Horizontal and Vertical Approaches to Practising Scales

In this lesson, we are going to look at two different approaches to practicing scales. The attached exercise is going to make it easier for you to move between your modes as well as piece together your own scale runs.

Ultimate Guitar
Benefits to practicing this lesson:
  • Improved fretboard visualization;
  • More in depth knowledge of scales you are practicing;
  • Ability to piece together long scale runs.
When practicing scales in general, it is easy to slip into the habit of just practicing up and down our shapes - you could call this practicing through your scales vertically (moving across the strings). One thing that a lot of people don't do is to practice their scales horizontally (moving along the strings), and of those that do, few practice playing both horizontally and vertically simultaneously.

A skill a lot of intermediate level guitar players would like to have is to piece together long scale runs up and down their neck. Now, even if you know your modes well, you are not going to be able to do this unless you can move between your scale horizontally. The attached exercise is going to solve that problem for you, making it easier for you to move between your modes as well as piece together your own scale runs.

So let's talk about the different steps in the exercise. Everything is in the key of G major:

1. We start off by simply playing up the Ionian mode.
2. Next we are playing a one string scale of G major along the 6th string, from the 3rd fret right up to the 24th fret (if you have it) and then back again. Playing back from fret 24 to fret 3 is important, as we want to be able to move along the string in both directions.
3. Now we play up the Dorian mode.
4. Here we play the notes in G major along the 5th string, again, right up to the last fret and back again.
5. Playing up the Phrygian mode.
6. Notes in G major along the 4th string.
7. Lydian mode.
8. Notes in G major along the 3rd string.
9. Mixolydian mode.
10. Notes in G major along the 2nd string.
11. Aeolian mode.
12. Notes in G major along the 1st string.
13. Locrian mode.

The first few times you do this exercise, don't worry about playing it to a click, just get used to where your fingers go and how these scales are laid out. Once you get used to that, there are two bonus challenges you can do to get even more out of this exercise:

Challenge 1: There are mainly two different types of note - triplet quavers and semi quavers. Practice these to a click, so you get some practice at changing between different note groupings.

Challenge 2: Change key! Now you understand how this exercise works, try it in some different keys. C major and then Bb major would be good ones to try!

So there you have it, a great way to practice your scales to get more out of them. You can take this principle and apply it to other scales you might know too, pentatonics, harmonic minor, etc.

If you have any questions, let me know below and I'll answer them as soon as possible!

About the Author:
By Sam Russel. Sam is a professional musician in West London. You can get his free book, "The Ultimate Guide to the Modes of the Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor Scales" which is available at: http://www.samrussell.co.uk/ebook.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    can you please upload the guitarpro file? its better for me to access it anytime when i'm offline to practice! thanks in advance
    is there anything wrong with just learning the Ionian mode on all strings, instead of alternating modes with each string?
    Technically there isn't, but those are all different scales. For example, E Ionian has four sharps whereas A Ionian has three. So if you did that you'd be playing multiple scales at once, and it might sound kind of strange.
    Yup! The modes shown here are all in context - they all contain the same notes, so you can use them to play over the same chord. G ionian, A dorian, B phrygian will all work over a chord of G major. Learning them this way helps open up the entire guitar neck for you to solo over.
    I'm confused on the single string runs where I'm supposed to be switching finger positions. They feel really awkward.
    You're totally right - they are really awkward. They're mainly to help you get an idea for how each scale works along a single string than to improve your technique. If you are finding them really hard, don't worry so much about being able to play them fast, but try and relate them to different mode shapes as you play along each string.
    A good way to practice the single string notes is to play them as 8th or 16th note triplet pairs. so on the low E string you could go 357357, then 578578, then 78107810, etc. You can also practice them descending, 875875, 753753, etc. Different combinations work as well, like 37573757, 58785878 and so on. It's practical, musical, and is a great left/right hand synchronization exercise all while learning the notes of a scale on a single string.
    I don't really agree with calling the different positions of the same scale with mode names. Technically there's nothing wrong with it if we don't have a context (chords in the background, melody, whatever - let's say we just play the notes up and down) - if you start the scale with A and play the notes of G major, it is the A dorian scale (if you just play the notes up and down without a backing track). But if you are playing it over a G major backing track or you play a melody, it doesn't matter what position you are playing in. If the song is in G major and you play the notes of the G major scale, you are playing in G major, no matter what part of the fretboard you are using. On the other hand, if you played the scale over Am chord, it would be called A dorian, again, no matter what part of the fretboard you were using. If you wanted to give names to the different positions, I would just refer to them as "first position", "second position", etc, or use fret numbers. For example "third fret position", "fifth fret position", etc. What part of the fretboard you are using has nothing to do with how the music sounds. It's still the same scale and calling the different positions with mode names can confuse people - they think they are playing modal music when they really aren't. A dorian is not just a scale position on the fretboard. A piece of music can be in A dorian, and as I said, it doesn't matter what part of the fretboard you are using. It doesn't change the key/mode of the song. [b]Modes are not fretboard positions. Otherwise I think it was a pretty good lesson.
    One of the simplest things no one ever just comes right out and says it that the fretboard is all related. After I first learned major scale and got proficient with it, I decided I wanted to learn the next scale so I rolled up my sleeves and buckled down to learn the minor scale. After a few seconds my fingers were playing the minor scale easily like I'd been doing it forever. It was the same just starting with a different position on the root. So simple, yet so evasive. So I thought "Wow!" I was all worked up to learn something that I already knew. So I decided to tackle other modes since I was in the mood to learn and practice something challenging. Again, my fingers already knew how to play these mysterious modes. I was in shock. All I had to do was remember what position each mode started at the root and I could play them all easily. The point of this story is that not everyone who is starved for any information that helps unravel the big secret that is the fretboard will have found what they are looking for. And those mysterious, cool names of the different modes may intimidate some new players. And while I understand that music in different modes has a unique sound that can only come from that mode, that music is still based on these scales and they are named correctly by the author. You see the positions as 1,2,3,4,5 etc are wonderful to know but the mode name determine how you know which position to start with on the root note in relation to the Major scale, which most people learn first after pentatonics. For instance, in G, the Ionian(Major) scale's position on the 6th string root changes to become the 7th position of the Major scale when playing the Aeolian(Minor) scale, and so on. I'm sure you know all that, but I'm also sure there are many beginners and more that did not know it really is that easy. And I think this lesson was an amazing leap for a lot of people in seeing the correlation of the scales within the modes and how they can be applied. There was really no other way to do it and take in the use of the whole string up and down the neck to tie it all in with patterns. And the exercise is much more fun than just blindly memorizing all the notes on the fretboard, then all the notes in each key, in each mode, and trying to pick at them one by one. Play first, then understand what you did
    My point was that most guitarists don't know what modes actually are. Most guitarists think modes are scale positions. I do get your point, but IMO modes are most of the time presented the wrong way. You are not playing modes when you are playing in different positions. You are only playing modes if the music you are playing is modal. And this is what most lessons seem to be missing. C major and D dorian have the same notes, but they are different scales. They are not different positions. Both of them are all over the fretboard. To get a D dorian sound, your tonic needs to be D. And that is defined by what you are playing over. You can't play D dorian over a C major backing track. I do understand why somebody would refer to the scale positions with mode names. Because as I said (and as you said), when played out of context, playing the scale position from the lowest to the highest note does sound like that mode, and of course naming the positions after the lowest note makes sense. But when we have a context, the scale positions have nothing to do with modes.