Scale practice often gets a bad reputation in the musical world. In this blog post you will learn 9 ways scale practice can be awesome for your guitar playing. I’ll explain why they are massively beneficial for your guitar playing, exactly how you should practice them and why four minutes is the magic number.
For some reason scale practice divides opinion about as much as Donald Trump and his funky hairstyle! I blame bad teachers, Hollywood and lazy musicians for this (the scales not Trump). Bad guitar teachers must share some blame as, let’s face it, many of them are guilty of saying “practice this or that scale” as it is an easy way to fill a lesson.
Hollywood gets some of the blame too because of the movies. There are lots of examples in the movies where you will see a student being forced to painstakingly play the G Major scale in perfect time to a metronome at exactly 60bpm while Mrs. Evil watches over. It’s usually on a piano but these subtle messages transfer to the guitar too.
I also blame lazy musicians too as many just don’t want to practice scales; thinking they won’t need them or once they have committed the scale shape to memory, they will no longer need to practice it.
Ooops! – Big mistake there, dear student!
I’ll explain why:
When you practice a scale, you are NOT just practicing a series of notes, you are doing so much more.
How to practice guitar scales for beginners all the way to more experienced guitarists
Here are just some of the critical aspects of your guitar playing you are covering when you practice a scale.
Read on, learn why they are so important and exactly how to practice your scales (in just 4 minutes) to improve all these areas of your playing and ensure your scale practice is actually useful, fun and highly productive.
If you are unsure what scale to begin with, and enjoy a bit of blues and rock then the minor pentatonic (box 1) is a great place to start.
9 ways to make your guitar scales more fun and productive
1) Alternate picking/fingers
If you want to play anything on the guitar with any sort of speed you need to have the ability to use alternate picking (if using a pick) or use alternate fingers (if playing fingerstyle). You can of course use legato techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs but these aren’t always an option (for example while playing notes on more than one string). Plus legato gives a different tone to actually plucking notes.
When you run through scales, don’t make the amateur mistake of just playing everything downstrums (if using a pick) or using just your thumb (if using fingers).
This is not a great way to practice, BUT a worse way is to use any old mixture of down or upstrums or even random fingers without any conscious thought as to what you are doing with the picking hand.
If you are using a pick to play and practice your scales, then aim to use clear and precise alternate picking, which means every note alternates between down and up picks.
As most of my readers either fingerpick or want to learn how, one of the best uses of scales is to practice alternating between your index and middle fingers for each pluck. Many try and use their thumbs for each note as it is easier at first.
Over time, though, you will see that the thumb has more limitations than alternating between two fingers. The thumb will be slower and give a softer tone.
By all means, practice your scales using your thumb but only in addition to practicing them between alternating index and middle fingers. You will get a lot of long term benefits from doing so.
What to do…
Run through the scale using alternate picking for every note.
Once you are comfortable playing the scale using alternate picking, play it using economy picking. Learn and master the ability to do both.
Practice the scale using alternating plucks with the index and middle fingers of the picking hand.
Introduce the ring finger. This can be useful when there are three notes on each string in a scale shape (which is most scales other than pentatonic scales).
2) Fretting hand finger independence
Most guitarists struggle with having complete control over each of the four fretting hand fingers and what is worse, most guitarists don’t even realise this. Often, they will play a scale and be so focused on playing the right notes that they won’t pay any attention to various fingers doing some wacky and quirky little things.
I recommend you stop reading this for a second and film yourself playing a scale, as you normally do on your smart phone.
Now watch the video back and pay close attention to what all four fingers are doing. When one finger is placed down or removed off the fretboard, are any other fingers doing any wacky moves like flying in the air like a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist?
If you have never paid close attention to your fretting hand fingers, you may see all sorts of things which may surprise you.
Many guitarists never spend any time looking at their fingers in this way, so the chances are, many of you will have issues here.
Weak finger independence affects a lot of your playing – often making slow chord changes as slow as a geriatric slug on a snowed-in street. It also limits your ability to play fast and makes playing tricky passages which require stretches harder than ever. Spend some time improving it.
You will get much better finger independence and control of your fingers if you do so.
What to do…
Try to focus on keeping all four fingers fairly close to the fretboard when practicing scales. Don’t let any finger jump out farther than 3cm and look for unusual and unnecessary finger movements.
Focus on not letting any finger move more than 1cm from the fretboard all the way throughout.
This is very tough and a real test of your finger independence as well, but it is certainly a great way to improve it.
3) String crossing
One of the biggest issues for many guitarists, when playing anything that requires them to pluck different strings, is that they lack the accuracy, consistency and confidence to do so.
The ability to pluck different strings accurately is a hugely important skill for pretty much every guitarist; whether that is for learning fingerpickings songs, lead shredding or blues licks or whatever.
At some point, every guitarist will want to play something that requires plucking of strings – and there is nothing more frustrating for most guitarists than trying to pluck a string only to realise that you have plucked the wrong one. I remember wanting to throw the guitar out of the window many times when this would happen to me in the early days!
Practicing playing scales means you will need to be switching strings quite a lot (unless you only practice the scale up and down one string – which is also a useful skill) and this will help tidy that aspect of your playing up very quickly.
What to do…
Practice the scale occasionally, purposely missing out a string. For example, if your scale starts on the low E string, you would usually play the notes on the A string next, instead jump past this string and go from the notes on the low E string to the notes on the D string and repeat.
Aim to play a string and then miss a string, play a string and then miss a string – do not play any adjacent strings at all until every string has been played at least twice.
Practice the scale with bigger jumps across the strings to really put this skill to the test.
Aim to jump across three (or more) strings in one go and don’t worry too much about how many times each note is played. The most important thing here is to keep hopping and jumping!
4) Tone production
If I’m honest, most guitarists – unless they have played a lot – have a tone that could be vastly improved. This is especially true for fingerstyle players.
As a fingerstyle player, you have your thumb, index, middle and ring fingers all plucking notes. You will have different strengths and feelings in all those digits and it takes a lot of time to control them in a manner that you want to.
The angle at which you hit the strings, how hard you hit them, where on the fingertip you pluck, whether or not you are using pure nail, pure flesh or both (both is usually best) – all make a huge difference to your tone.
- Is your tone clear, bright and as loud as if you picked the notes with a pick?
- Or, is it quiet, scratchy and weak?
Guitarists spend a lot of time working on the fretting hand but it is the picking hand that makes a massive difference in terms of tone. Practicing scales is a great way to really pay close attention to the tone of your playing.
What to do…
Play the scale and focus on each note having clear and consistent tone and volume.
Note: This is especially tough to do when you are moving from wound strings (low E, A and D strings) to unwound (usually G, B and high E strings). The G string can sometimes also be wound.
Record yourself with a microphone close up and listen very close to the tone of each note.
Each note should have the same tone and volume. Imagine they are being played on a piano – the tone of each note on a piano is easier to get consistent than on a guitar, so thinking like this will help.
Aim for perfection.
Most people practice scales in a simple eighth note or quarter note way but they are really missing out by doing that. As you probably know, I am a massive fan of students working constantly on their rhythm skills.
As long as you have good tone and great rhythm, you can sound like an awesome guitarist but without either you will never be amazing.
Great rhythm is much more than just playing in time. It is about knowing, understanding and applying your sub-divisions.
Can you play quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and triplets?
If not, watch this video (and don’t forget to subscribe to my channel) to learn more about playing different sub-divisions.
What to do…
Play the scale all the way through using the following sub-divisions:
- Quarter notes
- Eighth notes
- Sixteenth notes
Play the scale once through using a combination of the above sub-divisions to create some interesting rhythms.
You can also learn to play the scale using the following sub-divisions:
- Dotted eighths
Although there is much more to rhythm than just playing in time, one essential factor is having rock solid tempo.
If you constantly speed up or slow down, your music will sound unprofessional and your ability to practice will be impaired.
For example, a song that is popular among my private students is Oasis ‘Half the world away’ (great and fun song by the way).
A few students would play this song, starting off with the correct, steady tempo but as they move forward in the song and it gets more complicated in terms of structure (after the fun and easy intro), their tempo starts to wander and increase – making the song harder to play and harder to remember.
The overall sound starts weaker. Whenever this would happen, I would realised that some solid tempo work is in order.
Sometimes you would want to have an accelerando (speed up) or ritardando (slow down), particularly in dramatic music or towards the end of a piece, but the key point is that this should be done intentionally and consciously – not by accident.
You should aim to practice with a click and drum beat regularly. Try playing the scale once for a variety of tempos using the same sub-division (e.g. using quarter notes).
Use faster and slower tempos. Faster tempos are obviously harder from a technical point of view as having the technique to keep up is really tough, but not many guitarists realise that practicing at a really slow tempo with a click or drum beat is also really hard!
The reason why is, when the tempo is super slow there is more space between each click making your aim of playing notes bang on the click harder as there is more margin for error.
What to do…
Practice your scales at a variety of tempos and use a drum beat or a click to ensure you have rock solid tempo.
Aim to play them at the following:
- Slow (about 50bpm)
- Medium (about 80bpm)
- Fast(ish) (about 110bpm)
Try playing a scale with a click at about 40bpm using only quarter notes (which means one note per click).
Aim to make each note in perfect time with the click. It is tough but is great for your internal sense of time.
Dynamics are so important to music. Most guitarists don’t realise the power you can give to a song just by changing how hard you play certain notes or passages.
It doesn’t take much effort to play something a little louder or softer but can make a big difference to what the audience hears.
You should be able to play at loud, soft and medium volumes without much problem. This is essential for every guitarist and should be the minimum of what you aim for.
Ask yourself, can you play really loud and can you play very softly?
If you ever hear the words pianissimo and forte, that is what they mean.
- Pianissimo = soft
- Forte = loud
That is what is called dynamic range and most guitarists actually have a very small dynamic range. Take a look at this video of mine for a quick guide to dynamics.
Imagine a scale of 1-10.
- 10 being super loud – as loud as you can play
- 1 being soft – so soft you can hardly hear the sound
Now tell me how often do you practice anything playing at either of these volumes?
It is probably rare and if you are like most guitarists, you have probably never done this before.
You probably won’t want to play at either extreme very often but being able to do so can add great power and emotion to your playing – and the truth is, most guitarists lack the ability to play very loud or very quiet and still be accurate.
What to do…
Play the scale at the following volumes:
Play the scale at the following volumes:
- Super soft
- Super loud
Both of these will be hard at first since you may never have done this before but stick with it – as the rewards can be an awesome sense of drama introduced to your music!
8) Fretboard knowledge
Another really cool thing about practicing scales is that they can really help you understand the fretboard. Many guitarists told me in last year’s big survey that they really want to learn the notes on the fretboard.
Well one way to do that is learn what the notes are in any scale you have learnt. You wouldn’t believe how many guitarists know a variety of scales but have no clue as to what the notes are in the scale!
For every scale you learn you should try to learn all the notes within it. This will save you a lot of time. Instead of going back and learning the notes on the fretboard at a separate time, you can do so while learning the scale.
What to do…
For every scale, instead of just knowing where the notes are on the fretboard, actually find out what each note is and learn them. While playing each note, say the note out loud.
Close your eyes and visualize the fretboard.
Don’t play the scale in real life but play it in your mind’s eye and say the note out loud. Doing it this way really forces your brain to work harder to see the fretboard and in my experience makes learning the notes stick even better.
9) Playing relaxation
One of the biggest culprits of frustration on the guitar for beginners is that they lack the dexterity required to fret notes cleanly – particularly when playing chords. This often means that they fret notes with way too much pressure which causes a whole host of issues such as:
- Sore fingers
- Slow chord changes
- A tense picking hand
Whenever you play anything on the guitar, you should be aware of how much pressure you are using with both hands and not just that, but the amount on tension throughout your body.
I call this ‘minimum pressure required’ and go into it in more detail in my Ninja chord changes course.
Some beginners email me and tell me that they get tired from playing guitar and their shoulders or back hurts. Posture is, of course a possible problem but playing with too much tension and pressure for everything is a major culprit too.
One thing you should focus on when playing through a scale is making sure each note is played cleanly, fretted close to the fret wire (where less pressure is required) and your body, including both hands and fingers, gets rid of any tension.
You should focus on breathing nice and deeply too when playing. I have seen people hold their breath for so long when playing tough passages, they start to turn blue and look a little like a smurf.
Relax and breathe!
What to do…
Remove all the tension from your fingers, hands and shoulders by gently wiggling them, rubbing them and stretching them.
Keep this relaxed feeling while playing and focus on breathing deeply.
Close your eyes and focus on breathing deeply while consciously making an effort to relax each part of your body.
Play the scale and think about relaxing your left leg, followed by right leg, left arm, etc until each part of your body is tension free.
You should feel your playing relax and become more enjoyable when this becomes a habit!
Use the above as a checklist for practicing your scales
Wow, that is a pretty big list of key techniques that you need to be good at if you want to sound like a real good guitarist.
When playing a song you are often going through some of these techniques but the problem is that you are usually so focused on playing the song that these techniques don’t get any attention and problem areas or areas that need improving never get fixed. The problem is still there when you learn the next song.
Use the above list as a checklist when you play through a scale.
- Make sure you have focused on improving each area of your playing of the 9 above.
- Go through them separately and try to improve each one.
- If you find any of the above weaker than the rest, spend extra time running through the scale and focusing on that aspect.
For example, you may be able to play the scale with great tone and a variety of rhythms with ease but you might struggle to remember what the notes you are playing are or you might not have complete control over the dynamics.
If that is the case, focus your time on the weaker areas.
Once you are happy with each aspect and have marked each one off, then you should focus on the overall big picture of your playing when going through the scale.
All of this sounds like a lot to think about but you don’t have to go through each aspect every day and it really is not that much to do.
Just four minutes of regular scale practice can get you big results
Yes, just four minutes is all that is needed to improve these areas.
The reason for this is, if you play a scale nice and slowly, let’s say the A minor scale and you were to ascend and descend the scale at a steady pace it would take roughly 16 seconds (yes, I just timed myself, geek alert).
That means if you were to play through the scale 9 times (covering all 9 of the above), that would be a little less than 4 minutes in total (adding a few seconds for pauses between each repetition of the scale).
This is no time at all to cover a lot of ground.
You don’t need to practice scales like this every day and you don’t need to add it to some official hard lined practice routine you will never likely follow, but you do need to try to practice scales like this on a regular basis.
Don’t just run up and down the scale crazily.
In fact, focus on all the above aspects paying attention to each detail and your playing will benefit in a variety of lovely ways making it more effortless, controlled, enjoyable, productive and beautiful.
For a few minutes worth of ‘work’ a few times a week we can’t say fairer than that!
Stop learning boring drills and combine them all into your scale practice for much bigger and better results
The great thing is, if you weren’t aware that scales cover all of the above and more and you saw this list, you might be tempted to go and find an exercise for each skill to practice these with.
In fact, a lot of people do. I see various drills or exercises on YouTube and Reddit that cover things such as tone production and string crossing – which is all good, but when you practice a scale you don’t really have any need to play tonnes of exercises.
If you do have the time to play a crazy amount of different technical exercises, I’d say, forget all of them, spend your time better and go and play live, you’ll improve much more doing that than by playing a boring drill, but I digress.
As you probably know by now that I’m not much of a fan of drills. It seems like a lazy way to fill time for both teacher and student. I only teach a small variety of technical exercises but all of them have a specific purpose and usually more than one purpose.
Scales aren’t anything new but what is unique about the way I teach scales is that I get the student to focus on playing it with the above checklist in mind.
Every time you play a scale, think about all of these 9 variables that are at play and you’ll not only find playing the scale more productive but in fact, it will be more stimulating and enjoyable too.
Oh, and don’t go practicing any scale for much more than 4 minutes.
Alan Jackman says
Great article, I’ve been practicing some of the tips you mentioned but I have a huge problem. When I move between strings using alternate picking, I always do 2 downstrokes instead of altering.
Another problem I have is moving between different boxes of the scale. They are too far from each other and I just get stuck in 1 position.
Any tips on that?
Dan Thorpe says
Hi Alan, thanks for the kind words. “Economy picking” is great for when changing strings. That means you use alternate picking when on the same string, but when you change strings you start the first pluck in the direction you are travelling.
For example, if you change from the low E to the A string, no matter if you have just played an up or down, your first pluck would be down. The reverse is also true. Tough concept to explain in text (I`ll have to do a video) but let me know if that makes sense.
As for the box shapes, have you tried checking this out. The concepts here make this what you are struggling with simpler.
Thanks a lot, Dan. Economy picking is exactly what I was looking for. The article is nice too. but honestly I’m a bit too past that stage. At this point I’m more of exploring different ways to move throughout the scale all around the neck. But you write well.
Dan Thorpe says
Thanks, Alan. I know what you mean, that is something I may look to write more about soon, but I am more dedicated here at developing beginners, taking them from the early stages or being frustrated, all the way to being the guitarist they want to be, but it`s great that you as more of an advanced player stopped by and commented. Many thanks. Dan