How To Practice Scales To See Bigger Results In Your Guitar Playing

Author: Mike Philippov

Guitarist Mike PhilippovDo you feel overwhelmed from having access to countless numbers of guitar playing exercises, licks and videos? Have you found (ironically) that despite spending hundreds or thousands of hours practicing guitar you are still unable to make substantial progress even with all of these resources at your disposal? If this sounds like you, then you are likely to be feeling out of ideas as to what can be done differently to get more results in your practicing.

As common as this issue is, the majority of guitar players react to it in a totally opposite way from what is correct. Most musicians make the false assumption that their guitar playing would progress more quickly ‘if only’ they had more/new/better exercises to work on. However, since no energy is directed on discovering the best way to PRACTICE these exercises, the time spent practicing delivers very slow improvement.

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Rather than constantly seeking to expand your list of guitar practice materials, you will improve your guitar playing much more quickly if you focus on getting maximum results from the items you are already learning. Doing this will give you 2 important advantages:

1. You will improve as a musician in less time, simply because you will have a smaller total number of exercises to work on.

2. Whenever you face a real challenge in your guitar playing, you will know exactly what needs to be done to create your own exercise to deal with the issue.

The Way You Practice Guitar Matters More Than The Exercises You Work On

In my video tutorial about the best guitar practice methods, I explained why you must have a clear reason for everything you include into your guitar practice routine. If you cannot give an explanation about why a certain item exists in your schedule, your practicing is likely to lack clear direction. This point also means that any given guitar exercise can be utilized to improve multiple areas of your musical skills, based on the approach you take when working on it.

To illustrate this critical point, here is an example of an area of guitar playing that you are no doubt familiar with it: working on scales. Many guitar players understand that scales are helpful to practice as a general training tool, but most do not understand how to practice scales in different ways to attain several diverse goals:

1. Learn to play guitar fast
2. Become a better lead guitar soloist
3. Learn to visualize the guitar neck at a high level
4. Become more creative as a musician

Achieving any of the goals mentioned above takes a unique set of steps, even while you are practicing the same basic exercise (scales in this case). In other words, you must rely on your mind to know HOW to adjust your practicing accordingly in order to reach very specific objectives. To do that, you should set very clearly defined ‘daily’ goals for each item or exercise you practice on guitar. To be clear, this is not at all the same as having longer term objectives you want to reach 3, 5 or 10 years from now and instead such daily goals act just like a navigation system that guides your mind (and your hands) through specific practicing steps that are needed to achieve the result that you want. When you do this, it is possible to improve a variety of guitar playing skills with only a single exercise. Unfortunately, only a few guitar players know how to achieve such a clear focus and they instead go through the motions of practicing in a mindless way, without consciously focusing on why each exercise has a place in their guitar practice routine. This is one of the biggest reasons why the vast majority of guitarists go on practicing and playing guitar for months, years and decades without much improvement.

Most people struggle with naturally being able to create highly specific miniature objectives on their own each time they practice, and this is one of the reasons why a “good” guitar teacher is so helpful in helping you to make more progress faster. However, even if you are learning to play guitar by teaching yourself, you will still grow your musical skills more quickly simply by making the attempt to focus in this way when designing your guitar practice routines.

To help you do this, I am going to list a few specific ways in which practicing scales (continuing to use the same example) can help you to grow in many areas of guitar playing. As you have learned above, you can easily do this by directing your mind to concentrate on a very specific miniature objective each time you practice guitar.

How Practicing Scales On Guitar Improves Your Technique

When you work on scales with the goal of improving your guitar technique, it is important to focus on very specific elements that make such an improvement in your technique possible: economy of motion, tension control, 2 hand coordination and articulation of the pick. Watch this free video about guitar technique where I explain how to practice this. Notice the important difference between practicing scales while concentrating on specific elements of your guitar technique vs. monotonous repetition of finger motions that most guitarists go through. It is this difference that allows the mind to tell your hands what to do in order to learn to play guitar at a higher level.

How Practicing Scales On Guitar Makes You Better At Improvising

When it comes to improvising, playing scales on guitar is obviously only one of many elements that needs to be practiced, however in order to improvise freely and creatively, you MUST go through the process of becoming accurate at playing the scales needed for your musical style. One practice method to achieve this goal requires you to work on mastering each shape of a particular scale individually by improvising ONLY in that scale shape over a backing track (while switching to a different shape of the same scale every few minutes). There are many more possible ways of using scales to grow as an improviser (I address them in much more detail inside my course about electric guitar scale sequences), but the idea is to illustrate how your attention is being directed on a very precise goal (when practicing scales to improve as a soloist) versus working on scales to improve other aspects of your guitar playing.

Using Guitar Scales To Learn The Fretboard

When you practice scales to improve your ability to visualize the guitar neck, your focus should become much less on the physical aspect of your guitar playing and much more on memorizing how the shapes of the scales you are practicing look (visually) in EVERY area of the guitar, regardless of what key you are in. When your mind is actively engaged in this task, you will have no choice but to be 100% focused on what you are doing, rather than going on autopilot with your hands while practicing scales. If you are not sure how to practice this this, check out this tutorial on memorizing the guitar neck that will help you.

Using Guitar Scales To Improve Your Guitaristic Creativity

To become a more creative guitar player from practicing scales, one approach to take is to force yourself to ‘create’ multiple new scale sequences, patterns and phrases out of scales. This is different from simply playing the scale shapes themselves up and down in a mindless, uninspired fashion. You can keep yourself busy for many months doing only this task and come up with hundreds of new scale sequence ideas in the process. The point behind this advice is to illustrate yet another way of how your mind is consciously focusing on a completely different set of tasks when focusing on a unique mini goal.

So far in this article I have given you examples of how you can use a single guitar exercise to grow in a variety of elements of your musicianship. By choosing where to focus your attention in a guitar practice session, you can achieve a variety of objectives. It’s important to mention that these general approaches can be used with ANY exercise that you practice on guitar (and aren’t limited to only scales) in order to refine any musical skill that you think of. The more you do this, the more you will realize that your guitar playing progress isn’t affected by “the exercises” you practice on guitar, but rather by HOW you practice whatever it is you are working on.

In order to get the most out of this approach to practicing guitar, divide your attention to working on a unique “daily goal” during each day of practicing. This will enable you to cover everything without trying to cram too many things into each guitar practice session. For instance, set a specific goal for an item such as scales for Monday’s practice session, then work on scales with a different focus on Tuesday and continue in this way through the week.

One last point I want to make about this general approach to practicing guitar is that having a lot of exercises is NOT a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, multiple exercises are often necessary for more productive practicing, but it is still critical for you to learn how to get maximum value from only a single practice item. After you begin to practice guitar with this mindset, your rate of progress will skyrocket and you will amaze yourself by how much faster you will move towards your guitar playing goals.

To learn more about how to speed up your progress on guitar, refer to these resources:

Memorizing The Guitar Neck – free video
Electric Guitar Scale Sequences – video eCourse

About the author:
Mike Philippov is a professional guitar player, recording artist and guitar/music teacher. His guitar practice columns about learning to play guitar are read by guitarists worldwide. His instructional music website contains advice for guitar players on overcoming the most common problems faced when learning to play guitar.

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