As soon as you progress beyond the beginner stages of learning guitar, and you hear more and more musicians talking about scales and modes, the inevitable question pops up, something along the lines of - do I need to learn guitar scales in order to become a decent player?
This commonly asked question implies
an awareness of the amount of work involved in
mastering scales. At first glance, it can appear overwhelming.
Many guitarists, understandably, want the easiest path possible to
attain a decent level of competence with their instrument. Fine.
that case, no, you do
not NEED to learn guitar scales. There are
countless songs, even entire albums, which could have easily
been written without any knowledge of scales.
Just the other day I was listening to a relatively new artist, Darwin Deez
- a prime example of an original, creative musician
based music requires zero scale knowledge. That's just one example of
many musicians, old and new, whose creativity has clearly not been
limited through lack of this knowledge (or at least an apparent lack of
But wait! Scales are not
something you should be so hasty to dismiss. While it's true learning
scales takes a fair amount of time and persistence, don't assume it's
beyond your capability. Don't limit yourself unnecessarily. Don't
overlook the benefits of learning
examine the likely outcomes of two types of guitarist - one who chooses
to learn scales and another who chooses not to learn scales.
If You Choose to Learn Scales...
find it easier to create musical, fluid solos
- Scales allow you to visualise a group of related intervals/notes in
various positions on the fretboard, known as patterns. Once these
patterns are committed to memory, they give you a road map for your
solos, meaning there's less chance of wandering aimlessly into
dissonance or hitting "bum" notes. You won't need to tread so
cautiously around the guitar neck, as the scale will show you which
notes are part of the implied harmony of a piece of music.
improvisation skills will develop faster
- Linked to the above point, knowing where to go on the fretboard will
give you the confidence to create musical phrases on the fly. Scales
are not a magic bullet for this, but knowing them certainly takes a lot
of the time consuming trial and error out of creating phrases that
"say" something meaningful. As time goes on, you'll find it easier to
connect scales to
their related chords and progressions.
& timing will come more easily
- knowing where to go on the fretboard is half the battle when it comes
to developing speed and good timing. Once you memorise a scale pattern
and don't have to think too much about where to go, you can get to work
on your muscle memory and developing physical confidence
with moving from one note to the next, in time and at varying speeds.
help you see note relationships
- As you learn scales, you soon realise they can be used as the
scaffolding for building elements such as chord shapes and arpeggios.
scales share common intervals, so you'll start to see common patterns
occurring as you learn them. For example, a 1 3 5 major arpeggio can be
found within several scales used over major chords. Similarly, that
same relationship can be used to build major chord shapes, which leads
naturally to understanding
chord inversions - something that might seem too complex without that
scaffolding to help you see them.
lead technique will improve - While knowing scales won't
make bending strings, legato, sweep picking, tapping and other
any easier, it will help you apply them more intelligently in your
solos. For example, if you know scales, you'll think "I can bend from
the minor 3rd to the 4th" to create the expression you want. You'll
know where to apply a hammer on/pull off. You'll have clear
notes for your bends and slides, meaning less guess work and less
chance of... oops... hitting a bum note.
If You Choose Not to Learn Scales...
may as well sell your guitar and give up now -
gravitate towards rhythm playing
- Scales are not essential for playing lead/solos, but it's true that
without them, you'll gravitate more towards techniques that don't
require that knowledge such as strumming and picking chords - the
backbone of a lot of music. That
doesn't mean you'll create inferior
music - look at the funk genre as just one example of many -
this was built around a strong emphasis on rhythm and groove, chunky
chords and chord phrasing. No scale knowledge required there,
just a good sense of timing, momentum and pick hand attack.
have more time to explore chords
- Many guitarists spend so much time developing their knowledge of
scales and lead technique, becoming exceptional soloists, but ask them
to play a few chords and they'll resort back to those open position
"cowboy chords" we learn as beginners. Nothing wrong with that as such,
but there are so many beautiful, unusual and vibrant chord voicings to
be discovered all over the guitar neck. It takes just as much time to
build your chord vocabulary as it does scales, and many guitarists find
it difficult to manage their time for learning both.
Inevitably, those who do try to learn both have to compromise somewhat.
Focus 100% on chords, and your music can be just as spine tingling as
the most epic solo, just in a different way.
focus more on writing songs, not solos - OK, that might be
a slight generalisation! But as mentioned before, the backbone of a
good song is often its chord
lyrics and vocal melody. While
scales can be useful
for embellishing melody in songs, many
beautiful, heartfelt songs consist purely of chords and rhythm. All the
melody can come from the vocals and other musicians with whom you
playing skills will be specialised - Specialising in a
certain musical role, such as rhythm or lead, can help focus your craft
as a musician. Don't feel like you have to master everything, because
this can easily lead to becoming a "jack of all trades", which is not
in of itself a terrible thing, but excelling in one particular style or
technique can make you truly stand out from the crowd. You can still
play an indispensable part in a band without knowing scales, or much
theory for that matter. It's unlikely you'll audition yourself for the
role of "lead guitarist" in a band if you don't know scales, but not
every band is looking for that. Most bands simply want fresh, original
and that comes from somewhere much deeper than simply knowing scales.
will still be able to play lead!
- It will perhaps just be more understated and based purely on what
sounds right to the ear. Some music is more suited to linear, subtle
melody. You may find this comes naturally, if you can hum a melody
and find the notes on the fretboard by ear. For this reason, ear
training is something I would recommend all musicians work
on, and the good thing is it does indeed come naturally with time.
The Bottom Line
I hope the above has given you some perspective on the need (or lack
thereof) to learn scales to become a creative, skilled and respected
On a personal note, I chose to devote (a
lot of) time to learning scales and theory, and I feel I'm a better
musician because of it. But if I really think about it, in reality I've
just become better at using scales! Without that knowledge I would have
surely found other ways to express myself on guitar, and
directed more of my energy into elements such as chords and rhythm
playing (finger picking, for example, is one area I have neglected).
My advice would always be to monitor your progress on guitar closely,
in relation to your long term goals as a musician. If you at any point
feel hungry for something new, to get those creative juices flowing
again, try introducing scales into your practice time and see if they
can offer you any fresh ideas. I guarantee they will add a new
dimension to your playing.
final word of warning about scales...
Unfortunately, too many guitarists learn a few scale patterns and then
struggle to use them in a musical and meaningful way. There's more to
learning scales than simply where to play them on the fretboard. For a
proper head start with scales, I highly recommend the Guitar
Mastery course by Craig Bassett. Using his system will not
you learn scales in less time, but it will also show you how to use
intelligently and creatively in your music.
Whichever path you choose to take - scales or no scales, I wish you all
the best in reaching your goals as a guitarist. Above all else, be yourself on guitar!