I will be the first to admit that I had zero interest in learning scales on guitar in the early years. I just couldn’t see the point. I was motivated by songs so why not cut straight to the chase. I resisted playing any kind of scale for about a year until I discovered the pentatonic minor scale. This one scale changed my whole perspective and although I still wasn’t crazy about scales, the pentatonic was seductive.
My blues scale obsession
The pentatonic minor scale for those who don’t know is a 5 note scale. If you add a 6th note you get what we call the blues scale and for me the blues scale was pure magic. These 2 scales pretty well define the era of blues and rock. Almost any classic riff or solo written in the last 60 years is likely based on the pentatonic minor or the blues scale. For me personally the blues scale was the secret ingredient to creating music. When I began learning my goal was not really about playing guitar. The guitar was just a tool. I wanted to compose music and still do. The blues scale was highly addictive. So much so that when I was shown a major scale I struggled to pull myself away from the blues scale. All other scales still seemed pointless to me. It wasn’t until I started lessons in about my 3rd year of guitar that I got serious about other scales.
Going beyond the blues scale
At age 17 I could appreciate the value in learning the blues scale but other scales not so much. The blues scale contained all the notes I wanted to play so why bother learning other scales I would tell myself. It wasn’t until my first guitar teacher strongly encouraged me to practice major and minor scales in all keys and in different positions that I changed my ways. Had my teacher not pushed me at that time I am not sure I would have discovered the true value of learning scales. Well at least not at that point. It was a turning point and one I will be forever grateful for.
The value of learning scales
Some things are hard to put into words but I’ll do my best. The goal is to play music or in some cases compose music. Most songs you know and hope to play on guitar are written in a particular key. A key is simply a selection of notes. In western music there are 12 possible notes and in each key there are 7 notes. In each key there a selection of scales that use the notes in that key. Practicing scales will help you to develop the knowledge and motor skills to play the notes of any key. This is turn makes it easier to learn songs. When we learn songs without any knowledge of scales we are unable to see the underlying structure. Its certainly possible to learn songs without knowing or practicing scales but for me, knowing the blues scale allowed me to learn thousands of songs quickly because they were all based on the same scale.
Scales improve your ear
Another bonus I discovered to learning scales was the improvement in my aural skills. The ability to hear music and work it out. If you learn music from a very young age its easier to develop perfect pitch. The ability to hear and recognise pitch. Unfortunately for most of us including myself, starting later tends to be the norm. Especially for guitar. Our ability to recognise pitch like learning a language becomes more difficult as we age but not impossible. This is where learning and practicing scales made all the difference. Although I never developed perfect pitch I did develop the ability to work out songs quickly. It was through practicing scales and chords that I became more familiar with note possibilities in a given song. At first it wasn’t so much that I was hearing and recognising the notes but, more a case of knowing the likely options. For example if I discovered the strong note it was usually the key of the song. From there if it was based on the blues scale (and it usually was) I knew there were 5 other possible notes. I also knew which notes were most likely.
Scales will become your best friends
You may not see the value in learning scales right now but you have to trust the wisdom of the masters. If scales were of no value the masters would have ruled them out as a waste of time. The fact is most music masters not only practice scales for life but many write extensive scale exercises for their students and have published books. Scales are the foundation to great playing and great composition. Practice them everyday even if you are not yet convinced.