How do you play solos off the top of your head? Do guitarists know every scale? Today we break it all down, and talk about the ways to learn improv, and build scales on your own!
Asking “do guitarists know every scale?” is actually the wrong approach. There are so many types of scales and modes when it comes to music theory. The “Western Scales” that we are used to hearing in regular music are just a small part of music theory in general. There are exotic scales that only sound correct in Eastern music. There are scales used in traditional Indian music as well.
But that can get really complicated, so let’s just focus on the popular Western Scales that we hear in most popular music. Most guitarists focus on Jazz, Blues, Rock, or Metal. So while exotic styles are fun to learn, they are not beginner-friendly. The regular Major and Minor scales are where most beginner guitarists start their journey.
For example, we are used to hearing the Major Scale in popular music. Think about “Star Wars” or another big movie theme song. In fact, John Williams as a composer uses the Major Scale all the time for all kinds of different movie themes. But that is just one scale in an ocean of possibility.
Western music in general usually sticks to one of two different scales: The Major and Minor Scales. These two scales are the basis for all other scales and modes. It is important to learn both in the beginning, and train your ear to recognize both scales.
What Is A Guitar Scale?
In music theory, a scale is a series of notes that are ordered by fundamental frequencies (keys). Scales can be descending, or ascending in nature.
Once you establish the key/tonic of a song, then scales are used to create the main melody or harmonies.
Scales usually span a single octave, but with guitar they can cover much more tonal ground due to the fretboard layout.
Just about any Pop/Rock music or Blues music sticks to one or the other type of scales. Major Scale music usually sounds more “happy” or “triumphant”, while Minor Scale songs usually sound “sad” or “dramatic”.
But there are many different versions of those scales. Which notes you play in a scale is based on the key of the song, and the type of chords used – also known as its chord progression.
So Do Guitarists Know Every Scale?
Most of us do NOT know every scale. That would be almost impossible to achieve in a lifetime! So how do we improvise a solo over a song if we don’t know every scale? This comes down to what kind of player you are, and how you approach guitar as an instrument. So where do you start with scales?
You start by finding the scale most used in the genre that you are trying to play.
If I were a Blues guitarist, then I would definitely focus on the Minor Pentatonic Scale. This is the scale that you most often hear when it comes to Blues music, and using that scale will definitely get you closer to being able to improvise. In fact, many players start with this scale because it is easy to learn and use. But it is also easy to understand as a concept.
However, Blues and Pop Music is usually just a few chords and it is easy to figure out. You can use the Major Scale or The Minor Pentatonic in most cases. What about learning scales for more complicated music?
This is where Modes come into play, and you will need to augment your scale notes to “fit” with the song. Learning Scales and Modes can be a long journey, but it will be highly beneficial to most players. A “Mode” can be described as scale pattern that adds/removes certain notes to make new harmonic behavior based on the tonic/root note.
So you see, more complex chord changes may need a specific scale to “fit” over the chord changes. Once you find out the key of the song, you will need to break down each chord. Then you will need to know what kind of notes can be played over those specific chords. This can make improvising a solo much more difficult.
But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to learn! Some musical compositions are just more complex, and use augmented chords. So how do you know how to play over a chord that is a little weird? The best way to do this, is to break down the chord. Let’s take a look at how to build a scale from a chord, and vice-versa!
- Beginner’s Music Theory
- Minor Scale And 6th Mode Explained
- How Do You Practice Scales?
- Learn Your Fretboard!
- Learning How To Use Intervals
Building Scales: It Starts With Chords!
Scales are often looked at as something that is separate from chords when it comes to structure. But scales come in all different types, and they are usually based on a chord! Above is the Melodic Minor Scale in the Key of C. But if you know how to play a C Minor chord, do you see the pattern?
All of the notes in a C minor chord are there, in this scale. So if you are unsure about what scale you should play in a chord? Look at the notes in a chord! These will always have the root/tonic note, as well as other notes that “build” a chord.
So other than just memorizing scales, you can also figure them out for yourself. This is a very basic level, but you can at least hear how the notes all work together as a scale AND a chord. Try this out with another chord, maybe find the notes in a different octave. Try an open chord like a G major.
- Play a G major chord
- Write down the notes that are in the open G chord
- Find those notes in another octave on the fretboard
- Write down the frets where those notes are found, starting with the tonic: G
- You just “built” a scale!
This is a super simple exercise, but for beginners that want to know how scales work? This can really help you “unlock” the fretboard. Now, you do not have all of the notes in a G major scale, but you have most of them! Try this with some other chords, and you will start to see a pattern.
This is how musicians also build a melody to a song. You find out which notes work with the chord, and then put them together to make a melody. You can also find the harmony for that chord, as well as the octave.
The fretboard is all connected, and actually much smaller than it seems when you look down at your guitar. Notes on the fretboard constantly repeat, and you only have so many notes to use. Once you find the key of a song, it becomes even easier to compose a melody, since a scale will eliminate the notes that cannot be used.
So… Do Guitarists Know Every Scale?
No, we do not… but music is a language at the end of the day. Think about how you learned language, and how even now you probably hear new words all the time! Music is exactly the same as language, and even though I have played for 30 years, I STILL learn new things constantly. So if music is language, then Scales are just different ways of making a sentence.
Different scales will work with different chords, and it can be very confusing at first. But just like learning a new language, you learn a few words first, then you learn how to construct full sentences. Guitar is exactly the same, and scales will eventually start making more sense as your ear becomes more trained. But knowing every scale would be like knowing every single word in language; impossible.
Sometimes I cannot name the scale I am playing, until I write it down. I just know that it “sounds correct” when I play it. First I need to write it out, and find out why the notes are working. Then I can break the scale down and figure out “what” I am playing. This is a totally valid approach as well! Some notes I just “know” by instinct when it comes to scales. Just like language, when you learn what a word means from context.
So do guitarists know every scale? No, probably not. Even big professionals do not know everything. Music is a life-long journey if you take it seriously. So there is no way to know everything, especially since guitar is an ever-evolving instrument. But you can learn the scales that fit into your style as a guitarist! The more that you learn, the easier music becomes.
Some players stick to one genre and guitar style, and that is totally okay. People like Dimebag from Pantera had a very distinct style. Then you have players like Jimi Hendrix who used Blues and Rock together to create a style. Stevie Ray Vaughan was mostly a Blues player. Mastering one style of guitar is great!
Maybe you are like me, and you want to learn a ALL of the styles. That is ok too, and it can be just as fun as learning and perfecting a single style or genre. I like learning guitar as an instrument, so I try out new styles all the time! You may never learn everything about guitar and scales, but you can learn a LOT as a “Lifetime Student”. Music is a forever journey, and learning new styles/scales will make you a better player.
No matter what your approach may be, you will probably never know every type of scale. Knowing how to utilize musical language is a skill on its own. So you may not learn everything, just like you may not know every word in your language. But you can always increase your vocabulary!
Do Guitarists Know Every Scale?
No, probably not. Even big professionals do not know everything. Music is a life-long journey if you take it seriously. So there is no way to know everything, especially since guitar is an ever-evolving instrument. But you can learn the scales that fit into your style as a guitarist!
What Is A Guitar Scale?
In music theory, a scale is a series of notes that are ordered by fundamental frequencies (keys). Scales can be descending, or ascending in nature. Once you establish the key/tonic of a song, then scales are used to create the main melody or harmonies. Scales usually span a single octave, but with guitar they can cover much more tonal ground due to the nature of the fretboard layout.
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar, bass, and piano for 28 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. Chris has toured for years with several bands and music projects across the United States. He worked in Los Angeles as a studio musician and engineer working with many genres, but mainly Pop, Rock, and Metal. In between giving private lessons, he is usually recording under his various projects at home in Georgia. Christopher plays Schecter Guitars, BOSS Amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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