Have you ever seen these piano players learning how to play, when they are going up and down the octaves playing their scales? Well, they are putting money in the bank because it will help them later when they have to play certain note combinations without thinking. If you are going to be a good lead guitarist, or a solo guitarist of any description in any genre, you too will have to spend time learning your guitar scales.
So, the question that many non-musicians ask. What are scales, and why are they so important? Scales are combinations of notes, ascending or descending, normally within an octave. The major scales are the basis of all other scales, and start and end on the same not. They go in the order whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole, the wholes and halves representing steps. Thus, for the scale of D: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D.
Scales are chosen because they are melodic and harmonic, and once learned, they can be used to produce tunes that are pleasing to the ear. When learning guitar, you will come across the pentatonic scale, which is derived from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the corresponding major scale. Thus, the pentatonic D will be D – E – F# – A – B
There are a number of reasons for learning scales, one being that they are fundamental to learning the theory of music, and if your ambition is to become a classical guitarist, then you will also be required to learn about the theory of music. They allow you to learn about harmonics and pitch, and the effects of sharps and flats. Some note combinations are discordant to the ear, and scales will make it a great deal easier for you to compose a series of notes that will sound good.
Another reason, more important to guitarists, is that they enable you to play a series of notes without thought that will sound good, especially when played fast. Most fast guitar riffs and solos would sound meaningless if played slowly, but sound great when played fast. That is because they are based upon the pentatonic scales. You could conceivably use a major or minor scale, but with a pentatonic, you only have to learn combinations of 5 notes.
By learning a few pentatonic scales, you will be able to play fast guitar licks up and down the frets, using the same 5 notes in the same order. If you listen to the main solo in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, written by Brian May, that is played using a pentatonic scale, as is ‘Eruption’ by Eddie Van Halen. You can play the same notes over a number of octaves and it will sound great, because the notes are a scale that is pleasing the ear. Hence, the importance to a lead guitar player of learning guitar scales.
Once you get up on stage and start playing, you are not going to remember a complex series of notes to make up a rapid guitar solo. You have to play the notes by rote. If you have learned a guitar scale, the pentatonic in particular, you will be able to play anywhere on the neck of your guitar, as long as the notes are true.
Sure, you will have to change it for each string, and according to where on the neck you play it, but the notes will be the same and they will always be played in the same order. In practise, it doesn’t matter to you if they are sharps or flats or neither: you are just playing the notes, and don’t have to understand the theory. If you have learned your guitar scales properly, then you won’t have to remember because of the muscle memory involved.
It’s the same with chords. If you have learned your chords properly, you don’t have to figure where to put your fingers, you just play the chord and you fingers automatically get them right due to the muscle memory of repetition and revision. You don’t start a new song in your gig, and then wonder what the chords are: they come automatically, and so do the scales when you need them.
That’s why learning guitar scales is important, and why you shouldn’t screw up your face when asked to play them. It’s money in the bank, that you will withdraw when you are finally standing alone in front of 10,000 screaming people and striking up the first note of your fabulous guitar solo. It’s only dozens of repetitions of a pentatonic scale, but they don’t know that – they think you are fabulous – a star- and all because you took the time to learn your guitar scales.