What are guitar scales?
The easiest way to describe a scale is to remember what it was like to sing, "Doh - Re - Mi - Fa - Sol - La - Ti - Doh" in elementary school. Guitar scales are the same as singing solfege, just like you did in elementary school, but instead of singing weird single consonants, you're playing the notes on your guitar. Simple as that.
There are different types of scales on guitar, of course. The most common guitar scales are the major scale, the minor scale, the pentatonic scale, and the blues scale. There are tons of scales that you could potentially learn to play, though not all of them can be applied so easily.* The scales I've mentioned are all heavily used and applied in guitar, though there are certainly some creative peeps out there pushing the bounds.
Direct benefits vs indirect effects
Practicing guitar scales can either have a direct benefit or an indirect effect on your enjoyment of guitar. If your eyes just glazed over, please, bear with me.
If you want to play guitar solos in rock or blues guitar, then practicing guitar scales will positively affect your enjoyment. This is because guitar scales will directly help, inform, and positively benefit your ability to play rock and blues guitar.
On the other hand, if you want to learn fingerpicking, learning scales will only have an indirect effect on your enjoyment. Fingerpicking doesn't incorporate scale technique as a whole, but your playing will definitely be sharpened by practicing the scales.
If guitar scales have either direct benefits or indirect effects, you might be curious if you can get away with not practicing them. The answer, as with just about anything in the wild and mysterious world of guitar, is it depends on what you want to do with them. Now it's on to the fun part: What are guitar scales good for, anyway?
What are guitar scales good for, anyway?
Overall, guitar scales are great for helping you do the following:
- Sharpening your picking technique.
- Sharpening your fretting hand accuracy.
- Creating a safety net for improvised solos.
- Sharpening your ability to hear music.
But, how do you know if you would even benefit from having a sharper picking technique, or having a safety net for soloing? The answer comes from understanding guitar genres. Let's get into whether or not guitar scales are useful or unuseful for each of the major guitar styles. Here goes:
- Acoustic Rhythm Guitar. Nope! If you'd be happy just strumming along to songs, you won't get a direct benefit from practicing scales. Indirectly, you'll make your chords sound stronger, but you'll rarely use scales for this style of guitar.
- Electric Rhythm Guitar. I'd say that guitar scales are a nice addition to your repertoire. Why? You never know when you'll need to play a single note or a melody. Guitar scales can help you with that, but it's not required. Kurt Cobain probably never knew a scale.
- Fingerpicking Guitar. If you like the songs Landslide, Dust in the Wind, or Blackbird, then you'll get an indirect effect effect from practicing guitar scales, though I'd still highly encourage you to learn them. Scales, as I mentioned before, can help you refine your technique to be more precise, and fingerpicking certainly requires precision.
- Rock Lead Guitar. If you like the idea of learning to play lead guitar, you'd be hard-pressed to go without learning guitar scales. Best to jump in early and often.
- Blues Lead Guitar. Absolutely. Go for it.
- Jazz Guitar. If you dig Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, or Bill Frisell, you are totally going to kill it if you know scales. Jazz guitar is complex. It will take several years of scale work to get comfortable with them. If you already have a head start at scales, check out the book Scales for Jazz Improvisation. If you are simply curious, try searching online using the query "guitar scales for jazz."
- Classical Guitar. If you like the sound of classical guitar ala John Williams or Manuel Barrueco, no doubt about it, you are going to benefit from learning guitar scales. I would wholeheartedly recommend using the Aaron Shearer scale method.
Wrapping up guitar scales, once and for all.
How do you know for sure if you need to learn guitar scales? Only you have the answer. It has to do with what you'd like to accomplish with them. You'll never fully know if they will be useful, but if you haven't the patience for learning really nerdy, technical bits of information, chances are you you ought to avoid them. You'll probably gravitate to music that won't require you to do it, anyway.
If it helps to relieve any anxiety, I have taught many beginners how to play guitar, and never once had they touched a guitar scale. These people were happy to play along to their favorite songs using basic chords and strumming techniques. If you feel like you'd be happy doing this, then practicing scales will only have an indirect effect on your enjoyment of the guitar. If you're looking to take guitar to a bigger and more advanced level, you won't get far without them.
*Slonimsky's massive Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns gives you each and every scale pattern possible, believe it or not. I always have found it impressive that John Coltrane was totally into this book and practiced it mercilessly.