How to Practice Your Scales and Why - Positions

I get a lot of questions on technique building and what to work on to become a better improvisor. This lesson is a demonstration of my vision on how to approach scale practice to get the most benefit out of it from an improvisor's point of view.

Ultimate Guitar

I get a lot of questions on technique building and what to work on to become a better improvisor. This lesson is a demonstration of my vision on how to approach scale practice to get the most benefit out of it from an improvisor's point of view.

Most of the time when the topic of scale practice is discussed in books, videos or online the main focus is on speed and dexterity. In the end I don't find this a very useful goal for scale practice as I think that you will gain much more if you focus on flexibility and knowing the scale in terms of notes, structures. The reason for this is that when you improvise and you have practiced scales in this way, you have a much larger vocabulary of building blocks to construct your lines with.

To keep it the lesson short I decided to start out with showing some exercises in one position, so that I can cover more different exercises and don't drown you with information about the different positions.

I know that Levi Clay and Tom Hess are in some sort of discussion about scales and positions at the moment. To me it is not that interesting what types of fingerings you use, this is about how you approach practicing in the scales. I use 7 positions myself to cover the neck, but if you find that you can do that in another way then that is of course also fine!

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The exercises

I chose this basic 3 notes per string C major scale in the 8th position:

You can find downloadable scale charts on my website here.

When you first start out you need to play the scale with whatever type of picking you use and you need to know the notes of the scale and where you find the notes in the fingering.

What many people don't tell you is that if you practice a scale then a part of what you should learn is the notes that are found in the scale. If you are practicing a scale and want to use it for improvising over chord changes then the position of the notes in the scale position is extremely useful in understanding and creating lines.

This means that if you want to practice scales you might as well also learn the notes of the scale so that you learn what is what in the position. A google or YouTube search should help you get the information you need to learn how scales are constructed and you should strive to learn the scales by heart, then when you practice the scales try to think the note names while playing, making sure that you know all of the notes that are in the scale. In the beginning it might seem difficult, but the mind is always a lot faster than the fingers and I am sure you'll get very far in a matter of a few weeks.

I'd also suggest that you keep in mind that if you chose scales from the keys, i.e. major, harmonic minor, melodic minor and harmonic major, then you don't have to practice separate scale fingerings for the modes since they are the same as one of these and you can approach it from what diatonic arpeggio you want to be the root of the chord you're playing over. This you can practice by improvising over a static chord, which you would need to do anyway. This means that you don't need special scale fingerings for Dorian, Lydian dominant or altered scales.

The scale in diatonic thirds

It is not without reason that we all know the scale in diatonic 3rds as a standard singing exercise or warm up. The scale in thirds is the second easiest to play after just playing the scale up and down. Another reason why you want to work through the scale in thirds is that the thirds are the building blocks of two of the other very important exercises you need to check out: Triads and 7th chords.

When ever you come up with a scale exercise you should always try to go through if you can find other ways to construct exercises from that exercise. With the 3rds I am going to be a bit more thorough with the amount of exercises than the rest just to demonstrate this.

The main exercise is to play the thirds through the position:

But you can of course also turn it around so that each third is played descending instead of ascending:

Another thing that you can do with most exercises is to play up one and down the next:

The focus of scale practice is NOT speed, it is knowing the notes and the structures, hearing them and being able to play them fluently. Another aspect is that it is just as important to keep changing the exercises so that you practice taking patterns through the scale. If you work like this you are working on hearing and overlooking the scale on a completely different level than just having it in your fingers.

Now that we have the thirds under control we can start moving into arpeggios.

The Triad

The most basic arpeggio is a triad. If you have read more of my lessons you are probably aware of how often triads are used as melodic building blocks and also how strong a melodic structure they are. This is the reason you need to know your scales played in diatonic triads:

Playing the scale in triads is not too difficult, and you can of course do similar exercises as I showed with the diatonic 3rds.

Since there are more notes we can also start changing the order of the notes in the triads. Since a triad consists of root, third and fifth we can re-order the notes to practice other melodies:

Again thinking the notes that you play and keeping in mind what notes are in each triad will give you a tremendous overview of the harmonic possibilities that you have from a triad, and how some notes are connected within a scale.

The diatonic 7th chords

The diatonic 7th chords arpeggios are the main building blocks you need to improvise with a scale over a jazz standard or similar progression. If you want to relate your scale practice to a tune the 7th chords are a good place to begin, and you could for example play through a standard in one position with the arpeggios of each chord.

As I mentioned in the beginning the diatonic 7th chords are also what is going to give you all the mode sounds from the scale position, so if you want to play D Dorian you play this scale position but the chord you are playing over (and therefore the target notes) are the Dm7 arpeggio notes. This way of approaching modal playing can save you a lot of time, and the time you spend working on it is spend much more creative and using your ears which is more efficient in learning how to play a mode.

The main exercise is of course to play the scale position in diatonic 7th chords:

With the these arpeggios you can do all the permutations and directions that I mentioned in the previous sections, one that I often like to do is this one:

Even though I only talk about three types of exercises in this lesson, I do find that it is very useful to work through as much material as you can. Mainly because if you work on taking structures through a scale your are working on improvising and using you overview of the scale and the instrument which is more valuable than just have some exercises in your fingers.

I often work through shell voicings and drop2 voicings in my scales as an exercise and as a way of building a better command of the scale.

I hope that you can use the approach and the thoughts on scale practice that I talked about here to further your own practice routines and to become a better improvisor with a better overview of the neck.

If you want to study the examples away from the video or article you can download a pdf here: How to practice you scales and why

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for topics or how I can make the lessons better then please feel free to leave on the video or send me an e-mail. That is the best way for me to improve my lessons and make them fit what you want to hear.

About the Author:
By Jens Larsen. I hope that you liked the lesson. There are more lessons on my website. If you have any questions or comments then feel free to leave them here or on the video. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and feel free to connect with me via Instagram, Facebook, Google+ or Twitter to keep up to date with new lessons, concerts and releases.

29 comments sorted by best / new / date

    One of the most valuable scale lessons out here, people get stuck on the mechanical aspect so much that they tend to forget why they learn these scales in the first place. Awesome job!
    In the 3rds exercise, are you ascending by thirds all the way? So technically would I be able to ascend by different intervals? Such as 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, etc?
    Yes I am, and yes you could. If you get the 3rds down you should actually go for the 6ths because they are the inversion of the 3rd and they are somehow more melodic than the 4th and the 5ths. I guess you want to check out all the intervals, but keep in mind that you need the 3rds more than the rest because they are the building blocks of arpeggios.
    I am ever so greatful for transforming my boring scale practise into something more challenging and useful in developing my lead playing. I shall use this article for my warmups instead of the snake up the fretboard.
    Even though I've been playing for quite awhile, I've found that I'm technically lacking in so far as getting past open and barre chords, and delving more into scales and picking. So I consider myself a beginner in that regard, and having you explain scales in detail gives me hope about becoming a better guitarist. Thanks so much...
    So why did you choose to publish this one, of the hundreds? To catch out the illiterates like me?
    Hahaha! Catching you out is just a bonus I don't think I am on 200 lessons yet btw. Because it's an important topic, and all the more jazzy complicated stuff I make lessons on is not that popular on UG. You guys seem to like the simple scale lessons more (at least that is my experience until now). You can't give me an example on the "best practice methods beyond scales and shapes"? Besides being a bit annoying I am also curious...
    Dude, the fact that you took the time to sit here and answer this dweeb, Colohue.. Makes you an incredible person. -Cyber highfive- I really enjoyed your video. I plan to watch more.
    Have I touched a nerve or something? You don't seem to welcome criticism.
    Not really, that's just the tone around here in the comments right? It's what I am used to at least, but maybe it's changed since I last posted something? You're not really criticizing anything are you? Just asking questions that I then answer.
    It's probably that you have a very abrasive and largely ungrateful way of expressing yourself. Someone made a lesson; you wanted a different lesson and you were going to make sure the author knew that....
    Don't we already have hundreds of lessons just like this?
    Probably, Don't we have that on all topics? What would you like lessons on?
    Well, as you're asking, why don't you expand best practice methods beyond shapes and scales? There's plenty of material there that nobody seems to bother with. Maybe something on bad habits?
    Well this lesson is about NOT learning your scales only as shapes because that is a bad habit? But from your comment it would seem logical that you didn't actually read it I guess I don't know what "best practice methods beyond shapes and scales" means to be honest. If you want some other stuff there are more than a 100 lessons on my channel and only 3 of them are about scale practice and I wouldn't say they are about shapes either. Why would I teach bad habits when I can teach good ones? Would that be lessons like: "5 mistakes all blues players make (hint no 4 is playing only blues)"