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Scales, who needs them? Why and What For, Anyway?!

Somewhere along the way in our development as guitar players, we start to get the idea that it would be a good idea if we learned some of those things called scales. If we are new to the guitar, and new to music, we are probably not even quite sure exactly what a scale actually is, which certainly adds to the aura of mystery that begins to surround the subject.

The next thing that happens, as we continue along in our development, is that we begin to get the unsettling impression that there seems to be an awful lot of those things called scales. In fact, there seems to be hundreds of them. We may even run across an encyclopedia of scales, and realize that there could be thousands of these little buggers out there! The very prospect of learning all those scales begins to make us weak in the knuckles!

It is at about this point that we start to get a little suspicious, a little curious about this whole business of scales and what they really have to do with us, and what we want to do on the guitar. "How many of these things do I have to learn, anyway"?, we ask, "and what do I do with them once I learn them"?

Then we go and try to find the answer to our questions. We read magazines and hear a lot of advanced and professional guitarists talk on the subject, and it leaves us even more confused. One guy says we must know a hundred ways to play a major scale, and then we should learn a hundred minor scales, and then start on the more exotic type of scales. Another guy, who is also an advanced player, perhaps professional and perhaps rich and famous, says he only uses a few scales. So after all our agonized searching, we are even more confused than when we started!

What gives?

Well, I am going to try and provide some clarity on the subject. I am going to lay out an overall view of the subject, and provide you with an understanding of what scales are, what they are used for, and how the way scales are used is DIFFERENT for different types of players. Once you understand these things, you will be in a much better position to achieve some clarity on the subject, and make your own decisions about how you are going to include the study of scales into your practice regimen.

What Scales Are, Musically, and Why We Practice Them

Musically speaking, a scale is simply a series of notes, following one after the other. The really important thing about any scale is the SPACE between the notes, and by space, I mean the space in terms of PITCH. It is the distance in pitch between two notes that contains the EMOTIONAL CONTENT of music. This is one of the most important concepts that any musician can know, and most do know it, if only on an intuitive level. For those wishing to develop an understanding of music theory, this concept should be pursued and understood. I cannot go into it in the depth it deserves in this essay, but I will lay out the essence of it, and you should pursue it with your teacher, and in books.

If I play a note on the guitar, and then play the same note again, there is no distance in pitch between the two notes. If I play a note, and then play the note on the very next fret, the distance in PITCH, (which is the "highness" or "lowness" of a sound), between those two notes is called a half step. If I play a note, and then play the note two frets away (a note on the first fret, then the third), that is called a whole step, and the effect is very different than a half step. If I play a note and then the note three frets away, that distance is called a minor third.

All of these different spacings in pitch between notes are called INTERVALS in music theory. In the interval of a minor third mentioned above, you can really hear what I mean by the "emotional content" of the interval. The minor third interval is contained in the minor chord, and this particular "spacing" between notes is what gives a minor chord it's dark, minor sound. When you play a blues scale, it is the sound made by the first two notes, and gives the blues scale it's bluesy feeling (or at least contributes to it, as do some other intervals).

That is as far as I want to go with Intervals for now. I just want you to know they exist, and that they carry the "emotion" of music. I want you to know that every scale not only contains notes, but that the SPACES, or Intervals between the notes are what is really important. Scales come in different "types", major, minor, diminished, etc.. Each type of scale has its own peculiar spacings between the notes, and these spacings give each type of scale its unique emotional feeling or "color". You will see later that players of different styles use different types of scales in their playing. A lifelong blues/rock player may never need to play a major scale.

Because each type of scale has the same intervals between notes, each type of scale has the same "feeling", even if it has a different letter name. In other words, if you play a C major scale, or a D major scale, or a G major scale, they will all have the same pattern of spaces, or intervals between each of the notes, as well as each containing the same number of notes, so, they will all sound "the same" in terms of the "emotional content" or feeling of the scale. In fact, you could say they all have the same "color". Minor scales have a different spacing between the notes than major scales, and it gives them a "dark" color.

Using this analogy, you could think of a scale as a palette of colors. If a composer wants to write a sad piece, he will pull out a minor scale, and use those notes to write it. In this sense, we could say scales are the building blocks of music.

What Scales Are, Technically >>