29 January 2013

Why I Stopped Practicing Guitar Scales (and Got Better at Playing Solos)

Sor Guitar Studies
On my bookshelf I have a collection of classical studies for guitar by Fernando Sor and Matteo Carcassi. Fernando Sor is famous for his numerous "studies" - short guitar exercises - that have formed a staple part of classical guitar learning since the early 19th century.

How many scales are played in the 100 pages of music notation? Not one. Instead, the book is filled with melodic exercises designed to develop dexterity and skill with both fretting and picking hands.

Who Wants to Play Scales?

Like many of us I learned about the pentatonic scale boxes when I started to study blues guitar. I diligently practiced these scales, up and down, in all the five positions. I even learned the diagonal patterns that linked the boxes so I could move up and down the fretboard from one box to another. I practiced these scales in binary and triplet time and I used a metronome to get faster and faster.

But despite all that effort, when I put on a jam track and tried to solo things just didn’t work out. I didn't know how to turn those scales into a decent blues guitar solo.
It wasn't until much later and much frustration that I finally began to understand what was wrong with my approach.

“Goodbye Scales”, “Hello Melodies”

Scales provide a map of your guitar fretboard that shows which notes are good to use at a given time.  They can also be a good tool to build strength, dexterity and coordination of hands and fingers. Spend your practice time playing scales up and down and you will obviously become quite good at doing that. But real music is not made of scales played up and down.

Get hold of a songbook for the kind of music you like and take a look at the vocal melodies. You'll see that they hardly ever follow a scale linearly. Instead, the notes go up and down in irregular steps and jumps. Up a note and then down a couple before climbing back up again. These little roller-coaster sequences usually repeat many times along the way.
One thing you will almost never see are lines of notes moving neatly up or down a scale one step at a time.

Wake Up Those Rhythms Too

While you’ve got those melodies before you take a look at the note durations too. Flurries of short notes are cut by longer notes. A series of long notes is woken up with a flurry of short ones.

But when we practice scales its almost always with a constant rhythm. It might be quarter, eighth, sixteenth or triplet notes, but it’s the same played all through the scale.
Of course, when you solo you repeat these same rhythm patterns that have become habit through practice. Your notes all have the same duration. Boring.

You have to practice rhythmic variations like those you see in the songbook so that they become the habit that comes out in your solos. So why spend your practice time teaching yourself to do exactly the opposite and play those same old eighth notes all the time?

Melody Practice

It's really quite easy to avoid these scale practice problems. Give up on racing up and down the scale boxes on your guitar neck one note at a time. Get hold of some melodies and practice them instead.

There are lots of different sources you can use to find melodies to work with. Here are just a few ideas to get started.

  • Get a songbook of your favourite songs or artist and practice the vocal melodies on your guitar. You can break them down into small chunks of 2, 4 or 8 bars to work on.
  • Get hold of some guitar licks collections to give yourself lots of musical phrases to practice. You can find these in lick books, learn them from a teacher, a magazine, or even from Fernando Sor.
  • An excellent way to gather melodies is to pick them out by ear. Have a go at this and you'll do your musicality a world of good.


I hope you understand now that there are more effective ways to spend your guitar practice time than running up and down scale boxes. You can use melodies instead to:

  • Build strength, dexterity and coordination of hands and fingers
  • Train your hands and fingers to work musical roller-coasters, not boring straight lines
  • Have more fun as you play real music

What is your experience with scale practice? Do you find it useful? Do you use alternatives like melody practice? Click the comment link below to share your thoughts.


Osiris said...

For this specific reason I never compose my solos with a guitar. I sing them into the Soundcloud app on my phone and then map them out on the fretboard later. Same with riffs. I really wish I had a better "make the thing I hear in my head come out through my hands" connection, but that's not within reach right now.

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Anders, singing solos is a great way of being more melodic. Like you, I find it's hard to sing and play what I sing simultaneously. Still working on it... ;-)

Les Wise said...

Great and interesting article. I have my students get their mind right before they start practicing. They write down what they want to practice, how long, how they will feel after and that they want to go into the practice feeling relaxed and ready. This technique I shared has helped me help them.

JasperV said...

Well this makes me feel a bit better about my current state of guitar skill XD

I've been trying too hard to learn notes, chords, tabs, scales at the same time...

I will try focussing on melodies!

The Guitar Learner said...

learning guitar scales and modes is a big topic. memorizing them is one of the way learning it and that's not the only thing we can do. if we only memorize it, soon we'll get bored and forget it.. i consider scales as my framework of arpeggios and connections to root/traditional music. IMHO

John said...

Hi Anders, singing solos is a great way of being more melodic. Like you, I find it's hard to sing and play what I sing simultaneously. Still working on it... ;-)

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