Do guitar scales really work for you?

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What do you think of when you hear the word Scale? We may know the theory behind it, we might know the formula. But in the real world of guitar playing it’s application, application, application. The notes or scale degrees are what you play. We have to learn how to play it to sound musical.

You don’t have to play fast

Do you feel good when you play a guitar solo? Does it sound musical? Hears some really good news. You don’t have to play fast to play a great guitar solo. Think of David Gilmour, he never shreds but is the king of melodic, soulful playing. When he plays, every note means something. He keeps you wanting to hear more.

Learn to play soulful solos and later you can develop speed which will add more intensity and add contrast. Even when we play faster we should be trying to sound musical. We don’t want to just move our fingers faster. We want it to sound like our favorite players, create emotion. Think about your favorite solos. The music has the ability to make you feel happy, sad or just feel good. That’s what we like about our favorite players. They make us feel a certain way when we hear them. Music is a powerful medium.

How to think about scales

A scale is a group of notes and it has a visual shape. But what really counts is the sound of the scale against the chord you’re playing over. Remember the chord notes are in the scale or we can add them to it. That’s why when you play blues the minor pentatonic is a great choice. A minor chord formula is a 1 b3 and 5. The 1 b3 and 5 are in the chord. That’s why it’s a perfect choice for a minor chord. We like to hear that bluesy emotional sound to the chord. There are several other scales we can use and each one gives a different emotional feeling. Minor Pentatonic is a great starting point to solo.

There are 5 minor pentatonic shapes across the whole neck of the guitar. Each shape looks different but has the same 5 notes everywhere. The minor pentatonic has a Root or 1, b3, 4, 5 and b7. As I said before the chord is in the scale, 1 b3 5. Someone has figured out for us where to play these notes. It takes the guess work out of it.

It’s pretty easy to learn the 5 shapes but you will spend a lifetime making music from them. I was taught all 5 shapes at one time and couldn’t make music for a long time with them. I believe it’s better to understand the process of soloing knowing the theory above and physically be able to play the notes in one position before moving to the other 4. Once you understand the process then the other shapes will make great sense.

The Process

Write out on a sheet of paper a list of Improv ideas. Slides, Hammer on’s, pull offs, bending, long notes and short notes and hitting the same notes more than once. Keep that list right in front of you. Now go to the scale and find a group of notes, 4 to 6 notes. This can be any group of notes from the scale that sound good to you.

Try 2 ideas from your list with your group of notes. Then try 2 different ideas with the same group of notes. Eventually this process becomes automatic. You should be able to get a few variations off of one group of notes. You are creating a lick or a line. After you get a few different licks, lines try them against a backing track. Remember, you don’t have to play fast.

This process take time and patience. Don’t compare your playing to your favorite blues or rock player who has thousands of hours of practice and gigging time. There was only one Stevie Ray Vaughan, there was only one Eddie Van Halen. I believe the best approach for learning guitar is to try to continually try always beat my best. I compete with myself and that keeps me motivated. I see students all the time who focus on someone’s playing who has years and years of experience over them.


Try this. Write out all the ideas in this article. Make a list. Set a timer for 15 minutes a day and try these ideas creating short musical phrases. Then when you 3 or more lines that you like, start playing them over a backing track. Don’t be critical, just play. Try it in different keys.

Think about this. If you develop 3 lines a week, that’s 12 lines a month, 36 lines in 3 months. I have many students that follow this process and apply it and are amazed at their progress. In 30 to 90 days you can start to solo that sounds great.

Put in the time every day. You will get better because you have a system to make your guitar playing better and you are applying it. That’s what it takes. I have students who have been playing guitar for over a decade when they first walk into lessons and I have them play and they can’t solo as well as some of my students who have been soloing for 3 to 6 months. It’s the power of the this process.


Think about how you’ve tried to solo before and some of the ideas here that are different. I always say, it’s about right, repetition. Do the right thing enough times and it will work. So take your time and digest a few ideas at a time. Really understand how this works and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Reach out and let me know how it works for you!