1. Scales Are Your Friends


Since I’ve been teaching  it has been my endeavor to give a somewhat different perspective from that of strictly classical method. That does not mean a complete departure. In truth my approach contains many traditional elements, including that axis of all technique builders, scales. At the heart of all musical instrument instruction is the following premise. These are my words, but they could easily have come from any qualified teacher:


Patient practice of scales, using proper technique, promotes fluency and skill, in both  hands, much faster and better than any other way.


Of course, the stigma attached to the practice of scales is huge! The image conjured is one of boredom and drudgery. Aspiring musicians are seldom eager to play them, and many good players never have.  Use this as a rationalization to avoid them if you want, but the likelihood of gaining skill on the instrument not playing them is in direct proportion to how much you play. In other words, almost without exception, the only way one gains facility on an instrument without practicing scales is by playing a lot of music, often, for a very long time. What that means, of course, is you would be playing a lot of scale passages by default anyway. However, such practicing often leads to the development of some very bad habits. Depending on the music you play, some technique errors you can live with, others must be changed. Learning proper technique lets you bypass all of that.


Here are some good ways to practice scales.  I am using a simple 3 octave A major scale. I have provided tab and a video for each.

1. Simple meter, 4/4 time



2. Simple meter, 3/4 time 




3. Scale Patterns:

A.     1,2,3,4    2,3,4,5   etc.



B.     1,3   2,4   3,5   etc.



C.  1,5,4,3   2,6,5,4    etc.



4.  Fragments for speed (short bursts of partial scales)

Example 1. On one string:



Example 2. Across two strings:


If you are not familiar with technique, and have a lot of time to hang around playing whatever you feel like, however you feel like doing it, you may become a fine player. The odds are not good. It’s also likely to be very inefficient! The playing of scales and scale patterns without proper technique is a good way to build bad habits. Good technique is not at all difficult to learn; it is simple challenging to practice. This is because the “natural” way for most players to hold their hands is wrong. 

Unlike classical musicians in training, for whom scale practice is compulsory, popular music guitarists and ‘amateur’ players are generally lazy and apathetic about playing scales, regardless of overall skill level. Most of my students are beginners with full time jobs or a school schedule, and their practice time is fairly limited. I occasionally try to impress upon them how fast they can improve with scale practice, mostly to no avail. Those who do play scales usually slog through them with little emphasis on precision or execution. Teachers have always extolled the value of scale practice, and I would never argue it. I am realistic however, so I choose to offer another avenue for the inexperienced student to gain from scale practice—their application.

     Now of course I don’t fantasize this is some great new innovation. In the classical method many practice pieces have been written to incorporate scales, but I’m not sure they are any more appealing to the average student than playing to a metronome! What I mean is an introduction to improvisation, using scale tones. Once the student has a basic understanding of diatonic chord progressions, he can begin to play scales over them immediately. Remember, the major scale (or natural minor if in the relative minor key) fits most “non-blues” type diatonic progressions, and the minor pentatonic scale fits any I-IV-V blues. Some teachers may frown on this, since it might reinforce poor technique and doesn’t integrate the principles of phrasing, articulation, expression, tendency tones, voice leading, and other nuances of tonality, but I think anything that gets the student to play scales is a good thing. Hopefully a teacher is nearby on a regular basis to encourage good technique, correct mistakes, and introduce these other aspects, slowly and patiently.

It can also be very beneficial for aspiring players to copy as many different ‘riffs’(short, distinct phrases) as possible, to gain some facility and acquire insight on how scale tones are grouped together for expressive purpose.

I have seen a number of players who have great passion and musicality, but little working knowledge of scales. I have seen others who possess great technique, but play with no soul or spirit. Application is the bridge between technique and the music itself, and it is never too early to begin that application.  As we emulate the great players and learn their language, we are able to express ourselves individually and develop a style. When this is shared with others, it becomes the pinnacle of a musician’s experience.

At the essence of any skilled musician is a love of music. How simple yet powerful a truth that is! There has always been a misconception that talent is the primary ingredient of musical expertise, but I beg to differ. However, music is a language, and all the information one can assimilate on the subject will not make one a great musician any more than a vast vocabulary makes one a poet. The finest aspects of music are spiritual, unseen, and unexplainable. It has been said, “Spirit is not matter”. The music of those who practice rigorously but do not love it will suffer. It is love of music that makes one want to play, want to practice. Anything that helps to create this atmosphere is worthy of our attention.

© 2014 Jim Greenfield