Efficient Scale Practicing. Part 1

There is so many ways to practice scales... How many do you know?

Ultimate Guitar
Practicing scales is one of the most powerful exercises, but only when done properly. So, what can you do to achieve the best results? In this series of lessons, I will try my best to show you all the ways of practicing scales that should aid your musical development. Starting from the simplest ones, to the most complex and technically tough. Let's go!

Good old A Minor Scale will be a great reference. Here is the tab that shows the A Minor Scale in the fifth position.

1. Theory First

Scale (from latin - scala, ladder) is a progression of notes in a specific order. To make it clear how the scales are constructed, you have to understand these two basic methods of building them.

1.1. Interval Formula

Look at our example A minor scale. Now, start thinking in intervals - scale starts at A note, and therefore, every other note can be described as an interval from A. So, the scale formula in this case will look like this:
formula : 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8
result : A B C D E F G A
Easy as it is.

(if you don't feel fully comfortable with the intervals, read my 3 lessons on intervals, starting from this one)

1.2. Step Pattern

This pattern here tells you how many steps to move from one scale tone to the next. Abbreviations W and H are for Whole and Half steps. All you have to do is to start on any note and move up as the pattern tells you. Remember that the whole step equals two frets, and half step equals one fret.
formula :   W-H-W-W-H-W-W
result : A B C D E F G A
Easy as it is, just like anything that needs some practice. So from now, every time when you play a scale, try to figure out all the three things that describe the scale - step pattern, formula, and the notes within. Got it? Let's continue.

2. Let's Start with a Warm-Up - First Way of Using Scale Shapes

Scales are good for building chops as well as warming up. Just start with the basic scale position and warm up your fingers. Remember to use the metronome and stay in time. The tempo is more important than timing! Use alternative picking, and be sure to make every finger of your left hand work, by staying in position as often as possible. Go up and down, easy and slow. Do this for two to three minutes. Now.


Repeat for 2-3 mins.

3. Legato Playing

How confident are you with your legato? Use scale shapes to build up your strength and accuracy, one string at a time. Be sure to play the clearest way possible. Keep the rhythm, don't mind the speed. And stick ONLY to the scale tones!

Here's an example.

Contunue downwards, or play the shapes separately, especially the ones which cause your trouble. If something goes wrong, slow down.

4. String Skipping

Skipping strings is always an issue, especially for the begginers, especially at high speeds. This is how you can use a scale shape for a string skipping exercise. Try also bigger jumps - skip 2, 3, 4 or 5 strings... Everythings possible with good amount of patient practice.


Continue down, alter the skip range.

5. Improvising Over a Bass Note

Put on a vamp, that consists of a groove and only one bass note - A, in this example. Now, improvise using this scale, and listen for the sound that every different note creates. This may seem kinda boring, but keep forcing your ears to find and identify all the scale qualities that are there, and enjoy the results.


This is all for today's lesson. Go ahead and practice in more positions, try new and old scales, and experiment with the exercises given. Learn, but mainly - have fun! See you at the next part, where I will show you more complex ways of practicing scales. Don't forget to like my Facebook profile. Peace!

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Position refers to the lowest fret one would use - i.e. starting on the 5th fret, low E string, would make this 5th position - starting with an open 5th string would make it open position, etc. Another definition is where one would place their index finger - same concept. But, I'm glad you brought you this up, because the B on the 3rd string is played on the 4th fret which isn't exactly a "true" 5th position (even though I think that is how most players learn the scale in this pattern). A true 5th position would move that B to the 9th fret, D string (stretch that pinky up there!) so as to keep the 5th fret the lowest fret one would go. Hope this helps. -Daniel
    Agree with everything you say. But using the term "position" is misleading at best. It's the first position of the A minor scale. Starting on the 5th fret of the low E. The 5th position would effectively be a phrygian mode. Found at the 12th fret. Hope this helps.
    Maeblade - I think you are confusing scale "DEGREE" with position. Yes, if we started with an "E", the fifth DEGREE of an A minor scale on the 12th fret as you said, then we would have a phyrgian mode. If we started on the 2nd fret, D string, we would also be starting on the 5th degree, but in the 2nd position because POSITION refers to the lowest fret one would use. Trust me bud. Been playing almost 30 years and teach music (high school) full-time. Hope this helps! Let me know if you need more clarification. All this number talk can get confusing! -Daniel
    I was also taught that first position would be starting on the first degree of the scale, second position on the second, etc, when I was learning pentatonics. Back then, it was just box shapes to me, though. I will keep this in mind, though, that it could mean the lowest fret you would start with. Maybe calling it position helps people who are first learning scales, which at the time I was.
    How exactly would it be the phrygian mode again, especially since we're not even touching on the intervals of the phrygian scale?
    Decent article. But surely that's an A minor in the FIRST position? (intro)
    Nice article, but there are far more efficient ways to play a minor scale (for example, exchanging the fourth fret on the g string for the 9th fret on the d string so you don't have to shift your hand)
    i video would have been nice i like to watch how the guitarist would shift his fingers ect ect
    hi could you clarify what b3, b5 means in this formula? formula : 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-8, couldnt find it in your previous lessons. Thank you for the great info thought.