There are 22 scales that are mostly used in composition and improvisation. I’ve included a couple here so you can get an idea on how I organize scales. Before playing the scales check out the Scales Intro document, this will give you information on Physical Technique, Theoretical Knowledge, Aural Recognition and Musical Application. Memorizing scales is more than just memorizing a fingering pattern. There are many factors that will make the difference between learning a pattern and apply a scale musically. If you find this helpful I would suggest the book: New York Guitar Method Volume One.
There is also a digital version of this book available: New York Guitar Method Volume One.
There is also an excellent four DVD series I put together for Truefire.com which covers 19 of scales. Find more about Total Modal, which explores the essential 19 modes and how to use them when improvising and composing.
Learning scales involves much more than just memorizing a bunch of fingering patterns. Many students come to me after years of playing and believe they just can’t play quickly or accurately. When basic flaws in their technique are corrected and great dedication to practicing is applied, they play as well as anyone. I highly recommend you buy the Guitar Technique ebook before starting to learn scales or anything else on the guitar. If you spend years practicing only to find out you have used the wrong technique you will then have to spend years correcting your problems. Remember that there are many different types of technique to play the guitar. You first need to find a basic technique that can provide a base from which you work from. The Guitar Technique book will give you this base. With that in mind when learning a scale or any musical technique there are four basic things to take into consideration:
1. Physical Technique
2. Theoretical Knowledge
3. Aural Recognition
4. Musical Application
Both hands must be working efficiently in order to play a guitar correctly. Each individual has slightly different requirements depending on their physical makeup but basically the following rules apply to everyone. (Note: Each technique and style of playing requires a slightly different method. The following physical recommendations are for playing scales). I also recommend standing up when practicing. This is how you will perform and it usually helps a guitarist from being injured by long hours of practicing.
In order to achieve maximum speed and accuracy for the left hand you need economy of motion. The following will help to achieve this objective.
1. Basic hand position:
Your hand should be rounded as if holding a soda can
Your thumb should be near the middle of the back of the neck
Your wrist should be close to straight as it would be if you laid your hand on a table.
Your arm should be away from your body. Don’t have your elbow touching your side. (You can touch your side if you are up high on the neck.)
Use your shoulder muscle to help (This concept would need a lot of explanation, I suggest reading Abby Whiteside’s Indispensables of piano playing or Mastering the Chopin Etudes and other essays for a discussion of how big muscles move small muscles and also important information on long line rhythm the secret to playing fast. More information on these books can be found in the “Further Investigations” section of my website
Your fingers should only press on the neck hard enough to make a note sound any excess pressure will slow you down and could cause injury over time.
Keep your hand and forearm relaxed.
2. Your fingers should stay as close as possible to the strings, especially the little finger which usually ends up being the worst offender. Only raise your fingers up as high as needed to make the next note sound. Particularly watch your little finger when you come down the scale.
3. Don’t stretch out your hand to reach more frets. Slide your hand keeping it as much as possible in the same basic shape. When your stretch your fingers you tense them. (You may see great player who seem to be stretching their hands. Usually these players just have great flexibility or long fingers.)
You also need economy of motion for the right hand to reach maximum speed and accuracy. I recommend starting with alternate picking (down-up-down-up).
a. Move the pick the shortest distance possible across the string
b. Play across the top of the string don’t dig into the string.
c. Don’t grip the pick any harder than you need to.
d. Use your forearm for the back and forth movement.
e. Keep your wrist in the middle of its radius.
f. Be careful not to use your elbow as the source of the back and forth movement.
g. I recommend a free floating wrist without your hand or fingers resting on the instrument (If you do rest a body part make sure not to create stress and tension in that area).
h. Keep your fingers, hand, forearm and shoulder relaxed.
There are three picking patterns I recommend for scales. These picking patterns work really well especially when you have scales that consist of three notes on every string. I would first learn the scales as I have discussed them in the Theoretical Knowledge section before concentrating too much on these picking patterns.
a. Alternate: pick down, then up, repeat throughout the entire scale
b. Down-Up-Down: also called speed picking, by picking down-up-down and having three notes per string you have the same picking pattern for each string. When you descend (come down the scale) use the opposite picking, up-down-up.
c. Hammer on-Pull off. With this technique you use one pick stroke per string. When ascending (moving up) the scale you pick the first note and strike the next two notes by hammering down your finger this will cause each hammered on note to sound. When descending the scale you want to use the pull off method. To create a pull off, pick the top note of your scale. Then pull your finger downward off the string while prefretting the next lower note. After this prefretted note sounds, continue the process by pulling off the prefretted note. This will make all three notes for that string sound by only picking once on that string.
Many guitarists just learn fingering patterns and have no idea what notes they are playing. In order to master your instrument, deal intelligently with other musicians and use theory to your advantage, you need to know the notes on your instrument and how they are related. When playing a scale you need to know it in two ways:
1. The names of the notes you are playing i.e. A, B, C etc.
2. What the scale degrees are i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
* I am not saying that you need to know what note you are playing consciously at every moment when you are performing but you should be able to instantly say what note you are playing if you were to be stopped and asked.
You should learn to play every scale all over the neck of the guitar. The scale exercises presented in this section will help you to achieve this.
Note: (If you don’t understand basic music theory on how a scale is built or what a scale is, I suggest getting a beginning theory book (some are listed on my book list in the “Further Investigation” section of my website. My Chord Workbook for Guitar also has a section which teaches a beginner the basics of music theory.)
There are two ways of learning modes.
1. Learning one mode i.e. the major mode (also called the Ionian mode) and then transposing it. For example a C major scale played from C is also a D Dorian scale played from the flat 7th.
2. Learning each mode as an alteration of major i.e. C major is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 then a C Dorian scale would be C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb or another way of thinking of a Dorian scale is a major scale where the 3rd was flatted and the 7th was flatted. Learning scales in this way will be of much greater benefit than using the 1st possibility. Below are further reasons why the 2nd method is best.
a. By learning a scale as an alteration of a scale you already know, you see the relationships between each scale
b. Your theory should match your ear. For example, when soloing over a D minor chord you could use a D Dorian scale. You are probably hearing this D minor chord as the key, therefore D will sound like the root, E like the second etc. It makes no sense to think in C major which contains the same notes. Thinking in D Dorian will make your ear match your theoretical thought.
c. Learning scales in this manner will help prepare you for learning more complicated
d. Scales that are structured similarly. For example, a Dorian b2 scale will be easy if you already know a Dorian scale. Just flat the 2nd and you have the scale.
It is an excellent idea when learning a scale to play it over a prerecorded chord vamp i.e. if you are working on a major scale record a C major chord over and over so you hear what the scale sounds like over that chord. You should try to memorize the sound of each note of the scale with this vamp going on. You should get to the point where someone could play any note over this chord vamp and you could instantly recognize the sound. The same holds true for ear training as it does for guitar technique. If you don’t properly understand how to develop your ears to hear music you will not only have a very frustrating time with music but you will also tend to learn to hear music in a non-productive way. Therefore I highly recommended that you check out the book Ear Training One Note Complete.
Once you feel comfortable with any scale you should apply it to songs you know or just record a one chord vamp and improvise using the scale. This will help you to see how to apply the scale and help to work it into your own style. I also recommend transcribing solos to see how other guitarist are using scales.