The A To A Of Scales

A useful way to approach scales.

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Ultimate Guitar
18
The A to A approach to scales is a simple idea, but very effective. It's basically a matter of knowing your scales from one note, A for example, to the next occurrence of that note an octave higher, and to be equally comfortable with as many different routes and positions as possible. Tutorial books often show us scales through two octaves, and so we tend to practice them in this way, and this causes us to fail to appreciate the important boundary that we cross when we enter the second octave. For instance most of us encounter this A minor pentatonic 'block' scale played through two octaves at the 5th position.
|--------------------5-|
|----------------5-8---|
|------------5-7-------|
|--------5-7-----------|
|----5-7---------------|
|5-8-------------------|
 A C D E G A C D E G A
Although it's possible to do great sounding things with this scale as it is, I believe it can be problematic, especially for those still trying to develop basic skills. The first problem is that it treats the middle A note as if it's just another note with no more importance than any other, and as a result, a distinct boundary has been crossed as if it didn't exist. The other problem is that the first A to A pattern has completely different fretboard properties to the second, and so any phrase played in the first will be impossible to recreate perfectly in the second. There is a much better way to approach the A minor pentatonic scale. Both of the above octaves will still be used, but they'll never be treated as a single entity. First let's break them up to see how they differ.
|------------|----------5-|
|------------|------5-8---|
|------------|--5-7-------|
|--------5-7-|7-----------|
|----5-7-----|------------|
|5-8---------|------------|
 A C D E G A |A C D E G A
First thing to notice is that we now have two A's rather than one in the middle. This is because we're no longer going from A to A through two octaves and treating the middle one as if it has no importance. Instead we're going from A to A in the first, and then A to A again in the second. This really does matter. So why can't a phrase played in the first octave be precisely recreated in the second? Let's say the phrase played in the first octave contained a pulloff from C to A. This couldn't be done in the second because the C and A are on different strings. You can't slide from C to D in the first, but you can in the second. In the second you can overlap the A and C notes to create a smooth minor third arpeegiated sound, but you can't in the first. So any phrase containing hammers, pulls, slides, bends, overlaps etc, can not be faithfully recreated in both octaves using these two patterns. This can cause inconsistent, disjointed sounding solos. This is where knowing your scales from A to A can really prove useful. Here's how continuity could be maintained through two octaves.
|------------|---------------|
|------------|---------8-10--|
|------------|-----7-9-------|
|--------5-7-|7-10-----------|
|----5-7-----|--------------|
|5-8---------|--------------|
 A C D E G A |A C  D E G A
So now both octaves share the same properties, and hammers, slides etc can be faithfully recreated. Now let's do the same to the original second octave.
|------------|----------5-| 
|------------|---- -5-8---|
|----------2-|--5-7-------|
|------2-5---|7-----------|
|--3-5-------|------------|
|5-----------|------------| 
 A C D E G A |A C D E G A
Below is a list of THE COMMONEST ways to go from A to A organized into groups that share the same fretboard pattern properties. GROUP 1
|------------|--------3-5-|------------|------------|
|------------|----3-5-----|------------|--------8-10|
|--------0-2-|2-5---------|------------|----7-9-----|
|----0-2-----|------------|--------5-7-|7-10--------|
|0-3---------|------------|----5-7-----|------------|
|------------|------------|5-8---------|------------|
 
|---------------|----------15-17|---------------|---------------|
|---------------|-----15-17-----|---------------|----------20-22|
|----------12-14|14-17----------|---------------|-----19-21-----|
|-----12-14-----|---------------|----------17-19|19-22----------|
|12-15----------|---------------|-----17-19-----|---------------|
|---------------|---------------|17-20---------|---------------|
GROUP 2
|------------|----------5-|-------------|--------------|
|------------|------5-8---|-----------10|--------------|
|----------2-|--5-7-------|-------9-12--|------------14|
|------2-5---|7-----------|--10-12------|-------14-17--|
|--3-5-------|------------|12-----------|--15-17-------|
|5-----------|------------|-------------|17------------|
 
|------------17|--------------|
|-------17-20--|------------22|
|--17-19-------|-------21-24--|
|19------------|--22-24-------|
|--------------|24------------|
|--------------|--------------|
GROUP 3
|--------3-5-|------------|------------|---------------|
|--1-3-5-----|------------|--------8-10|---------------|
|2-----------|------------|--5-7-9-----|----------12-14|
|------------|--------5-7-|7-----------|--10-12-14-----|
|------------|--3-5-7-----|------------|12-------------|
|------------|5-----------|------------|---------------|
 
|----------15-17|---------------|---------------|
|--13-15-17-----|---------------|----------20-22|
|14-------------|---------------|--17-19-21-----|
|---------------|----------17-19|19-------------|
|---------------|--15-17-19-----|---------------|
|---------------|17-------------|---------------|
You should apply this A to A, B to B etc grouping method to all scales. As you can see from the above list, it's a lot of work, but it's worth it. Knowing where you can precisely recreate your phrases an octave or two higher will prove extremely valuable when soloing, but like anything, these benefits only truly reveal themselves if you've developed a competent level of musicianship, so work work work and play play play!! Apologies if there are any mistakes in the tabs.

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    someonepunkish
    Well thanks again Chris. Although I must say that I do not come from a country which speaks English, so I couldn't get some of the terms you used. Because I believe the way they teach guitars in your place is pretty different than that of ours. Many of the greatest guitarists in here often don't even know most of the terms that are used internationally. That is why I have stopped taking classes. I'm a lot more based on the internet now. And It's been about two years since I've started playing and am loving it. Anyway, I've bugged you enough by now. Thanks again. I'm sure your advice will come quite handy. Cheers
    shmatt
    so all of these examples are in A minor pentatonic? Does that mean I can just change the root note on any of these patterns and be in a different minor pentatonic key?
    someonepunkish
    Thanks. Although a doctors recommendation has not been lucky for me. There really isn't any permanent treatment for this. And talc, well, that creates a bit more mess. Your hand gets all sticky and you don't really feel like playing. Well, lets just hope a cure comes up. I have faith in science. Maybe someday they'll come up with something. But thanks anyway. And I had one more question, about scales and all, You see it hasn't been long since I took up scales. Although I am amazed in the way they work. But I often find it sound weird playing a scale pattern, knowing the chord progression to a song. Is there like a specific scale pattern for specific music genres?
    someonepunkish
    @chris thanks a lot man. This helped me out a lot. I am sure my solos will sound a lot better now. Although I must ask you, you seem like quite an expert guitarist. What do I do with sweaty hands? As you know a lot of people have sweaty hands but most don't end up playing guitars. Unfortunately I do. This creates a huge problem, especially when you are sliding your fingers or bending a string. The sweat makes the sound quite disturbing. It usually starts about 5 minutes after I start playing guitars and mostly when I try to do guitar solos. Any suggestions?
    mastergon
    I wonder how can you emphasize the first note of the 2nd phrase(which is A) if the last note of the 1st phrase is also A and in the same octave?
    atomicpunk823
    Excellent concept dude. I never really considered this. I've been playing a long time, and so I know how to recreate my phrases in different octaves, but all through years of trial and error. This is the FIRST time I've seen a practical approach to this topic.
    g0dd4rd
    nice article, finally you wrote down what Satriani recommends
    - 5:24
    Minivirus2
    Great article man. I've always played the patterns in their box formations, but disjointed. It's probably my lack of technical knowledge, but it never occured to me to link the octaves in my practice. Also, I'm very much a rhythm player, so I'll only be using this for practice and functional knowledge of the fretboard. 10/10
    mickmarz
    btw the dude who said "ummm couldnt you just umm you know learn the 5 box patterns?" clearly missed the point.
    mickmarz
    nice work! dig it- a subtle thing that is easy to overlook but can yield huge benefits when applied effectively. well done.
    robertito696
    Awesome man. Not ten minutes ago I was looking for something to improve my phrasing, which always seems kind of monotone. This is such a cool approach.
    Ultima2876
    I like to learn a single octave of a scale then just adjust it and move it around (including up/down strings, remembering to adjust for the B string of course).