Playing guitar scales and modes can be intimidating. In this article you will learn how to practice guitar scales. We will break down the techniques and the exercises that matter so you can develop a practice schedule and see progress.
The progress will give you confidence and open up your guitar knowledge. This will allow you to go beyond just playing chords and begin to understand what scales you can play and why you can play them.
Take it from an almost lifelong rhythm guitar player, playing chords has been my main role in every band that I have ever been in. eventually I got to a point where there was no band and I wanted to write and record songs. I wanted to be able to add some riffs and solos, but I didn’t know how.
Once I learned scales and modes, it opened up my universe and allowed me to add what was missing to my guitar playing.
I want to be able to help you if you are in a similar situation.
What are Guitar Scales and modes?
The proper definition of guitar scales is that they are organized sequences of notes that are played in an ascending or seeding order. Guitar scales are your building blocks for the harmonies you can create and chords are built from scales.
There are various types of scales from major, minor and pentatonic. Let’s take a look at what each of these are so you can understand their function.
The major scale is very commonly used in Western music.
It’s made up of a repeating pattern of seven notes and follows this sequence of steps: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. A whole step means two frets between the notes and a half step means there is one fret between the notes.
Like major chords, major scales are full and “happier” sounding.
Like the major scale, minor scales are also a repeating pattern of notes and also follow a sequence of steps: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.
Minor scales have been used a lot in classical music such as Mozart and Beethoven. Like minor chords, the scales sound “sadder” as opposed to their major counterparts.
The pentatonic scales are very popular and versatile. The pentatonic scales contain five notes in contrast to seven notes. You will see these a lot in Rock music. The popularity is due to the fact that they are easy to remember and therefore great for beginners to start with.
A scale is a set of notes. These are in a specific order with the notes being a certain distance from the next. Modes are in essence a variant of a scale hence you’ll hear the phrase often “the mode of a scale.”
There are seven modes – Ionian, Dorian, Phygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrain.
Why are guitar scales important?
How to Practice Guitar Scales is the question at hand. In addition, learning how to apply guitar scales and the actual practicing of the scales are crucial in your progress as a guitar player.
The practicing of scales enhances the overall dexterity and strength of your fingers. This will add to your fingers muscle memory which then improves your technique.
Have you ever had the feeling that your fingers feel stiff while playing? A great remedy to this is the practicing of the scales on a consistent basic (i.e. schedule).
Learning how to apply guitars scales gives you that light bulb and “ah ha” moment when you see how everything is connected. It’s really invaluable as you will know which melodies to play over your chord progressions and more importantly……..why.
For example if your chord progression is Bm – G – D – A (a favorite of mine), then you will know what scales to start with and the path they follow to play notes over it. You don’t have to be a virtuoso on the guitar. You just need to know where to be and what you can potentially play and then let your creativity take over.
Which scales should you learn first?
I would suggest that the pentatonic scales be the first ones that you learn first (see picture above). Why? Due to the way they are positioned on the fretboard, they are easy to remember and therefore will be easy to improvise on.
Another reason is that once you learn and want to reference some of your favorite riffs and solos, you will see that most of them are built from these scales. That in return will build confidence and really allow you to understand what you could potentially play when you write your own songs.
These scales are also very versatile. There’s a lot of options that you can do with them due to their location and spacing. You can also move them to different positions on the neck very easily.
Practice and Exercises
We know why scales are important and we have honed in on which scales we need to focus on. Now what? Everyone’s favorite thing……practice! When it comes to scales or anything theory based, it’s hard to maintain the same excitement as it is to play your favorite song on guitar.
Nevertheless, we still need to practice, but we have to practice the right way which will help us become proficient when playing scales, leads, and riffs.
The suggestions below are exercises you can practice while playing the pentatonic scales and in conjunction to some other suggestions that will help.
They will be broken down into technical and song exercises.
How to practice guitar scales: technical exercises
For the pentatonic scales, it’s best to start with position 1 (please see the image above) at the first fret and practice each one in an ascending and descending manner (up and down the fretboard in the same position).
Then move to the second position and where it would be on the neck which would be the 4th fret and continue the pattern. This will help you visually to see how these scales are constructed and will start training not only your fingers but your eyes. You will want to start looking at the fretboard like a map.
Continue this one all the way to the 5th position and then start again with the 1st position on the fret you left off at (which should be the 13th fret). Depending on the guitar that you have then you may be able to get to the higher frets on the neck. If not, then that’s okay as you can head back to the 1st fret and start again.
You can also add a backing track that you can find on YouTube of any key so while you are playing the pentatonic scales you can see how the notes fit and sound.
You’ll want to do this about 10 times to build strength and muscle memory.
Practice the 1 2 3 4 exercise. This is where you start with the first string at 1st fret and for a 1 2 3 4 motion extending to the 4th fret. Then proceed to the second string at the 1st fret and do the same. Going all the way up and down and then moving your index finger to the 2nd fret and repeat the same pattern.
It’s important to get used to the motion, concentrate on correct movement with the right hand – constant down-up-down-up (even when going the other direction with the left hand)
try to cover as much of the neck possible when doing this exercise.
Do this all the way up the neck and fretboard and then go all the way back to end up on the first fret.
The 1 2 3 4 pattern is also not the only pattern that you can practice. You can also do a 1 3 2 4 pattern, a 1 2 4 3 pattern, and a 1 4 2 3 pattern.
This type of exercise is something that you would want to practice for about 10 minutes a day. Within a matter of a week, you will see the progress in your playing.
How to practice guitar scales: song exercises
In conjunction to the technical exercises, I always like to incorporate song exercises to the practicing repertoire.
For the song exercise, take a favorite song of yours and find the guitar tablature so you can see the solo.
Now take that solo and break it up into different parts. Try to learn a small piece of that solo accurately as they were playing it. Try to analyze its location and see what pieces of the scale are they using.
Figuring this out will start that connection piece that I was mentioning before as you will start to see where these solos were derived from.
How to improve speed?
It’s very easy as you are practicing your scales and songs to not get consumed with the speed of everything. This is where it gets tricky and where guitarists start getting some poor habits that are hard to break.
Here are the things you can do to eventually build up and increase your guitar speed.
Slow and steady
Slow and steady wins the race. Take it slow and focus on getting the technique right. Instead of going right for the shredding focus on building your music memory and accuracy.
Alternate picking is the downward and upward strokes in a continuous fashion. The down-up or up-down of your picking hand is the focus.
This technique is used in all those awesome and fast solos that you love listening to. Alternate picking is essential to eventually achieving the speed that you are looking to obtain.
Timing is essential and crucial. You develop timing by playing along with songs or a band. However, if you don’t have a band to perform with, then a metronome will help you.
A metronome will measure your current level of speed. The purpose is to keep a musician in live with the timing of the playing. This gives you the ability to play as slow and as fast as you want.
The metronome will improve your timing, build speed, and reduce the tendency to rush the tempo.
There are several metronome apps that you can get that will help you and your practicing. The one I happen to use is MetroTimer.
How long should you practice for?
When it comes to how to practice guitar scales and the length of time to practice, there are a lot of variables.
If you were to talk to a few guitarists, they will give you a few different answers. I would say you would want to crave out as little as 15 minutes and as much as one hour per day.
The thing to remember is that if you don’t practice enough, you don’t learn anything. If you over practice, then you burn out and that also is not beneficial.
Depending on where you are at in your life as far as responsibilities go, you may have more time to sit and practice.
For those who don’t have the time, then you want to be strategic. The last thing you want to do is get burnt out on theory and scales because of the challenge that they present. It can become more of a chore and that is not fun.
So yes how long you practice depends on the individual but a sweet spot could be somewhere at the 30 minute mark. This can give you time to practice the scales, the technical aspect, and add in some songs you want to learn. You might even have some room for improvisation where you then just get creative.
The key is to find a time that works for you and be consistent with it.
How to practice guitar scales conclusion
We hope that you have enjoyed this article on how to practice guitar scales. As mentioned previously they can be intimidating but we hope we have been able to break it down for you and make it a little easier to digest.
I promise you that once you start to see how everything is connected and are able to play leads and riffs from these scales over the chord progressions you have created, then you will gain confidence as a guitar player.
If you want to check out some guitar books, head our to our post if that is something that interests you: Best Guitar Books.
As always we thank you for taking the time to read this post and remember to always HAVE FUN!