Not everyone wants to be a lead player.
And it’s easy to think that the purpose of practicing things like scales is to learn to play lead guitar. There’s some truth to that, but the fact is that everyone can benefit from scale practice. Working the fingers individually builds control and will help make you a more accurate and confident player. You might never play a solo but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of all practice is to help you play better, and the benefits of playing scales extend way beyond learning any one pattern, lick, or song.
1. Scales build finger independence.
Playing chords requires a great deal of finger independence. We tend to think of chords as fixed formations: after all, we learn them as shapes. It’s definitely the easiest way to memorize where your fingers need to go. But look beyond that and you’ll recognize that a chord is a collection of individual notes played by individual fingers. If you’re looking to improve your chord transitions, for example, breaking down a chord change into individual finger movements is a powerful technique. In order to do that, you need to have control of each finger. This is where the scales come in. Properly practiced, scale work will do wonders for your control and precision, which is exactly what you need to execute a chord change well.
2. Scales can introduce you to the rest of the neck.
Another problem many long-term beginners have is being stuck on the first three frets. You might think that with a few exceptions this is all a strummer needs. On one level, that’s true. But chords can be played all the way up the neck, opening up all kinds of sonic possibilities. In order to do this effectively, you need to know where you are.
I discovered years ago that it was much easier for me to remember music when I knew WHAT I was playing and not just where to put my fingers. Scale practice is great for what I call “fretboard geography” – learning the layout of the notes on the neck. It’s not as complicated as it might sound, and our third reason explains why.
3. Scales reinforce your ability to hear and understand melody.
A major scale is actually one of the most familiar sounds in music. Read the following syllables and see what you hear in your head…you might even find yourself singing:
Do – re – mi – fa – sol – la – ti – do
Whether you remember the famous song from “The Sound Of Music” or not, there’s a good chance that when you think of those syllables you’ll hear the sound of a major scale. The major scale is one of the most common sounds in music of any kind, and every other scale can be understood by its relationship to the major.
How does this help?
Every tone of the scale has a distinctive sound you can learn to recognize. When you know what to listen for, the first note of the scale SOUNDS like note 1. The third note sounds like note 3. The process of learning these sounds is called ear training, and it will make you a better musician no matter what your goals are. Ear training makes it easier to learn songs both in your head and on the guitar. If you’re a songwriter, it helps build your vocabulary and therefore your options. If you’re learning to play lead it will help you play better and more interesting melodies.
So know that we know the why, let’s get started by introducing a simple 8-note C major scale:
Memorize this pattern as a sequence, paying attention to both fingering and sound. We call this the “open position” because we are using open strings along with the first three frets. Any time we talk about “position”, we’re referring to fingerings and location on the neck. A position is a four-fret span that can be reached with four fingers. Wherever the index finger is determines the placement of the other three, simply extending one finger per fret. So for the open position fingering we would use the index finger for fret one, the middle for fret two, and the ring for fret three.
This next example is in the second position, so we will use fingers 1 through 4 (index, middle, ring, pinky) to cover frets 2 through 5:
The pattern is completely different, but the notes duplicate the open position scale exactly. You might also notice that there’s overlap between the two forms. Most importantly, they both begin on the same note in the same location: the low C on the third fret of the 5th string. You might also notice how that note is the lowest sounding pitch of an open position C chord. See how the dots begin to connect?
Keep in mind that right now this exercise is NOT about stretching. Don’t try to hold all the fingers down at once: use the hand and arm to move from note to note, concentrating on landing cleanly with a clear sound. This develops your accuracy, which has to come first. Reach and speed will come with time.
Here’s one more example, starting from the same C note but moving up the neck. This time, we’ll cover two octaves, repeating the cycle from C to C a second time. In the process, we move across three positions. The opening fingering is a challenge: index on fret 3, middle on fret 5, pinky on fret 7 across the fifth and then fourth strings. The third string pattern is solidly in 4th position, and then we complete the second octave in the 5th position.
For a beginner, or someone new to lead playing, this is more than enough to get you started. Concentrate on learning and memorizing the scale forms, and remember that clear sound and fluid movement are much more important than speed at this point. But if you’re looking for a bigger challenge, check out this exercise.
This is a scale study from a video course I designed for JamPlay.com, a membership-based online lesson community that I recommend highly. It’s meant to be a melody, not just a scale…listen to the audio example for the rhythm. Have fun!