Five Steps To Becoming A Better Guitar Player From Practicing Scales

Author: Ed Cupler

Mike Philippov is a  music instructor, recording artist and professional guitar playerDo you spend a lot of time practicing scales on guitar but wonder why your ability to use scales creatively doesn’t seem to get any better? Most guitar players assume that the cause of the problem lies in them not knowing "enough" scales, so they go on a never-ending quest to search for new scales to play. The problem is that after only a few days of playing with a new scale, these musicians assume that their time to practice it is "complete" and that it’s time to move on to learning another scale. Such an approach leads to nothing but disappointment, when you realize (after years of doing this) that you aren’t any better at using scales in your music, despite knowing "how to play" dozens and dozens of various scale shapes.

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.

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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 a live demonstration of how to practice using the advice given here, check out this free video on how to learn guitar scales.

1. Don’t Learn Scales At Random

There are so many scales that exist in music that it is critical for you to get organized about which of them are most important for you to learn and practice. To do that, make a list of all scales that are used most often in your style of music and do NOT move on to learn lots of other obscure and unusual scales until you have a very firm command of the essential scales used in your style of guitar playing. This involves not merely the ability "to play the notes" of the scales but also the skill to use them in any musical context freely and expressively.

That being said, of course it can also be helpful to learn and study other scales that may add an exotic or unusual sound to your guitar playing, BUT you will only really benefit from this when two things are in place:

1. You already have a very proven and effective system for learning scales on guitar that allows you to easily learn any scale.
2. You have already spent enough time on the fundamental scales used in your style of guitar playing to be ready to reap the benefits of expanding your musical horizons by learning other scales.

If you are not sure of how to find the list of scales used in your style of music, you can do so in one (or both) of the following ways: either by asking a guitar teacher or a more accomplished musician to tell you what these scales are, and/or by developing your ear training and music theory knowledge to be able to hear what scales are used in your favorite guitar solos.

2. Break Out Of "Box Patterns" And Master The Guitar Fretboard Fully

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 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.

If you want to see me demonstrate what it means to practice scales throughout the full neck of the guitar, see this video on how to learn guitar scales.

3. Find Out What Scales Your Favorite Guitar Players Use (And HOW They Use Them)

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.

4. Practice Playing Scales On Each Single String Of The Guitar In Addition To "Scale Shapes"

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.

5. Avoid The CAGED System

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 ‘standard 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.

What should you do now?

Although there are many ways to go about learning to play scales on guitar, some approaches are, without a doubt, more effective than others. If you have been less than satisfied with the results you have seen so far in your guitar playing from practicing scales, consider changing your approach by following the advice in this article. In addition, make sure to study the video lesson mentioned above about how to learn guitar scales.

About the author:
Mike Philippov is a music instructor, recording artist and professional guitar player. He publishes articles about the best ways to learn and practice guitar for musicians around the globe. Visit Mike’s guitar practice website: to learn how to make your guitar practicing process more effective.

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