Why Play Scales?
In 1995, I published my first guitar theory book and began to talk to hundreds of guitarists every month. What I found changed my perception of how guitarists learn and how they spend their time playing. By this time I had spent the better part of 22 years playing linear guitar along with the standard rhythm material most guitarists play. I thought everyone did the same. I was wrong.

I define linear guitar as playing single note passages. For most of those years I actively studied scales which led to an in depth understanding of not only how scales work but also what they can do for a guitarist.

To say I was surprised that most guitarists do not play scales is a major understatement. But the more I talked with music store owners and teachers, I found that guitarists that actively play scales comprised a small minority. I first started to study scales because I walked into a music store and some guy was ripping off first class leads right in front of me. I had been playing for less than a year and when I watched this guy play, I could hardly keep my mouth shut. He was all over the fretboard and his melodic statements were exactly what I wanted to be able to create.

After watching him for about ten minutes, I finally developed the courage to say "How can I do that?" He stopped what he was doing and handed me a scale book. It was all in music notation, but that did not stop me. I went right back home and started trying to play these scales. The first thing I did was make lots of mistakes, which I eventually corrected. After a few months I could play most of the open string scales contained in that book. I was quite motivated so I spent the first part of every day playing scales. Within a few more months, I noticed my hand strength improved a great deal.

About this same time, I was invited to participate in some informal jam sessions in which we experimented with original ideas. Within a few sessions I was able to stitch some leads over the music being played. These other musicians were quite a bit better than me since they had been playing for several years. But none of them played scales.

So I got a chance to experiment with creating leads over lots of rhythm lines. In this short amount of time I discovered how powerful scales are. I had a secret and it allowed me to hang with much better guitarists. Slowly but surely I was accepted by this group and eventually some of these guitarists even asked me how I was creating these secondary parts. The answer was my intense study of scales. All of this attention caused me to go even deeper into scales. The results were addicting. I was hooked.

Scales provided an avenue for me to improve my playing in a very short time, and that was only the beginning. So this is the subject I would like to introduce to you. For the most part scales get a bad rap! Most people seem to think they are dry and boring and not worth their time. But if you play them for any period of time, you will see they pay huge benefits that keep showing up year after year. I will admit that it helps to have an application for scales to motivate you to start playing them. But after a short time, I think you will see they are an extremely important aspect of playing. For me the allure of playing some lead guitar was the motivating force. And since I saw someone applying this skill to actually create leads, I knew they would work before I ever played one note of a single scale.

By themselves scales are just single notes played in sequence. But when crafted into a lead and played over a piece of music that happens to be in the same key, the world changes. The transformation is so intense that most people do not even realize that these incredible lead statements originate from scales. In fact the roots of lead guitar come directly from scales. This seems to be quite hidden from most guitarists. Once, while talking to another guitarist, he said he never plays scales because they are too boring. Then he asked me if I knew how he could learn to play lead guitar! I was stunned. This was a guy that was teaching new guitarists to play guitar. The entire subject of scales along with all the benefits were totally unknown to him. And to make matters worse, he was passing this along to his students.

Lead guitar is based on scales. But scales do much more. In fact, scales are the gateway to advanced musical abilities. They will engage your hands and jump start your abilities. They are the surest way to connect with the guitar. And applications for scales are never far away. Here are some examples.

Scales are one of three fundamental ways of creating sounds with a guitar. The three ways are single notes, intervals (two notes together) and chords, which are at least three notes played together. All chords, intervals and single notes can be traced to scales. So scales are a foundation skill. In fact scales contain the defining notes for all keys. If you ever study keys, you will quickly see that they are defined by the notes in a scale.

The key of C major contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B. That's it! These just happen to be the notes in the scale of C major too. It is also important to know that all the chords in the key of C major are derived from the scale. That is why if you play the chords in the key of C and a lead using the scale of C major, they cannot help but have synergy. They have to because they all use the same notes and the scale of C major acts in such a way that all the notes revolve around the keynote of C.

If you play anything in the key of C major, you may expect it to relate to the C note and resolve to this note too. Since almost any song ever imagined is in a key, being able to manipulate the notes to revolve around a central keynote forms the basis of writing songs and playing music. So even though most guitarists do not play scales, we all pursue the things that scales bring to the party. And once you tap into the power of scales, you will quickly begin to put the musical pieces of keys, chords and songs into place. Without understanding scales, a guitarist has little chance of really understanding music. You simply cannot turn your back on them and expect to understand the big picture. In a very short period of time, scales will help you to connect all of these elements of music. If you have questions about how music works, you will find almost all of the answers when you play, use and understand scales.

Here are some musical elements that are created directly because of scales.

Keys are defined by scales.
Chords are defined by scales.
Intervals are defined by scales.
Lead guitar is based on scales, so is improvisation.
Ear training is rooted and achieved by using scales (in part).
Accent notes to chords are largely defined by scales.
Theory is based on scales. Understanding theory implies knowledge which you can always use when you play music.
Muscle development on a guitar is greatly facilitated by scales. Development you cannot get by chords alone.

In future contributions to this web site, I intend to leverage scales to explain much of what we accept as music. But first let me share one more thing that scales will do for you. Actually, what they will do for your hands. Scales are the quickest way to build up strength and coordination in your hands. If you are having trouble holding down chords or playing complex musical parts, then try playing scales and see what they will do for solving these problems. Within a few months your hands will develop much more coordination and guitar parts that were once difficult to play will become much easier. And as you are practicing them, you will also begin to see how listening to these notes will hard wire your brain to understand keys.

There is some fundamental brain conditioning that is facilitated when you play scales. If you are interested in starting to play with this now, here is the first scale you should start with. It is the C major scale using the open strings. Play all the notes in this scale and all the open string notes that the strings are tuned to. In case you are worried this is too simple, in the next article I will show you that if you memorize this scale along with two others, you will be in a position to know all your scales for every key for the entire fretboard with almost no more memorization. No tricks, no gimmicks, just hard core theory that will show up in almost every song ever created.

So let me reiterate something that appears in Uncle Tim's First Year, a beginner's guide to the guitar, that I wrote years ago. Have you ever noticed that every good music teacher for every stringed instrument includes scales as a part of their program? Do you think that is a coincidence?

Tim Gillespie is the President of Mountain Studios Publishing Company and author of several music books for guitar, eBooks and musical resources that are sold in music stores and bookstores world wide. He also has established an on-line teaching center for guitar. His work can be viewed at www.uncletim.com.

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