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Mastering Guitar Scales – A Key to Excellence

5 min read
Mastering Guitar Scales – A Key to Excellence

I play the guitar. I know a man. If you play the guitar, you may know him too. I do not know his name. You probably don’t, either.

He is the aggravating man. The aggravating show-off man at the guitar store. He thinks he is good. He knows he is good. He thinks and knows that he is good, so he feels completely comfortable sitting down and shredding for everybody in the store.

Do you feel it? Do you feel your oncoming inferiority complex as his hands fly up and down arpeggios so fast that it gives you metacarpal just watching him? Look over there! It’s Keith Richards sitting in the corner. He’s weeping gently and eating comfort food.

I’m guessing that if you’ve already spent a little time learning how to play the guitar, then you’re probably familiar with the scene I’m describing. You may have already mastered your basic chords, and even some music theory. Still, though, you feel incomplete. You feel competent, but you don’t feel special as a guitar player. You wish that you could be that guy. If this does describe you, you may want to consider investing some time in mastering guitar scales.

What separates the average guitar player from the excellent one? An excellent knowledge of music theory, which includes a solid grasp of guitar scales. Once you have this knowledge, you will feel comfortable doing anything on your guitar, from writing your own music, to improvising live.

Some people seem to have a congenital case of Music Geniusitis. The music theory comes planted in their soul. They feel the music. As for the rest of us (yes, I do include myself here), we have to work for it. We have to work hard, straining our musical mental faculties to the utmost in order to study, memorize, and just plain old understand as much music theory as we can. However, if you do not have a plan or strategy for these studies, you may find that you strain in vain. In this article, it’s not possible for me to get into an in-depth discussion of music theory to the extent required for maximizing any given guitar player’s potential. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible for any one person to be able to do so. The extent to which a guitar player improves depends largely on the player themselves. Their musical background, their tastes, the amount of effort they’re willing to put into it, etc. are all factors that will influence results. That being so, I would like to outline here a few simple pointers for improving guitar play in general.

The key to improvising is the key.

That statement may not have seemed to make sense, but it’s true. The most important part of any song is the key note. Every song has one note that the whole song revolves around. Find the key note of the song, and improvise along a scale in that key. Most songs fall into a major key, such as c major. A lot of rock solos, however, play along the minor scale even if the song is in a major key. This creates a degree of dischord. It basically just makes it sound cooler.

When memorizing guitar scales, instead of trying to memorize series of notes, memorize patterns on the fret board.

I’m not discouraging learning how to read sheet music, by any means. However, guitar scales follow the exact same pattern on the fret board from key to key. To illustrate, the c major scale is as follows: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The G major scale is as follows: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Remember, the key note is the first note in the scale. Now, one approach to remembering this would be to memorize every note and play each note from memory. A much simpler way is to memorize the pattern a major scale always follows. From this point forward, simply move the pattern up or down a few frets to change the key of the scale.

Play around with the scales to a backing track of some kind.

You are always going to learn fastest by playing along with other people. Recorded music can count as other people, if you want it to. Practice feeling out the best note in a song by playing along with the song.

Music has patterns, but it never has a formula.

There are no black and white rules to what does or doesn’t sound good. The key to becoming a good musician is remembering the patterns music follows, but always remaining flexible. Remember, you aren’t just memorizing notes. You’re playing music.

Following the points listed above will help you become a very good guitar player. However, to become an excellent guitar player, you will need to expand your knowledge of scales (and music theory in general) as much as you possibly can. This may seem to be an overwhelming task, but you have many tools at your disposal. Many books have been written for the sole purpose of charting as many scales as possible. Also, you could avail yourself of any guitar software that helps you to learn scales through an interactive medium.

It is possible to amass huge amounts of knowledge about scales, and then improve your technical skills to mind-bending degrees. That’s what our rival from the guitar store did. However, let’s not envy him. He has limited himself to playing cheesy arpeggios over and over again. No variety, nothing. He mastered one type of scale, developed a degree of technical skill, and only plays that. How boring. How sad. Let us have a moment of silence for him.

Ok, we are done with the moment of silence. From this point forward, let’s resolve to improve our guitar playing. Let us rise above the man in the guitar store. Guitar scales are one small tool that will aid us in doing so. However, let us not forget that our goal is not just to be a guitar player, but more importantly, a musician.

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