How to Learn Scales So That You Become a Creative Guitar Player With Musical Freedom

Make learning new scales more fun and more effective with these 6 steps!

Ultimate Guitar
How to Learn Scales So That You Become a Creative Guitar Player With Musical Freedom

Learning scales on the guitar. This is something that a lot of people would agree is necessary, but unfortunately, a lot of guitar players find this to be very frustrating and boring. This article will address the reasons guitar players often find the process boring and frustrating, and also provide a set of solutions, so that you have some new approaches to learning scales, can create more freedom and creativity in your guitar playing and also learn scales faster than you ever have before.

We will cover playing through a scale and being able to move a scale around the neck and use it more creatively, but we will not cover learning the theory behind how scales function – that is a topic for another day!

Why do guitar players often find this frustrating?

So why can learning scales be a frustrating process? Quite often, guitar players lose sight of why they are learning scales, and learn scale patterns for the sake of it. There should be a reason behind everything that we do. In the case of learning scale patterns, we are training our fingers to be able to recognise specific patterns on the guitar, that we can use to create a certain emotion in the music that we play. If we lose sight of that and just practice playing scales over and over... we get really good at playing the notes in a scale one after the other, but we don’t improve our ability to create music, improvise, or increase our musical freedom. Which is the point of learning the scale!

Why are learning scales usually boring?

It is often because guitar players take a very repetitive approach to learning scales. Playing a pattern over and over can seem like an effective way to learn a scale... but it is not. Playing a pattern over and over is an effective way to start learning a scale. What is the starting point is often taken to be the entire process. When learning a new scale, we need to attack it from multiple angles. This is not only the fastest way to learn, but also the most effective, as it helps us think of different ideas for actually using the scale in a musical context and it forces us to keep our brain actively engaged in what we are doing and not go on autopilot.

As you can see, the two above problems are caused by using a flawed and limited process.

So let’s fix those problems, and make learning new scales more fun and more effective!

We will break the process for learning to play new scales into 6 steps:

Step 1: Memorise the scale pattern

We have to start somewhere. And we’ll start with the step that most guitar players only use, but with a twist. Play the pattern you are learning 50 times up and down starting on the following frets:

3 (G) Figure 1
7 (B) Figure 2
5 (A) Figure 3
9 (C#) Figure 4
12 (E) Figure 5

Moving it around like this prevents you from “key isolation”, which is where guitar players get really good... at playing in one key. I’ve included tab examples using the Ionian three note per string pattern:

Step 2: Sing, or hum, along to the notes

For this next step, we are going to take a similar approach to what we did in the previous step, but we are focussing on something different. Previously, we were focussed on mechanically making our fingers hold down the notes, now, we are going to shift our focus to the sound of each note. Play through the notes one at a time. Do not focus on moving to the next note. You are going to sing, or if you prefer, hum, each note that you play. You are not focussed on moving from note to note here, but on giving each note enough time, so that you can accurately hum its pitch. If it means playing the note over and over for 2 minutes while you “tune in” to it, then you play that note for 2 minutes, over and over. This time we are going to go up and down each scale five times (as your vocal range allows), starting from the following frets:

7 (B)
3 (G)
9 (C#)
5 (A)
12 (E)

I have changed the order a little bit to keep your brain actively engaged, and prevent you going on “auto pilot”. As soon as you go on autopilot, you stop learning.

If you need a tab to guide you, use the tabs from Step 1.

Step 3: Play sequences through the scales

The next step we are going to take is to break out of playing the notes in the scale one after the other, using some simple sequences. This helps us to:

1. Break out from playing a single linear sequence through the notes, so we do not “program” ourselves to approach the scale that way when we go to play it

2. Start experimenting with some different sounds in the scale

3. Star experimenting with different time divisions through the scale

This is also quite fun to practice, as you get something you can use musically, as well as start building some speed!

Below are some sequences you can experiment with using:

Step 4: Memorise where the root notes go

The next step is memorising where the root notes in the scale are. This is important for when we start using the scale creatively with improvising (stay tuned for a new article in a few weeks time on a beginners guide to improvising!). There are several ways you can do this. One way is to copy out a neck diagram for the scale you are using, using a different symbol for the root note, as I have done in the following example (it doesn’t matter which method you use, this is just to illustrate the point that there are different ways to mark the root note:

Side note: If you ever wanted a way to practice your guitar playing without your guitar... this is perfect. Copying out scale diagrams when you are on the bus / train etc, is a great way to improve your scale visualisation.

Step 5: Practice playing the scale from the root notes

I’m sure you have had the following problem when learning scales: You learn a new scale. You get excited. You want to improvise with it / use it musically. And every time you go to use the scale, mentally, and sometimes physically, you are always “starting” from the root note. We are going to make sure you never have that problem! This is usually caused by the learning process stopping at step 1. But, by moving on to the following technique, we are going to make sure that you have a lot more freedom to creatively use these scales - which is the entire point of learning them in the first place!

So here are some exercises to give you that ability. Note that in the 3 note per string Ionian shape, the root note occurs 3 times. We have already practiced moving from the 6th string root note, so these exercises will focus on the 2nd and 4th string root notes. I’ve given examples in G Ionian and C# Ionian, you should be able to use these exercises and transpose to A, B and E:

Step 6: Improvise over some back tracks from the root notes

This step is the most fun! Grab some backing tracks and start improvising in the different keys we looked at. If you are not sure on how to improvise... just have a go at playing the scale, I’ll be writing an awesome article for you in a few week’s time on how any guitar player, even complete beginners, can learn to improvise.

Check out all previous figures in Tab Pro player below:

Download guitar pro files here.

By Sam Russell
If you would like to see some more scales, and learn how you can use them, then download my free eBook today!

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I like at the end when he says "even complete beginners", as opposed to "even complete idiots Who have been wasting their lives on mindless behavior!" I feel the latter would benefit more than the beginner because they were stuck whereas the newbies are just barely getting there. When I was younger, I had to FORCE myself to read books that were about as clear as mud on what to do. Some weren't even tabbed out. Just a staff with notes up and down, and an encouraging Latin algorithm that referred to the up and down of an ocean vessel. God, I love the internet.
    Go to a website with scale fingering diagrams and pick a scale, such as C major. Then go to Youtube and search for a backing track in the scale of C Major (or whatever backing track is in a suitable key for the scale that you picked). Listen to and play along with the backing track while you view the scale fingering diagram. I use for scale finger diagrams. 
    This is an incredibly in-effective way to learn new scales 
    How so? It works very well for me. Have you tried it yourself? It could be helpful for other people too, even if you don't like it. You'll learn the fingerings, scale shapes, notes of the scale and what they sound like in a backing track context.
    If it works for you, that's great - stick to it This article is something that works well for everyone. Some people will find they naturally have certain steps instantly and struggle with others. It's going through the process of each step in sequence that makes this a powerful way to learn scales.
    My recommendation is similar to your sixth step...
    It is. Just the 6th step. There are two parts to this: 1. You may be doing more of these steps than you realise 2. By skipping steps you are leaving weak points in your knowledge and internalisation of scales and finally all you have done is take my 6th step and try and present it is as something by itself. The 6th step is most effective when all the previous steps are properly followed.
    There are a few mistakes in the tabs. There is no F nor C in the key of C# major. In the G Ionian lick (fig. 7) you included a G# for some reason, too. 
    Hi Miguel. You're totally right, I just looked over this and I had a load of mistakes in the specific notes chosen (fortunately the eBook does not have this problem!). The important take away for this is not the specific notes, but the methods for working through a new scale pattern.  Thank you for pointing that out though, I will make sure I check the examples more thoroughly in the future!
    Hi! Thanks a lot for this lesson! I tried to get the ebook but it says email is already registered and i couldnt get it! So i unsubscribed, hoping to subscribe again and get it but it says theres an error and wont let me subscribe again (" Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later."). Please check your list! I have to ask you some things that i ferlt were uncovered in this lesson (maybe you will in future ones..): 1. Each scale has many positions (many 'boxes'). You only used one for each scale.. How do you know what to use? MAube it depends on where the root note is in relation to that box? 2. How do you transition from box to box? In other words hwo do you play throught the whole neck? For example, how can you the pentatonic scale, covering all five boxes in one swoop? This is the most common scale question, i believe.. 3. Also, do you plan to make a lesson covering the theory behind how scales function? Thanks a lot! It was an awesome article! And i hope to manage to get your ebook!
    Hi Stolniko, can you send me a PM with your email address and I will check my list to see what is going on there! Thank you for letting me know about that. Your questions: 1. This depends on a few factors, which would take me ages to explain, but the important thing is that you are proficient at all of them, so you have the freedom to be able to choose which ones you want to use and when you want to use them. 2. I think this will be a future article 3. Yeah sure, I'll add it to my list! Thanks for commenting!