Guitar: What’s the Point of Learning Scales?

For most of us, playing the guitar is just a way of escaping our everyday obligations.

This is why, when confronted with the need to learn proper music theory, a lot of hobbyist players tend to just run away.

But theory, or at least its basic concepts can be a very useful tool even when not taking the instrument completely seriously.

Scales are one of the core concepts I believe every guitar player should know, at least to some extent.

Musical scales are a fundamental tool for composing and improvising on guitar or with any other instrument. Their shapes are commonly used in exercises for improving finger dexterity and speed. However, knowing a bit of the theory behind them is very important for your development as a musician.

In this article, I will go in-depth about all you need to in regards to music scales and their application to guitar playing. What they are, how they work, and how many of them are out there.

After leaving this page, you will have a clearer idea about how to incorporate scales into your playing, and what are the most important ones to learn and practice regularly.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

What are guitar scales?

First of all, it’s important to not confuse the concept of musical scales for guitar with the different scales of guitar necks that just refer to their length.

At a very basic level, you can think of musical scales for guitar as lists of notes that sound nice among each other.

And if you ever struggled with your mindless noodling on guitar sounding like crap, you are probably starting to understand the idea behind it.

Of course, the concept of scales branches into many other important ideas, and is not limited to the guitar.

For instance, the chords you play for a song, which are composed of at least 3 notes each, in most cases incorporate notes from a certain scale. The “key” of the song.

Western music scales are usually built with 7 notes each. Take for instance the C major scale, which is built with the following notes: C D E F G A B.

With these notes, you can then build chords. Basic chords can be built by just starting with one note, skipping one, picking another, skipping the next one, and picking the last one.

For instance, if you start with C, skip the D, grab the E, skip the F, and grab the G. You end up with C E G or a C chord (read as C major chord).

Now, the first chord you can build with a scale is what gives it its “name”.

You have a C major scale here because of that chord. 

You can know if a chord is major or minor by counting the half steps between its notes. 

A major chord has 4 half steps between its first and second note (also known as the third interval, or what defines if it’s major or minor) and 3 half steps between the second (third) and its third (known as the fifth) note.

Finally, if you take a scale that incorporates the notes A B C D E F G. 

You will easily see that these are the same notes as the C major scale, however, since it starts with an A, and the first chord is an A minor, we refer to this scale as the A minor scale.

There are specific formulas for “calculating” major and minor scales, in terms of semitone distances between notes, but I think this is now out of the scope of this basic article.

Are scales universal in music?

Scales are universal in music, at least for western music. Whatever scale you learn on one instrument can most likely be played on another one.

In fact, the most basic idea behind playing with other musicians is that all of the bands play notes from the same scale at the same time.

The only limitation to this is that some instruments are designed in a way that allows them to only play on a single scale or a small set of scales.

Think of harmonicas for instance. 

Harmonica players usually carry around a set of many different harmonicas because each harmonica is built to ring the notes for a certain scale.

What’s the point of learning scales on guitar?

Learning scales on guitar can be really useful because of many things.

First of all, there are certain shapes to guitar scales that could be used as exercises just to build up dexterity on your fingers by running them up and down.

Secondly, scales can help you learn the notes on the fretboard. They are a way of making sense of the fingerboard, and determining certain anchor points you can then use to guide your hand along it.

Finally, scales are one of the fundamental tools required for improvising and composing.

A very basic way of improvising over a song is by knowing what key it is in, and then just playing the notes from that scale over it.

It will work every time.

Of course, there are many levels to this, and things get more complex as you walk into jazz territory, but this is the first approach to all of these concepts.

Can you play guitar without knowing scales?

You can absolutely play guitar without knowing a single scale. The instrument will still just work the same.

And I’m pretty sure there are a lot of great guitarists, even stars, that don’t know much about scales.

The thing is, scales are a really powerful tool to make sense of things in music, and a great medium to collaborate with other musicians.

Think of the advantage of another musician just calling out the key of a song and knowing instantly what things you could play to sound good along with him without even knowing the song at all.

Are scales only for exercises?

Scales are not just exercises for your fingers, although they can work great to train your speed when picking certain patterns of notes.

Music scales on guitar or any other instrument are a central tool to understand and communicate what you are playing.

When composing or improvising, thinking about scales is a very useful way of approaching the task.

What scales should you learn as a guitar player?

As a guitar player, perhaps the most important scale to learn is the pentatonic scale.

The pentatonic scale is built with only 5 notes and can be a foundational building block for almost any music style you could think of.

Apart from it, it’s always important to know your regular major and minor scales, since most popular music is composed with them in mind.

Now, when you are a bit more advanced in your guitar journey, the next usual step is starting to dip your toes into what are known as modes or greek modes.

But those are way out of what we are covering in this article, and something you should not worry about right now.