The 5 Ways To *Really* Know A Scale

There’s knowing something, then there’s really knowing something. Then there’s how well you need to know your guitar scales.

Thorough scale knowledge is the underpinning heart of soloing, improvisation, jamming, composition and songwriting, and practically all music theory.

Frequently, aspects of music practice like scales can receive a bit of a hard time – seen as overly technical, mechanical, and synonymous with long, repetitive (often chore-like) practice sessions.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. With good teaching or online lessons, a good attitude, good perspective, and quality rather than quantity of practice time, practice itself can be fun as well as fruitful.

But additionally, application of knowledge as early as possible is vital. Scales aren’t the most fun things in the world to play but knowing them enables so much of what is fun about guitar playing.

There’s no escaping the fact that the better you know your scales, the better soloist, improviser, or composer you have the potential to be. And – of course – you want to be great at all these things, so get these scales nailed. And I mean really, really nailed.

Here are the 5 ways to really know your scales:

1 – The Scale Formula

Each scale type has its own distinct formula, which is described in terms of the size of the moves between the scale’s notes. This sounds quite convoluted, so here’s an example to make the point:

Major Scale = Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

What this means is, if we pick a starting note of A, the first move is of a Tone (meaning two frets / two notes on a piano / two semitones) to the note of B. This is followed by another Tone jump, to C#, then a semitone to D. And so on.

This is the first way in which it is possible to know a scale – before you even come to thoughts of notes and intervals, learn the formula of the major scale (and other common scales such as minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, harmonic minor, and so on).

This way – even if somehow you don’t know which note you’re on, or the notes in a scale, if you know the formula, you can simply build the scale you need by formulating the appropriate sequence of ‘moves’.

Although quite a simple concept, this can be quite difficult to fully understand and visualise, so make sure you read this section carefully again if you need to, and perhaps practice a few examples on paper before moving on.

2 – Pattern On The Guitar

This is the way you’ll most commonly encounter scales as a guitarist – the scale pattern, meaning the sequence of notes in the scale shape, usually depicted as a diagram of a section of the fretboard, with dots showing which notes are played in – and which are omitted from – the sequence.

Your aim as a guitarist is to ‘collect’ these scale patterns – to learn the shapes and play them fluently until they’re committed to memory. Being able to play a C#minor scale, or a D Major Pentatonic scale on command is an incredibly powerful tool for a guitarist. If it feels a little perfunctory and like going through the motions, the chances are you’re just not aware enough of how to apply these pieces of knowledge to your creativity. There isn’t time to explore this here, but it would be good advice to look into the basics of improvisation and soloing (appropriate to your current ability level) for one of the most expressive ways to apply your scale knowledge.

3 – Intervals On The Guitar

Hopefully you’re familiar with terms like ‘root note’, ‘perfect fifth’, ‘major third’ and so on. If not, now’s a great chance to go and spend a bit of time learning those. Every note in any scale can be described in these terms, and when learned properly can convey a lot of theoretical information about the scale formation, its possible uses, its tone/feel, and which chords might suitably be used with/beneath it.

4 – Notes by name (main keys + others quick recall)

This is probably fairly clear, and it’s knowing the notes that comprise a scale by name. That is to say:

A minor scale = A B C D E F G

D major scale = D E F# G A B C#

This is so important, particularly in communicating with other musicians, understanding music theory, and getting to know the fretboard very well.

The good news is that by now, having looked at scale formulae, interval formulae, scale patterns and note names, you’ll be assembling a kind of web of types of knowledge, meaning that when you know something, you really know it – as it’ll be backed up by all the other strands of evidence and knowledge in your arsenal. And when you don’t know it, you’ll be able to figure it out using at least one of these many different approaches.

The point here isn’t that your knowledge needs to be 100% perfect at all times, that isn’t realistic even with many years of experience. The point is instead that you can over time weave together multiple approaches to feel secure about scales, music theory, or any other element of music practice.

5 – Scales Any Way

Finally, a point on maintaining interest while developing fretboard fluency. The way to achieve both of these positive elements is the same – and it’s about varying your approach. Here are some of the many ways you can play a scale:

  • Bottom to top
  • Top to bottom
  • Up and down (i.e. Bottom to top)
  • Every other note (skipping every second note)
  • In intervals – perhaps octaves, or fifths
  • Over backing tracks
  • Without looking at the fretboard
  • Up one scale and down another

And so on – there are so many ways, and you should experiment to find your own creative ways. And surely it is clear that – after having done all the above – you’ll really, really know your scales.

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer.