Which Guitar Scales Should I Learn? – A Beginner’s Guide

As a beginner, you may wonder “which guitar scales should I learn?” This can be overwhelming for a new guitarist. I know, because I remember being there myself. I remember watching the guitar legends like Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and others play all over the place, and think “how and what are they doing?”

How did they know what they were doing. They’d be dancing all over the neck, and I remember feeling so overwhelmed, thinking I’d never be able to play like that, because I had no clue what they were doing.

I mean seriously, take a look at Paul here, and tell me you’re not amazed at what he’s doing?

I mean, what? Where? How? …. Anyway. Luckily, after playing for many years and striving to learn more to be a better guitarist, I’ve learned how to do some of that fun stuff, and I want to teach you!

Is It Important To Learn Guitar Scales?

It depends. If you just want to be a casual guitarist, who strums chords and sings at campfires (which is fine), NO, I CAN’T HONESTLY SAY IT IS IMPORTANT TO LEARN SCALES. You can still be a strummer and a singer and be a great musician. Heck, you could become famous just doing that if you wanted! Guys like James Taylor, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young come to mind.

But if you’re like me, maybe you want to play some single note stuff. Maybe you want to play solos, or lead guitar. Maybe you want to be an improviser. Maybe you want to be a (dare I say it) shredder like Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci, Satriani, Vai, etc. Maybe you’re into face-melting solos like me. If so, then the answer is OF COURSE IT’S IMPORTANT! Not only is it important, it becomes a silly question. Scales form the lifeblood of music. So dig in, and let’s get started!

What Is A Guitar Scale?

Wikipedia defines a music scale as “a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch.” In other words, it’s a group of notes. Usually scales have anywhere from 5-7 notes, but can have more.

One scale spans the frequency range of an “octave” which is a set of two notes of the same letter (G for example) that have double frequency or half the frequency of the other. They will sound similar to each other, but just higher or lower in pitch.

The Major Scale makes up the majority of modern music, but all sorts of derivatives and modifications of it are used to form other scales as well. This is the first one I’ll teach you about on the guitar.

Which Guitar Scales Should I Learn First?

I’m approaching this lesson as if you know nothing about scales. Hopefully, you at least know a few chords. If so, great! The first scale I’m going to teach you is a simple little G Major Scale.

It’s the first one I learned, and I think it’s a good one for beginners. It uses open strings, so you will be playing it low on the neck. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to move higher up the neck soon! Here’s what it looks like, along with tablature underneath.

The G Major Scale – Open Position

G Major Scale Open Position 6th String Root

E|--------------------------------------------0--2--3--
B|-----------------------------------0--1--3-----------
G|-----------------------------0--2--------------------
D|--------------------0--2--4--------------------------
A|-----------0--2--3-----------------------------------
E|--0--2--3--------------------------------------------

The squares on the diagram indicate the “roots” of the scale. In this case, it is the G note…the note the scale is named after, and the note in which will sound like “home.”

  • This scale moves through 2 octaves, and contains two notes below the lowest octave.
  • The first octave is on strings 6 to 3.
  • The second octave is on strings 3 to 1.

Now let’s look at another scale.

The C Major Scale – Open Position

C Major Scale Open Position 5th String Root

E|--------------------------------------------0--1--3--
B|-----------------------------------0--1--3-----------
G|-----------------------------0--2--------------------
D|--------------------0--2--3--------------------------
A|-----------0--2--3-----------------------------------
E|--0--1--3--------------------------------------------

This is another scale that uses all of the open strings.

  • This scale moves through one octave, but includes notes above and below that octave.
  • Root notes (C) are on the 5th and 2nd strings.

These are both what I would call “starter” scales to get you going. But let me be clear. These scales are very essential to know. However, starter, never means useless. If I thought you were never going to use something I wouldn’t bother posting it to this website. I would take the time to sit down and learn these two scales before learning the next couple I’m going to show you.

A Minor and C Major Pentatonic Scales

This scale is responsible for countless solos in rock, blues, country, and all of popular music. It’s also another beginner friendly scale. Here’s the cool thing about learning it. IT’S TWO SCALES COMBINED INTO ONE!

Once again, it’s beginner friendly, but it’s very useful. Here they are

A Minor Pentatonic Scale 5th Position 6th String Root

C Major Pentatonic Scale 5th Position 6th String Root

E|--------------------------------5--8--
B|--------------------------5--8--------
G|--------------------5--7--------------
D|--------------5--7--------------------
A|--------5--7--------------------------
E|--5--8--------------------------------

What do you notice about the two? Same notes, different scale name right? Yes, the only difference is the root note. The rectangular note is moved up 3 frets. You play both scales the same way. The only difference is how you use them.

Here’s the little secret. The same notes can make up multiple scales if you change the root note. Another thing about this scale is that it can be moved all over the neck and used in any key! I’ll talk about that further below in this article.

How To Play Guitar Scales

To answer this question, let’s break it down into two subjects. First, how to physically play them, and second, the best way to go about learning them.

Finger Placement

Typically, the best way to play single note melodies on the guitar is to use all four fingers. Let’s take a look at our fingers numbers, just like we do for chords.

A Minor Pentatonic Scale 5th Position 6th String Root Finger Numbers

The standard rule is to use all four fingers to span four frets. Each finger is dedicated for one fret on that four fret span. For example, that A Minor Pentatonic Scale from above would typically be played like this.

Look at my hand.

Finger-Placement-Guitar-Fretboard
One finger per fret

There are exceptions to every rule though. Sometimes the ring (3) finger is used in place for the pinky (4). When playing high on the neck, or sometimes even low, it’s easier to use the ring finger instead of the pinky. It will be a judgement call you’ll have to make on a case-by-case basis.

How To Learn And Practice Scales

Here is my philosophy for learning new scales. I have a series of steps you should follow.

  1. Start by simply learning the location of the notes. Use the diagrams supplied above to get the location of the scale under your fingers.
  2. Practice playing the scale, ascending and descending without worrying about any tempo or time.
  3. Practice playing the scale, ascending and descending, in time, to a metronome, drum track, or backing track of some sort. Play at a slow tempo at first, then gradually speed up. Do this until you get to the point where you are extremely comfortable moving up and down the scale at a moderate tempo. You want to be able to play it without having to think about it too much. You want to internalize it and get it “under your fingers” so that it’s natural, and your muscles have formed a memory.
  4. Start improvising with it. Make melodies with the scale. Use a backing track for this. For example, if you are practicing the A Minor/C Major Pentatonic scale above, you can go to Youtube and search for “a minor backing track” or “c major backing track. Here, I found one for you. If you are playing the C Major Pentatonic scale, you’ll want to find anything in the key of C Major. Same with A Minor scale and A minor keys.

The idea is to not learn a scale for knowing a scale’s sake. It’s to be able to use it! By following the steps above, you’ll be taking the first steps to learning to be an improviser. Exciting stuff!

This may seem like simple stuff, but by following the steps above for every scale you learn, you’re doing more than many guitarists out there bother to do. So many guys stop with just learning the chords, when they’re capable of so much more just by putting forth a little effort to learn this stuff.

Let’s talk about another awesome thing about the scale I just introduced you to.

The Beauty Of Movable Scale Patterns

Did you know you can take the A Minor/C Major Pentatonic scale I taught you above and move it all over the neck? That’s right. It doesn’t use any open strings. If a scale or chords doesn’t use open strings, it’s movable, and can be used anywhere on the neck!

If a song is in a minor key (you can tell by listening and getting a feel for it), use the minor pattern, and move it so that the root note is on the key that the song is in. Then you can use the minor scale pattern to improvise over it. This is fun!

Same goes with a song in a major key. Move the scale pattern to match up the root note (remember, the root note in the major scale is in a different spot) with the note of the song’s key.

Summary

This article was written with the question of which guitar scale you should learn first. As I said, I’d start off with learning the G and C Major scales played in the open position. These are fairly easy for beginners to learn, and they are useful to know.

Then you can learn the pentatonic pattern I gave you as well. That scale pattern is EXTREMELY useful, and you’ll most likely be using it a lot if you go on to play rock solos, or become a jazz/glues guy.

After you’ve learned the scales in this article, I’d highly recommend my more advanced article about all the major scale patterns you should know to become a serious improviser.

Hope that helps. Go learn some scales!

1 thought on “Which Guitar Scales Should I Learn? – A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. Hi Brandon,
    I have often wondered what you explained above was all about. Some magical stuff or knowledge that only selected guitar maestros know and perform magically on their instruments. Thank you for your explanation and good illustrations and video. It certainly helped to enlighten the whole subject a tad bit. I am intending to learn what you have to offer although it might take me longer to digest and figure things out but I am just glad that there are dedicated musicians like you who are willing to freely share your knowledge with the world.

    I am a beginner in guitar playing and the road ahead is long and arduous but I plan to plod on! Thank God for people like you. My email is [email protected] and I sure am looking forward to your sharing more good stuff to help people like me!
    Daphne

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