by Scott Zimmerman

This article will show you how to learn guitar scales in an intuitive process that will help promote creativity in your playing. To view our article about how to sing and play guitar at the same time, go here.

There are many guitar scales that can be learned on the guitar. There are many books and videos on how to play and use the different guitar scales. (I have a whole library shelf full of them). But then, why is it that learning and using guitar scales seems to be so difficult? The answer lies in the fact that the approach or method of learning scales has very little, if anything at all, to do with actually improvising on the guitar and the creative process.

If you “listen between the lines” to accomplished guitarists, they will reveal this. Did many of them learn scales?, Yes; do many of them speak about scales? Yes again. But, if you listen closely, they will tell you and show you that playing scales is not how they create their music. Whatever knowledge and technical skills they have developed over time are used only to support their desire to intuitively create music. 

In this article, we will discuss some background information on scales and then discuss the problems with learning scales in a textbook way. We will present a solution to this problem along with a method of learning to improvise that places intuitive playing above rote memory of scales. Lastly, there will be some practice exercises that you can explore in order to become familiar with this method. Let’s get started!

How Should You Learn Guitar Scales? An effective method for learning guitar scales is to use a “base” scale and add in variations to that scale. This will promote intuitive playing rather than the rote memorization of scales. By using a “base” scale with variations, a more intuitive and creative improvisation will result.

Let’s jump in by first defining what a guitar scale is.

What Is A Scale?

A scale is a collection of notes, usually no more than seven, with a unique pattern of whole and half step intervals. An interval is the distance between two notes. The distance between notes is measured in half steps (adjacent frets on the same string), or by whole steps (skipping one fret on the same string). For example, the major scale pattern is: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole, or C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

Why Learn Scales?

For a guitarist that is interested in improvising or creating solos, scales are very useful. They help to map out the fretboard, in terms of which notes sound good with any given chord progression. Instead of finding the “good” notes by trial and error, a memorized scale can quickly give you access to those notes. 

Demystifying Scales, Part 1 (Note: At 3:20, the chord is A7, not Am7)
Demystifying Scales, Part 2

Why Are Scales Given Names?

Each scale has its own unique collective sound based on the pattern of whole or half steps. In order to talk about the unique qualities of each scale and to compare and contrast them, names were given to them. The naming of these scales goes far back, all the way back to the Greeks, and in the case of major and minor scales, back about four or five hundred years.

The naming of scales can be useful, especially in a theoretical discussion; but, from the practical standpoint of playing the guitar, it is not necessary to know the names of the scales. However, it is important to work towards hearing the subtle differences between scales and to acquire the ability to use these scales in a musical context.

The Problem With Learning Scales

The main problem with learning scales, in the textbook sense, i.e. memorizing all the possible scales and fingerings, stems from the reality, that it is very difficult to apply this knowledge in a musical setting. Improvisation is a mix of knowledge and musical intuition gained through experience.

It is true that a solo may be analyzed, after it has been created, by labeling it with the scales that were used; however, this is not how the solo was created. That is an important point to remember. In other words, improvisations are not created by knowledge of scales; they are created when a musician uses the knowledge in an intuitive and creative manner. Stated another way, “You Can’t Get There From Here.” So, that is the essential problem with learning scales apart from a musical context; and so, let’s look at the solution to this problem.

The Solution To The Problem

If scales are to be useful in a musical setting, i.e. playing live or recording, they must be used as a tool to express the creative ideas of the musician. At the point a scale is consciously played, for the sake of playing a scale, by definition, the creative process has taken a secondary role in the music making. So, how can this be reconciled? If we agree, for the sake of argument, that the creative process is primarily an intuitive action supported by knowledge; we then need to look for ways to incorporate knowledge into the intuitive.

The way to do this is by remaining in an intuitive playing mode by using specific habitual musical gestures, i.e. a base scale with variations. These habitual gestures can be accessed intuitively to express the creativity of the moment, without switching into an analytical mode of playing, which rote scale repetition tends to reinforce.

What follows is an approach to improvising that utilizes a “base” scale; the base scale is the source for the majority of the intuitive improvisation that will occur. The base scale has three offshoots called variations. These variations are really just “inflexions” off of the base scale which point or gesture into other tonal areas depending on the underlying chord progression. 

Practical Application

Step 1: Learn The Base Scale

The first step is to learn the Base Scale. This scale will be the one that is used the most, and used as a “base” for the variations. It is also the scale that can be used with any chord progression (it can be moved to accommodate different keys). Learn the scale by memorizing the finger patterns for each string, e.g. string four: 1 and 3, string three: 1 and 3, string two: 1 and 4, string one: 1 and 4. Practice playing the scale from low to high and from high to low. Record the sample chord progression for the base scale (see below) and practice playing the scale over the chords. Note: The sample chord progressions are included in the video tutorial.

Fig.1  Base Scale

Sample Chord Progression For Base Scale

Step 2: Base Scale with Variation 1

Three notes are added to the base scale to create Variation 1.  Memorize Variation 1 by adding the three notes to the Base Scale. Remember to take each string individually and memorize the fingers, e.g. string four: 1 and 3, string 2: 1-1-3, etc. Think of Variation 1 as the Base Scale with a three note addition, not a new scale. Variation 1 is used for chord progressions that contain minor chords. Record the chord progression and practice playing the scale over it.

Fig.2  Base Scale  with Variation 1

Sample Chord Progression For Variation 1

Step 3: Base Scale with Variation 2

In order to play Variation 2, one note is altered from Variation 1: second string third finger. This scale will be used when there is a mix of major and minor chords in the chord progression. As before, record the sample chord progression and practice Variation 2 over the chord progression.

Fig.3  Base Scale with Variation 2

Sample Chord Progression For Variation 2

Step 4: Base Scale with Variation 3

Variation 3 adds only one note to the base scale. Variation 3 is very useful for playing the blues. To practice Variation 3, you can record the 12 Bar Blues progression below, or use a blues backing track that is in the key of A.

Fig.4  Base Scale with Variation 3

12 Bar Blues Progression For Base Scale and Variation 3

How To Figure Out Which Variation To Use When Playing

Ahh! That is the question. And, it is a good one. Guess what this is where your work begins. I will give you some pointers, but you will have to do the work of experimenting and practicing to really internalize this system and then be able to intuitively improvise. And I believe you can! Check out the video tutorial below for guidance on getting started with this system,


Let’s summarize what we have presented. We are not saying that learning guitar theory and scales is a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing to continually learn about what you are playing and how to label it. However, what we are saying is: Improvisation is a process of creative intuition supported by knowledge.

The creative process should lead in this endeavor, with just enough knowledge to support it, but not get in its way. It is a common pitfall for many of us to lean too much on gaining knowledge without learning how to use it musically. Spend ninety percent of your time playing intuitively and exploring, and use the other ten percent of your time for adding to your knowledge base. Looking ahead, the next step in improvising is to develop phrasing in order to communicate musical ideas. See this lesson for an introduction to phrasing: G&B 005 – How to Create Interesting Solos

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.