What is the first you do when you feel low on inspirational ideas in your guitar playing? Most guitar players attempt to solve this problem by seeking out new guitar scales to practice and play. Unfortunately, no sooner than they find the next new sale to practice, they realize that they are again feeling bored and out of creative options in their guitar playing. Ironically, rather than seeking a more effective and better way of practicing scales in general, these guitar players instead attempt to solve the problem by learning "even more" new scales. This creates a never-ending vicious cycle of frustration and disappointment.
The good news is that there is a superior way to learn scales on guitar that will enable you to make more progress in less time. The single most critical point you need to remember is that it is necessary to fully explore every creative option offered by a new scale before you move on to start learning more scales. By doing this, you will improve your guitar playing with scales much more quickly and will enjoy the process of practicing guitar a lot more.
Below I will outline for you several essential tips that will help you to get much more out of every scale you practice on guitar. Following this advice will enable you to not end up in the very common dilemma described above, and instead move forward much more quickly towards your guitar playing goals.
To see in more details how to use the advice from this article in your own guitar practicing, watch this free video on playing guitar scales.
By far the most popular mistake the vast majority of guitarists make when learning to play scales is only playing them in a single area of the guitar. The most common example of this for blues/rock guitar players involves playing the A minor pentatonic scale in the fifth position on the fretboard (only) and completely neglecting to learn it in other areas of the guitar. The result of this is similar to watching a movie on TV and switching channels at the first commercial break to start watching a different program, and without ever coming back to finish the original movie continuing to switch channels to watch something brand new as soon as another commercial comes.
In the guitar playing world, doing this leads to never being able to truly use the scales you have "learned" to their full potential in your music. To overcome this VERY common problem, you must make time in your practicing to learn to play every scale you want to master all over the guitar. Fact is, you can write much more music (much more expressively) with only a single scale that you know on the guitar inside and out than you can with dozens of scales that you can only play in one area of the guitar.
To watch me demonstrate several examples of how to practice scales around the guitar neck, watch this free video about playing guitar scales.
Even though this system of playing guitar scales is quite popular among some guitar teachers, it is NEVER used by world class virtuoso guitar players because it places a huge number of restrictions on your ability to freely use scales in music.
Without writing a 100 page dissertation about all the flaws of the CAGED system, its single biggest weakness is that it is not based on "how scales actually work in music" for all instruments and is instead intended to create a shortcut only for "guitar players" by exploiting several isolated and completely illogical visual shapes on guitar (that, by the way, only work in ‚Äòstandard tuning' and become totally useless in drop tunings or open tunings). The result of such a crippling system is that guitarists remain forever restricted in the way they can use scales musically and cannot play scales all over the guitar on the same level as other musicians who have a real and complete understanding of how scales are supposed to work in music.
Fortunately, the complete and most efficient ways of practicing scales on guitar are not any more difficult to learn and understand than the (much flawed) CAGED system.
A great training exercise you should do in addition to your regular practice sessions of learning scales on guitar involves listening carefully to your favorite music (and guitar solos in particular) and studying what scales your favorite guitar players use. If you are less advanced in terms of your ear training, you can use someone else's transcriptions (if you trust the transcriber) or figure the solos out by ear on your own.
On top of being a tremendous training drill for developing awesome ear training, this kind of practicing will show you ideas of how you can and should use scales in your style of music to write songs, guitar solos and improvisations.
Depending on the style of music you play, there will be some scales that are much more common to your guitar playing style than others (for example: the Harmonic minor scale is much more common in Neo-classical metal guitar compared to the Blues scale, and vice versa for Blues/Classic Rock guitar players). With this in mind, you need to prioritize your guitar practice time by focusing your attention FIRST on getting the maximum creative potential out of the most important scales for your style. Only "after" doing that does it make sense to spend significant time to begin practicing exotic and unusual scales.
There is nothing wrong with knowing how to play lots of scales, but in order to truly get results from doing that, several things need to happen first: You need to have already done the work of mastering the most essential scales for your musical style (as described above), and you must have a reliable method for practicing that you can apply to quickly learn any scale on guitar.
You can use one of two ways (or preferably both) to achieve the goal above: you can either ask a guitar teacher to simply tell you what the most important scales for your musical style are, or you can improve your aural skills (ear training) and knowledge of how music works to hear what scales are used in your favorite music yourself.
Most musicians are comfortable with playing scales "vertically" (from the low E string to the high E string). Even though this is an important foundation of all playing of scales on guitar, it is equally important to learn how the scales are laid out on each of the 6 strings of the guitar from the first fret to the last fret (by playing "side to side" across the guitar neck). Training in this way will help to picture scale shapes in every position of the guitar more easily, even if you are starting to play a phrase from a string other than the 6th string.
Obviously, there are multiple ways to proceed regarding learning scales on guitar and certainly some are more effective than others. In order for you to determine which one is the more appropriate for your needs, observe the rate of progress you are experiencing as you go through the process of practicing. If you have struggled to get great results from the way you used to learn scales on guitar up to this point, apply the tips given in this article. In addition, use the advice presented in the free video on playing guitar scales that was discussed earlier. As you do this, you will see your rate of improvement skyrocket.
Mike Philippov is a professional guitar player, recording artist and guitar/music teacher. His guitar practice columns about learning to play guitar are read by guitarists worldwide.
His instructional music web site PracticeGuitarNow.com contains advice for guitar players on overcoming the most common problems faced when learning to play guitar.
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