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Playing by Ear and Scales

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Active Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

I am new to the forum but have been reading the GN blog off off and on. Most recently, the blog posted some ideas on playing by ear. One of the last items it mentioned was learning at least 1 major scale pattern. I have played guitar for several years mainly based off of tabs but have learned some basic penatonic scales. My question is when it states learning a scale, does it mean all over the neck or just one octave? I have read stuff about "CAGED" theory as well as an easy method of playing up and down the neck. Basically, i want to learn to play by ear more, break out of "box" type patterns and learn a little music theory. Any pointers to lessons in this area would be appreciated.

Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 3221

I can only respond in the context of trying to learn to play bass by ear for the past couple years, and practicing scales to help. I practice scales all over the neck AND in a single position. Sometimes up and down a single string, because sliding up to a note has a different impact than a simple fingering. I've read that Joe Satriani sometimes does the single-string scale practice on guitar.

The most important thing for me has been to try to "hear" the intervals, e.g., what does root to 5th sound like, etc. This helps me to outline the underlying chords and come up with more interesting basslines and/or play the actual bassline to a song more accurately. I'm not nearly where I want to be yet, but getting better.

I recently met a guy who's been playing 40 years and is in a church band. Doesn't refer to the music sheets at all; just plays (fretless bass) by ear and goes with what he feels. Sounds great, too. Really impressive to watch and hear.

"Everybody got to elevate from the norm."

Active Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

Thanks for the ideas- I think one of the biggest problems that i have in trying to learn scales is the fact that the guitar is just not a visual instrument like a piano (to me anyway). I guess if you play long enough your fingers just know where to go for a specific tone like the guy you mentioned. All the tones must be neatly arranged in his head and it just flows.
So, when i look at 12 frets accross 6 strings, i really have to think that ok, i want to play something on the 3rd string and it has to be in the key of A so what the heck should it be.
I think if i can apply patterns and visualize them on the fretboard it would help alot. The patterns I am familiar with are minor penatonic and that doesnt really explore the neck and is obviously not a major scale. Does "CAGED" method try to address this?

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5582

Kinda funny, but to me guitar is a very visual instrument, but piano isn't. I'm not a very skilled pianist, but when I play I keep my eyes on the music and never look at the keyboard. To me, piano is easy because the notes are evenly spaced across the keyboard. You do the very same stretch to play the lowest octave as you do the highest. Guitar however is quite different, you have to really stretch to play across four frets down near the nut, and really cram your fingers together tight high up. So sometimes you have to look.

I don't know too many scales, but the ones I know I know very well. I know all 5 positions of the Minor and Major Pentatonic scales, the Major and Minor scale and a few others.

I think it is very important to learn the 5 positions of the Pentatonic scales, and learn them especially in the keys of CAGED, as these are the most common keys for guitar simply because you have lots of notes with open strings. There are songs written on guitar in every key, but the vast majority are written in these keys simply because they are easy for the player.

For me, I have a way of remembering the Pentatonic position by the form or inversion of the chord. For instance, your first position Minor Pentatonic is always going to be at the same fret as the "barred E chord" form of the chord. So, to play an A Major chord with a type barre E chord, you play it at the 5th fret, and that is also where you find the first position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale. Now you can move up two frets to the 7th fret and hold a type barre "D or D7" chord to play an A Major or A7 chord. And this is where the second position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale is played. Move up two more frets to the 9th and you can play an A chord by a "barre C" chord. And this is the 3rd position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale. Go up to the 12 and you can play an A chord using a "barre A" chord. This is where your fourth position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale is. And lastly, at either the 2nd or 14th fret you can play an A Major chord with a type "barre G" chord, and this is where you find the fifth position of the A Minor Pentatonic scale.

Hope that didn't confuse you. But I learn each Major chord at 5 positions on the fingerboard using the type E, D, C, A, and G forms, and I know the position of the Minor Pentatonic at each position. So, the chords help me memorize the scale, and the scale also helps me memorize the chord form. :D

The Major Pentatonic is always 3 frets down, but you can still use this system, except you base it on where your pinky is located instead of your index. So, if you play a barred E type chord at the 5th fret (A Major chord), play the first position Major Pentatonic with your pinky at the 5th fret.

Probably really got you confused now. :roll:

And I don't just learn a scale across the fingerboard from bass strings to treble strings as people are commonly taught, I also try to learn the scales up each string. You don't want to get stuck in a habit of just playing scales across the strings. No, learn to play them up each string, it changes your style which puts variety into your playing.

Hope this helped and didn't cause lots of confusion.

If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis

Active Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

Awesome summary and ideas. Thanks! I read it about 3 times so far and i am starting to get what you are saying. I need to read it a few more times and will sketch out a lesson plan for myself. I am familiar with the barre A and barre E but need to bone up on the barre C, G and D forms. Also, this is for the major and minor pentatonic scales. Is there anything similar for a straight up major scale or is this just adding the remaining 2 notes that are left out of the pentatonic with the same forms?

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5582

Well, a picture is worth a thousand words. :D

A chord (barre E) and A Minor Pentatonic 1st Pos.

A chord (barre D) and A Minor Pent. 2nd Pos.

A chord (barre C) and A Minor Pent. 3rd Pos.

A chord (barre A) and A Minor Pent. 4th Pos.

A chord (barre G) and A Minor Pent. 5th Pos. (also 2nd fret)

See how 1st position of the Minor Pent is always under the type "barre E" chord, the 2nd position under the "barre D", 3rd position under the "barre C", 4th position under the "barre A", and 5th position under the "barre G" form of a chord.

The Major Pentatonic is 3 frets down. So, 1st position is under the barre G (2nd fret), 2nd postion under barre E, 3rd position under barre D, 4th position under barre C, and 5th position under barre A.

Or you can think of the Minor Pent. scale being based on your index finger, the Major Pent. based on the position of your pinky. Look at it awhile and you'll see what I'm saying.

As for the Major and Minor scales, well, I am not a teacher, I think of them as the Pentatonic scales with added notes. I know that would make a teacher shudder, but that's how I do it.

You don't want to just learn the forms. Look at each scale note and examine which interval it is. In the A Minor Pentatonic, A is of course your Root note, C is the flatted 3rd, D is the 4th, E the 5th, and G the flatted 7th. Know where these notes are in each position. You want you solo to sound Bluesy? Throw in that flatted 3rd or flatted 7th note. So you want to know the notes by name and their relation to the Root note.

If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis