5 Things You'd Better Know if You Practice Scales on Guitar

In this article I will list for you 5 important things you must do after you go through the initial step of memorizing the notes of a new scale.

Ultimate Guitar
Have you ever learned a new scale on guitar, practiced it for 2-3 days and then got bored and wanted to learn a new scale to play? If you said yes, your situation is not at all uncommon.

In fact, most guitarists don't know what to do with new scales they learn on guitar and assume that they are done learning a new scale after memorizing its notes and briefly playing it on their instrument. Such an approach places severe (and unnecessary) restrictions on your musical creativity by limiting the ways in which you can actually use any new scale that you learn in your guitar solos.

Fortunately, there is a better way to practice guitar that will help you to get more out of the time you spend learning scales. The most important thing you must keep in mind is the need to explore all the creative possibilities any new scale has to offer before you abandon it in search of the next scale to practice. When you get yourself to do this, you will amaze yourself by how much more fun you will have when practicing and how many more creative ideas you will be able to derive from any scale you are working with.

In this article I will list for you 5 important things you must do after you go through the initial step of memorizing the notes of a new scale. These steps are critical for avoiding the frustrating situation described above and for getting a lot more from every minute you spend practicing guitar.

1. Don't Learn Scales at Random

There are so many scales that exist in music that it is critical for you to get organized about which of them are most important for you to learn and practice. To do that, make a list of all scales that are used most often in your style of music and do NOT move on to learn lots of other obscure and unusual scales until you have a very firm command of the essential scales used in your style of guitar playing. This involves not merely the ability to play the notes of the scales but also the skill to use them in any musical context freely and expressively.

That being said, of course it can also be helpful to learn and study other scales that may add an exotic or unusual sound to your guitar playing, but you will only really benefit from this when two things are in place:
  1. You already have a very proven and effective system for learning scales on guitar that allows you to easily learn any scale.
  2. You have already spent enough time on the fundamental scales used in your style of guitar playing to be ready to reap the benefits of expanding your musical horizons by learning other scales.
If you are not sure of how to find the list of scales used in your style of music, you can do so in one (or both) of the following ways: either by asking a guitar teacher or a more accomplished musician to tell you what these scales are, and/or by developing your ear training and music theory knowledge to be able to hear what scales are used in your favorite guitar solos.

2. Break Out of "Box Patterns" and Master the Guitar Fretboard Fully

By far the most popular mistake the vast majority of guitarists make when learning to play scales is only playing them in a single area of the guitar. The most common example of this for blues/rock guitar players involves playing the A minor pentatonic scale in the fifth position on the fretboard (only) and completely neglecting to learn it in other areas of the guitar. The result of this is similar to watching a movie on TV and switching channels at the first commercial break to start watching a different program, and without ever coming back to finish the original movie continuing to switch channels to watch something brand new as soon as another commercial comes.

In guitar playing world, doing this leads to never being able to truly use the scales you have learned to their full potential in your music. To overcome this very common problem, you must make time in your practicing to learn to play every scale you want to master all over the guitar. Fact is, you can write much more music (much more expressively) with only a single scale that you know on the guitar inside and out than you can with dozens of scales that you can only play in one area of the guitar.

3. Analyze Guitar Solos That Inspire You and Focus on the Scales Being Used

On top of the regular guitar practice sessions you do to learn to play scales, it is important to spend some time observing how the guitar players you admire actually use scales in the music you listen to. Depending on your level of skill with ear training, you can either do this by using tab of solos (that you are sure is accurate) or (ideally) transcribing the solos yourself by ear and analyzing your own transcriptions.

In addition to being a great exercise for general ear training, doing this will enable you to see how the scales you are practicing can be (and are) used to create melodies and licks that combine together to make guitar solos.

Even if you have already made a list of scales that are used in your style of music, you will learn a great amount by doing this step anyway.

4. Practice Playing Scales on Each Single String of the Guitar in Addition to "Scale Shapes"

Most musicians are comfortable with playing scales vertically (from the low E string to the high E string). Even though this is an important foundation of all playing of scales on guitar, it is equally important to learn how the scales are laid out on each of the 6 strings of the guitar from the first fret to the last fret (by playing side to side across the guitar neck). Training in this way will help to picture scale shapes in every position of the guitar more easily, even if you are starting to play a phrase from a string other than the 6th string.

5. Avoid the CAGED System

Even though this system of playing guitar scales is quite popular among some guitar teachers, it is never used by world class virtuoso guitar players because it places a huge number of restrictions on your ability to freely use scales in music.

Without writing a 100 page dissertation about all the flaws of the CAGED system, its single biggest weakness is that it is not based on how scales actually work in music for all instruments and is instead intended to create a shortcut only for guitar players by exploiting several isolated and completely illogical visual shapes on guitar (that, by the way, only work in standard tuning' and become totally useless in drop tunings or open tunings). The result of such a crippling system is that guitarists remain forever restricted in the way they can use scales musically and cannot play scales all over the guitar on the same level as other musicians who have a real and complete understanding of how scales are supposed to work in music.

Fortunately, the complete and most efficient ways of practicing scales on guitar are not any more difficult to learn and understand than the (much flawed) CAGED system.

What Should You Do Now?

Although there are many ways to go about learning to play scales on guitar, some approaches are, without a doubt, more effective than others. If you have been less than satisfied with the results you have seen so far in your guitar playing from practicing scales, consider changing your approach by following the advice in this article as well as the video mentioned above about learning scales on guitar.

About the Author:
Mike Philippov is a guitar instructional author, professional guitar player and composer. He writes articles about the best ways to practice guitar that are studied by many musicians worldwide. To get more help with becoming a better guitar player, visit his website.

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    steven seagull
    Call me old fashioned but I always thought familiarising yourself with the sounds contained within a scale was far more important than anything else. Shapes, patterns, boxes, positions, systems, notes even? No, sound first. Trying to use a scale without properly knowing the sounds you can get from it is like trying to paint with a pallette of colours when you're colour blind.
    Great Point. A method that I always use while learning a new scale is improvising while singing the notes that I play - might sound weird, but it really works to get the sounds in your head.
    Great lesson Mike but I just have one question, If the caged system is not the way to go how come it gets teached so much? I'm currently learning the caged system but you article has made me doubt this is the right way.
    The CAGED system is great for chord shapes and voicings though! This isn't to detract from the lesson, by the way, as I realise that this is a lesson on scales, but a lot of people will throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not learn about the CAGED system and how it relates to chords. As for its' lack of usefulness for scales, I usually teach only the major shapes this way, stopping and starting on the root. For the minors and modes, I try to instill and understanding of the intervals involved rather than the shapes. I fully and wholeheartedly agree with every other point though (not that I disagree with the CAGED point that you're making.....) I'd like to throw something else I use. The minute I teach a scale, as in, the same lesson, I try to get the student to improvise. This also trains the ear. Just a thought!
    The CAGED system isn't flawed. Beginners substituting it for the understanding of scales doesn't put the system at fault, only the way it's taught and used. If taught and used in conjunction with actual knowledge, it is extremely useful.
    If you can get a very solid understanding of all the modes of the Diatonic major scale it makes it alot easier to learn new scales as you can just use the framework you already know and just move certain notes up or down a semitone almost effortlessly with a bit practice.
    decent lesson in that there are some good points (i.e. learning the scales on individual strings)but the bit about the CAGED system is utter bullshit. it sounds like there must have been some kind of issue with how you learned it or were shown it because if you also learn the scale degrees (1,3,5 etc.) of the notes in the CAGED system you simply alter them accordingly for a different tuning or whatever else. you are also dead wrong that professional/virtuoso guitarists dont use this to reference where they are on the neck within a specific key.perhaps there are some that dont- but there are at least as many that do. if you learn the CAGED system 1st as chords up the neck & then how to convert them into pentatonic & then how to convert those into diatonic scales- all the while being mindful of where the roots are along with the rest of the scale degrees it gives you a comprehensive reference as to how these elements all relate to each other all the way up the neck! where is the flaw in that?
    I agree CAGED is not a good system. Students who want to learn to improvise need to learn first and foremost how every note will sound over a given chord. If I play a G7 chord and ask a saxophone player, for instance, to sing the 13th he will come up with an E natural. A guitar player using CAGED probably doesn't even know what that is let alone the color it creates over the G7. Guitarists think they know lots of scales because they memorize box shapes and finger patterns, but honestly after studying under other musicians I realize that after 8 years of "playing scales" I am only beginning to barely understand the myriad implications of the diatonic major/minor scales.
    To the author: no matter what method of learning, when someone alternate tunes for the first time they will be lost. Muscle memory will see to that
    I think the advice here is helpful but the problem is that a concise method isn't even represented. Pointers are given but I think they are creating more questions in the mind of the guitarist who is already stuck in a rut and while I think it's helpful that the least that one can extract from this article is their weaknesses but a precise set of rules to overcome this problem isn't even represented! I think this article is more of a publicity stunt to get guitarists to visit the guys page and maybe signup for his guitar website buy paying a fee which really isn't a bad thing but all I'm saying is that this article is emphasizing on the weaknesses of a player and emphasizing less on helpful ways to overcome these problems. In order to get a good understanding of the fretboard I think some scales are a must to learn, firstly pentatonic, secondly major and third minor scales. If a guitarist has a good understanding of these scales and can implement them freely while improvising then they are on the right track , the next study should be based on understanding modes. Once some modes are mastered then I believe that the guitarist has found a good understanding of the fretboard.
    I get what you're saying here, since I've pretty much skipped all the shapes and used my theory knowledge from piano for my guitar playing, but it's good to know boxes and shapes so that you at least have a grasp on them. Knowledge is power, especially if you never have to use it.
    So there's the CAGED system. There's nothing that says you can't learn intervals right along with the CAGED system. It's not an "either/or" situation. CAGED isn't good or bad or limiting, it just is. So you used intervals to determine your scale. Who cares?! You're going to use some portion of the scale and move on, and you won't be thinking about maj3 vs min3 when you're doing it. You'll just be playing. I've been playing for about 35 years and only recently discovered CAGED. It's been there all along though. Pretty obvious after you've played a while actually. Anyway, it's basically a filing system. I don't get the big debate. Though...if you are so uncreative as to never try moving your Am pentatonic off the 5th position, perhaps avoiding the CAGED system is a good idea. Oh...Skyvalley, why would you ask your saxophone player to "sing" the 13th? And, I know CAGED and I can pick out the 13th too! Did you know it's also the 6th! Oooooo..! I must be bad ass. All I'm sayin is, just cause you learn the CAGED system, doesn't mean you'll learn more slowly or become a moron. It is NOT limiting in any way, nor is it freeing. It is a tool in your kit.
    I absolutely agree with everything mentioned except for the caged system.Which really isnt a system to begin with.Its the way the guitar is tuned. Starting from the octave formation all the way to the chords,arpeggios,pentatonics and 7 note scales you can superimpose all these information on the fretboard using the CAGED approach.That doesnt limit you from learning for example three not per string scales. Ultimately EVERY method is irrelevant cause you get so familiar with the fretboard(playing scales diagonally on two strings only etc etc etc) that you dont use boxed shapes anyway. And by the way famous player use the caged system one way or the other Joe Pass,Guthrie Govan come to mind...i consider them pretty...ok players lol. All in all CAGED isnt a better way of thinking of the guitar fretboard than any other way but it isnt also the worst.Thats my two cents.
    I agree with everything. Especially the bit about the CAGED system. If you learn guitar with knowledge from a previous instrument (violin for me) it becomes quite clear very quickly that that system will inevitably slow you down even if you will never play outside of standard tuning. Trying to form harder chords (getting into Jazz chords and what not) without knowing the name of the notes you are playing becomes very difficult. It also makes guitarist scared of accidentals; something a violin lols at.
    I dont understand why knowing the CAGED formations stops you from knowing the notes on the guitar or constructing any chord you like.If you remain looking at just shapes for the rest of your...guitaristic career thats bad for every system not just the Caged one.Violin is tuned in fifths so of course caged doesnt make any sense to you.Its all about the string intervals.New instrument new intervals, new shapes.Ultimately you navigate yourself using sound as the guy below says but why is so bad to take advantage of the guitars tuning?Its there for a reason anyways.
    In my experience, learning endless scale patterns, and box shapes does more to make a guitarist scared of accidentals than anything else. MT is blighted with so many people that think they must be changeing scales everytime they come across a note that is out of key.
    Sorry phone went a bit crazy *your*
    It would've been much easier to; NOT correct the mans comment, NOT look like a douchebag, and NOT fail miserably by having to correct your own correction.
    And to make it even funnier, i just realized you corrected your own comment. A correction of a correction, of your own needed correction.
    CAGED is a good system for beginners in my opinion...I would have deeply overwhelmed myself when i first delved into scales if not for it...i look at it as the first step in learning scales but NOT the end of what is needed to know...Caged is also a good system for finding chord shapes if you memorize each position (i use the 5 position version as opposed to 7 or 6) there is never anything in music you shouldn't try to learn...never put up walls or let others do it to you...look at learning to play music not as your every day life but a world without true rules or limitations...if you cant find a sound you want then you haven't looked hard enough...learn the notes on your neck and play what sounds beautiful with music theory as a building block...when we started making music thousands of years ago we had no theory, we just did what sounded good and with dedication and love of music
    I never trust anyone who bashes the CAGED system, especially when they are SELLING their own system. The CAGED is the way the guitar is tuned, and you cannot argue with that. The CAGED system is a great way for people to learn the basics of the guitar, especially for beginners who are lost right away. The shapes make it easier for people to see them, and with practice, you will be able to recognize the scales effortlessly around the chords. The system also makes it very easy to learn modal playing because the shapes are the same, just shifted. Anyone who bashes the CAGED is a snake oil salesman, in my opinion. There are other systems, and I know there are some great ways to learn, but the CAGED is something you will end up learning anyway, no matter what system you use because it IS how the guitar is tuned.
    big debate on the CAGED system, its just a pattern similar to a scale pattern. If i had to eartrain and learn which chords and scales had what intervals before playing a couple of chords fluently i think i would of put the guitar down pretty quickly after picking it up. i'm self taught 2 years didnt know what a note was before picking the guitar up, i can build chords once my ear developed wether i want a 1,3,5,8 or 1,5,8,10 and all variations but once you learn a variation shape you remember it for fluency its just another stepping stone like learning scale boxes once you learn the intervals and where the notes are you loosly disregard the shape when your next note in your head is a 4th then a minor 3rd . i sat my 16yr old autistic daugter down and said heres a picture of all the notes on a fret board learnthem and heres how you build chords and scales and she never bothered however my youngest 6yr olds i gave them Diads of G C D and Em and they think there rock gods. inspiration first then they teach themselves
    I don't understand why learning the notes is so important.. I think that it's good for knowing the root notes of the scale on the guitar, but other than that, you can use the intervals of the scale to learn the scale. What do you think?
    The REASON this guy is bashing the CAGED system is that he has not understood WHAT it is nor its real purpose. Note that this is true of at least three extremely prominent guitar teachers whose negative criticism of the CAGED system is now having far too strong an influence on students of the guitar looking for advice on how to learn. The CAGED system EXISTS. You cannot ignore it. BUT it IS NOT A SYSTEM FOR LEARNING SCALE PATTERN ! It is far more fundamental than that. It is a system for restoring to the Guitar player the advantage that the keyboard player has over him or her when it comes to being able to easily locate OCTAVE patterns on the GUITAR. As practically all musical constructs (Scales, Chords, Arpeggios and Modes) are understood formulaically relative to octaves, this is of considerable use to the guitarist. Of course there are many ways of playing scales and other music constructs on the guitar that don't obviously conform to the CAGED system. But there are MILLIONS of things you hear guitarists play on records that are very easily understood, located and made easy to transpose to other keys by understanding and BEING ABLE TO USE the CAGED system. Please IGNORE these so called experts who love to BASH what they clearly have a very limited understanding of. In my view they are doing you all a great disservice.
    there's only 5 scales and CAGED is good. Lesson: Don't listen to shredders for music theory tips.
    Razor Rex
    The CAGED system is very limiting if you don't get past learning Pentatonic patterns with it. Once you understand the degrees (which a good teacher should teach you...) then I find it much easier to construct chords and scales on the spot than with blind repetition. Like any system you have to dig deep and consider all angles including ones outside of the system you are learning. Otherwise a decent article!
    I was blessed with a wonderful guitar teacher many years ago. He taught scales in sysematic manner, and to transition all over the board (two ocatve scales). He gave me a great insight one day that applies to any pattern. He gave me a jazz progression (I think it was em-em maj7-em7-a7 - the "A tate of Honey" progression). Then he said "now blow a Dorian scale over this. How will it sound?" Ever since then I've questioned the value of patterns (though admittedly I use them more than I should). If you ARE going to use them, learn arpeggios at the same time. I think that's the way it should be done anyway. You can NEVER go wrong understanding the chords you are using and playing an arpeggio underneath them. Never.
    I would say that 1, 3, and 4 could also apply to other instruments, not just guitar. I play clarinet as well, and my boyfriend plays cello. We're looking at this and are like... We should do this for our primary instruments, too. It definitely makes things more interesting and relevant. I'm sure that it'll make my practicing of scales on piano a hell of a lot more interesting.
    Finnaly something that can help me learn a scale over the entire neck. I have never worked with CAGED system, so i dont know is it any good or not. But this way seems logic,and i hope i can put it to good use, thanks man.
    first time i've read anyone talking bad about the CAGED system but now that i think about it, i agree totally. I was taught that system a while ago and then somewhere along the way i got into focusing more on the interval relationships between the frets. Im kind of just repeating what he wrote, but you get to share this moment of the light bulb going on with me here. so yea kids, throw your lesson book out he window and learn the intervals
    Very good lesson but I absolutely don't agree on you opinion about the CAGEDsystem, CAGED is a great way to involve chords in scales that only consist out of loose notes, so I would recommend learning both ways (your way of practicing scales and the cagesystem), so that you can combine chords in your guitar solos without the restrictions that the CAGED system has.
    Knowing where the CAGED chords are located in the scale you're playing allows you to quickly, in an instant, identify and move across its root, 3rd and 5th notes across the fretboard. It's a good way to organize the scales you know and to begin thinking of your scales using different shapes. Also, the concept behind the CAGED system demonstrates the theory behind chord development, playing arpeggios and more easily illustrates the differences between Augmented, major, minor, and Diminished.