Friday, August 27, 2010

Basic Scales for Guitar. Friend or Foe?

Basic Scales for Guitar.
Friend or Foe?

Guitar teachers and books all seem to preach the dogma of scales. How much do basic scales really help? Find out in this interesting article.

If you're reading this, I'm assuming that you're interested in playing lead guitar, improvising and/or composing.

Love/hate relationships...I have a love/hate relationship with scales. After 25 years experience with the guitar and about 35 years with music (I'm also a singer and semi-decent pianist) I'm convinced that scales are not the best way to learn music. I've also noticed more than a few students get turned off by music - from scales.

OK Dave, so why the heck do ya' have an article on them? Well, for some people, especially in the beginning, they can be useful to get their chops together. ( If you didn't already know, chops are what we musicians call technical ability on the instrument).

Basic scales are very moderation. Especially in the beginning for ear training and basic mapping out of the guitar fretboard. Once these tasks have been accomplished, basic scales should be left behind. The student will progress further and faster by focusing on music.

What do you mean by "music"? Songs, licks, riffs and composing. I write more about these essential ideas on my theory page, but I will expose the strengths and weaknesses of basic scales for you right now.


get playing mechanics together quicklyear trainingfretboard mapping


The weaknesses require more explanation. First, some background...

I got into music through my mum (Canadian, eh) who was an excellent singer and also accompanied herself on the piano while she sang. She would teach me to sing songs by ear, and I would attempt to figure them out at the piano.

Later,(about age 7 or so) I began a formal study of the piano. I had a good teacher and for the first 5 years I made great progress. Once I hit the age of 12 or 13 though, I wanted to try to play songs I heard on the radio. I also wanted to improvise. This led to some frustration because everything I'd been learning was either printed music or scales.

The upside was that I made it a mission to learn to play by ear and to improvise. I also developed a passionate interest in guitar and rock music. Not too long after this, when I was about 15 I started forming a vision of being a musician. For me, that meant "going against the grain" of the establishment.

Of course my musical vision has gone through several transformations by now.Long story short, I decided the easiest way for me to be a full time musician after high school was to audition for the Jazz Music curriculum at Toronto's Humber College. Humber College is kind of like Canada's version of Berklee in the United States. Although much smaller, it boasted teachers who were all world-class masters at what they did.

The drawback was that scales were the method by which a lot of the music was explained. I played scales and "modes" up, down and sideways. I started to believe that becoming a world-class jazz musician wasn't worth it. This is probably why I continued to pursue playing mostly rock music at that time in my life. Who wants to play basic scales all day and night? Especially when I didn't see any results in my ability to improvise.

My point about the weaknesses... guitar scales and basic scales can make you lose sight of the forest for the trees. You start to think and analyze too much. Instead of responding in a spontaneous way.

More Background

Luckily for me, I had a spark of imagination and common sense. As soon as my assignments for school were complete(or before!)I would learn all the Eddie Van Halen and Slash tunes and solos I could. I also played out in a couple of cover bands while still attending Humber College.

As soon as I graduated (after 4 years of basic scales...yikes!) I formed my own original band here in Toronto and started playing the clubs. I didn't play a scale or even look at printed music for many years, and I made more progress than I ever had!

I'm sure my teachers at Humber College had learned this way too. Jamming, copying licks from recordings, writing music...Of course, my studies gave me a solid musical foundation upon which to build. My point is that you don't want to get caught up in too much theory or scale playing. Make music!

Sidenote: Humber College was an awesome experience for me. My teachers were some serious world-class musicians. Many of my fellow students were amazing musicians. There was a lot of jamming going on. It wasn't all scales ;-) I'm sure that a lot of what I'm capable of now is due to the seeds planted at Humber :-)

More "ranting"...Basic scales are just a convenient form for teachers to package musical ideas in. Teachers don't mean to do any harm. They probably don't know how they learned what they know, or they just don't know how to express it.

People have been making music for eons. Melodies have been around for centuries. I believe they come from the collective consciousness of humanity. If that's a little "out there" for ya' , hey! I'm a musician!

The point is that basic scales are man-made. They were invented by academics who analyzed music that was made by musicians and noticed patterns.

These patterns are akin to the "rules" of grammar. The language developed, and then grammar was invented. Do you think that knowing a lot about the rules of grammar helps you communicate your ideas more effectively?

In summary: Practice your scales on guitar. Just don't forget the goal is to make music :-) Best in guitar and Life,


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