a pity. A scale is a tool that we use to make music, and if we do not know how to use this tool, we will do no good. Do not just settle for learning positions by heart, but also try to understand what it means, if not, you will not know how to use it musically.


On hearing this, some might say it's not a good idea to learn the scales positions. But we really have no choice: learning a scale without learning positions is extremely difficult. Positions are there to ease our learning, so we have to do it, but be aware of the limitations of such simplified learning method. I will certainly not prevent you from learning the positions, on the contrary, I recommend you learn these positions but try to keep in mind the notion of scale and the fact that a position is a subset of a scale which represents “a whole” on your neck .

All this will be detailed in subsequent courses, we will have courses on how to read scales' patterns, how to work on them, and we will have specific courses on the most common scales. In the meantime, we will proceed to the second part just to see what's the purpose of all these scales.

What's the point?

As a beginner, you're probably wondering if you need to learn the scales or not. And to answer this question, first you have to know what's the purpose of the scales, so you can see if they will be useful to you or not.

To begin, we must understand that scales form the foundations of the music you hear every day. Almost everything you hear in music is based in some way on the scales, either chords, arpeggios, melodies, solos or whatever.

Concretely, what's the point of learning scales ?


As music is based on scales, if you master them, you will understand much better how the pieces are built, why such and such chord is located at such place, you will see pieces of logical things and not as a sequence of notes without any sense. Obviously it will not happen to you in five minutes, but with work and training you can "understand" music.


Same principle as above, if you understand what you play, you will learn your favourite songs a lot faster. It will no longer seem like a series of frets placed arbitrarily on the neck, but it will be a logical series of notes, which have a meaning, that tell a story that you will understand. You will often find scales positions that you have learned, especially in solos where they are used thoroughly.


Since there are lots of scales, and plenty of different positions for each scale, you can create thousands and thousands of technical exercises to develop your left hand, right hand, and all existing techniques. And the interest of these exercises is that they are based on scales, and suddenly they are much more musical than exercises like chromatics or else. You'll even hear that some exercises are used in solos, because they sound very musical. The technical work itself is a little more difficult, because unlike chromatic or other exercises, you have to learn the scales positions, but it really allows many more applications in practice.


Composing or improvising is making music. And music is, you guessed it, based on scales. If you know your scales inside out, you'll be much more comfortable to compose and improvise. Without them, you can always try, but you will go round in circles very quickly, and pardon me if I offend you, it will often sound like nothing. Knowing scales will help you understand what you can do, what you cannot do, or what you can try in different contexts. A good knowledge of scales is an essential prerequisite to address the composition and improvisation (and by the way, I put improvisation and composition in one basket, because improvisation is in some way, a real-time composition, and generally everything that applies to composition applies to improvisation).


There are exercises that make you work your scales positions and know the notes on your guitar's neck at the same time. These exercises are relatively hard, but incredibly efficient if you want to know your neck by heart.

That's all about the practical uses of learning scales. So if you're wondering if you need to learn or them or not, look back at the list above. If there are things that are of interest to you, learn the scales. If nothing is of interest to you, do not learn them. It's as simple as that!

How to learn them?

The purpose of this third party is not to teach you scales, but rather to give you some tips to deal with all this correctly. The learning itself will be addressed in subsequent courses.


The goal is NOT to learn all the existing scales. On one hand, it is almost impossible, there are just too many scales. On the other hand, it is simply useless.


A scale is a tool. It is not enough to learn scales by heart, you must also learn how to use them, and especially to use them properly. The major scale for example can be used in a lot of styles: blues, rock, funk, metal, jazz etc ... However, we will not use it the same way in all these styles.


You will have to learn scales from a technical point of view, ie learn the positions, fingerings etc ... but also learn to use them in the style(s) you like. This is a complex and long learning process, really long, because the scales give you a lot of possibilities.


If we take the example of the major scale, we can see that many other scales can be derived from it: major and minor pentatonic scales, minor scales, modes, etc. ... So you will come across it in a lot of styles and plenty of situations. Guitarists like Angus Young or BB King have almost their entire career based on only one scale.


You guessed it, we should not settle for learning scale positions by heart, but we must learn how to use them. All this will be developed in other courses with application of scales in different situations in different styles.


To start learning all this, it is best to focus on one and only one scale. Learn this scale's positions, learn to use and develop everything that's around it before tackling other scales.


Since there are tons of scales, styles and positions, there are also tons of ways to start learning them. I recommend you two ways today, it is by no means compulsory, but it is what I recommend for beginners.


This scale is often recommended for beginners to get started. This is an easy to learn scale, there are only five positions to know, and they are not very difficult to remember or to play. In addition, it gives off a very strong and straight blues/rock sound, which makes it quite easy to use.


The other option that I recommend, which is personally my favourite, is to start with the major scale. Be careful, it is harder to learn: there are seven basic positions to know, and they are more complicated than those of the minor pentatonic. On top of that, it is more difficult to apply it on blues/rock style. It sounds a little too "classic" to be used directly in "modern" style, and it therefore requires more work to master it.

The big advantage however, as stated earlier in the course, is that most of the scales that are used in music are, near or far, derived from the major scale. Having an excellent knowledge of the major scale will allow you to more easily address all the others. For the record, the minor pentatonic scale which I have just mentioned is part of the major scale. So if the major scale is used smartly, we obtain the same result than with the minor pentatonic scale.


Basically, you have the "easy" way, with the minor pentatonic scale, which is fast to learn and to apply, or the "difficult" way, with the major scale, which is more difficult to learn and apply, but which offers many more possibilities in the future.

C'est tout pour aujourd'hui !

We will not go any further today. Start thinking about your choice now, do not hesitate to ask us for advice on the discussion board, and we will discuss all this in detail in subsequent courses.


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Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence
(Robert Fripp)