by Scott Zimmerman

Learning scales can be overwhelming on the guitar. Not only are there major and minor scales but there are also modes which are essential scales. Also, because of how the guitar works, these scales and modes can be played in many positions on the guitar. It can be hard to sort all this out. Many times it is one thing to learn a scale, but another to remember and actually use it in a practical way when you are making music. Let’s take a look at eleven tips to help you not only learn scales quickly, but to remember them, and more importantly, to learn when and how to use them.

Learning new scales from scales you already know is the quickest way to learn. By following this method, you will quickly learn scales and apply them easily to your music making.

#1 Learn the new scale in relation to a scale you already know

It is always easier to learn something new if you connect new information to something you already know. It is the same with learning a new scale on the guitar. For example, the minor pentatonic scale is usually the first scale that guitarists learn. Use this scale as your foundation to build each new scale. If you have not learned any scales yet, take some time to learn this scale first (the minor pentatonic), it is probably the scale most used by guitar players.

Assuming you know the minor pentatonic well, let’s say you want to learn the natural minor scale, learn it in relation to the minor pentatonic scale. Here is a good way to do it: play one octave of the minor pentatonic scale and relate the notes of the new scale to the minor pentatonic. This will help you memorize the new scale, e.g. by adding two notes to the one octave minor pentatonic scale you now have an A Natural Minor scale (see below).

#2 Train your ear to recognize the new scale

After memorizing the new one octave scale, it is time to really get it into your ear. One of the best ways to do this is to record yourself playing the scale and then just listen to it. You will be able to focus completely on the sound of the scale without being distracted by playing it. As you accumulate your repertoire of scales, record them in sequence and listen to how they are different or similar in overall mood or vibe.

Try to get to the point where you hear scales as a whole and not just individual notes. You can also attach a subjective label to the scale that helps you to identify it, e.g. natural minor = melancholy sound, or major scale = bright, happy, etc.

#3 Play the scale in other positions on the guitar

Once you have the sound of the scale in your ear, you can now start finding the scale in other places on the fretboard. This is not only practical for playing, but it is good ear training because you have to decide based on the sound of the note whether it should be in your scale. This can take a little time to master, so be patient and stick with it.

#4 Play the scale on each string

This is similar to number three in that it will train your ear to listen for the correct notes of the scale you are learning. Start with the open string and work out your scale up the fretboard to determine what notes are part of your scale. Use the memorized scale pattern for reference if you are not sure a note is part of the scale.

#5 Play the scale with backing tracks

This is a great way to make your new scale useful in your everyday playing or jamming situations. Use a variety of different backing tracks in different styles and with different chord progressions to really find out what you can do with the scale. It is also good ear training because you can hear when you are making a mistake and playing a wrong not that is not part of the scale. 

#6 “Map” out the interval pattern of the scale using half and whole steps

Write down the interval pattern in whole steps and half steps for the new scale. For example the natural minor scale is: w-h-w-w-h-w-w. If this is new, learn about intervals and how they come together to form scales. By knowing the interval pattern of the scale you will be able to build the scale in any key.

#7 Transpose the scale to other keys

Now that you know the interval pattern for your scale you can build it starting on any note. Let’s say you want to play a D Natural Minor scale, start on the “d” note ( string two, fret three) and build your scale on just that string using the whole and half step pattern for that particular scale. Later you can make the scale easier to play by crossing strings and playing in one position. 

#8 Make a list of chord progressions that work with this scale

As you find backing tracks that work with your new scale, make a list of these chord progressions so that you can remember them. That way, if you are playing a new song that uses one of these chord progressions, you can easily use the correct scale for your solo or improvising. Create a scale and chord progression notebook for reference. If you write it down yourself, you will remember it better!

#9 Listen to solos that use this scale to hear how it is used effectively in soloing

Do some research and find songs that use the scale you are learning. Put them in your playlist and absorb how the guitarist uses the scale in a solo. It is also a good idea to learn and write down some of the more interesting riffs that you hear being used in that recording, so that you can use them too. Add a riff section to your notebook!

#10 Practice switching back and forth from a scale you know and the new one you are learning

This is a good practice technique not only to reinforce the new scale, but it also makes your soloing more interesting. Try this – Pair the minor pentatonic scale with the new scale you are learning, e.g. use an A minor backing track and switch between the minor pentatonic and natural minor scale (see above).

#11 Record yourself playing the scale and find chords by ear

This is another great ear training exercise. Record yourself playing the new scale. Try a variety of rhythms, e.g. play each note of the scale four times to create one measure or play each note two times, etc. Then, experiment with different chords and find all the chords that you can use with the scale. This really helps you focus on each note and on the notes in the chords that you are playing. Super ear training!

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.