Memorizing Guitar Scales 101: Awesome Tools For Beginner Guitarists

Memorizing guitar scales

If you want to start playing solos, you want to make memorizing guitar scales a priority. The Major and Minor Scales are important steps to starting your journey. Today we check out the easiest ways to harness your memory skills!



Memorizing Guitar Scales: We All Have To Do It!

I think a lot of us got into guitar because we heard an amazing guitar solo. Maybe it was just the idea of the guitar itself for others, but I can remember the exact moment that I decided I would be a guitarist. That defining moment that has given me 30 years of learning enjoyment.

It was the solo for “Comfortably Numb” on MTV, from the Pink Floyd live show “Pulse”. The song was dark and brooding, but then the guitar solo started. I had no idea what band I was watching, but I knew that the sound of the guitar was totally hypnotizing.

Later on, it was Slash from Guns N’ Roses that had me transfixed to the screen, as he played in the desert for the music video for “November Rain”. It was another year or two before I would finally get a guitar myself, but it was worth the wait.

Most guitarists learn chords, and memorize chord shapes first. That’s why guitar is such a great instrument, you can learn a few chords and immediately play a song or two. After you master chords though, it is probably time to start memorizing guitar scales.

Why You NEED To Learn Scales On Guitar

DADGAD Tuning Jimmy Page

Learning scales is not just for playing solos, however. Scales break down the individual notes that make chords and triads, which is essential to understand, as it is basic music theory. pretty soon, the fretboard really starts to open up, and the guitar makes sense.

The unfortunate part of memorizing guitar scales is it is often looked at as being a little… boring.

It can be a total slog when you are building up to the “good” part, and playing solos of your own. In fact, many guitarists skip the fundamentals and go right to the Pentatonic Scale.

While this is a quick shortcut to playing Blues-inspired solos, it also gets a beginner guitarist into “staying in the box”.

We call it that in music lessons, because the Pentatonic Scale forms a “box” pattern on the fretboard.

Some guitarists get away with using the Pentatonic, and the extensions of that scale. That’s great, but you are missing some important fundamentals if you skip the major and minor scales.

Trust me, I made the mistake of skipping beginner scales and had to go back and relearn what I missed!

Memorizing guitar scales doesn’t have to be hard, or boring.

Once you get the patterns down, then it really starts to make sense how the fretboard works. You’ll also start to see how individual notes make up the chords you probably already know!

Learning and memorizing scales is a fundamental aspect of becoming a proficient guitarist. Whether you’re a beginner or an intermediate player, understanding scales opens up a world of possibilities for improvisation, composition, and overall musicality.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore various methods that will help you memorize the major and minor scales on the guitar.

So, grab your guitar, and let’s dive into the exciting world of scales!

PRO TIP – If you don’t want memorizing scales to be boring, then put on a backing track or use a looper pedal with a metronome. That way, you are playing the scales to a beat, and you can hear how the sounds/individual notes work with chords.

Understanding the Major Scale

the major scale

When we think about the major scale, we think “big, bombastic, and triumphant”. The major scale is used in many them songs for this reason, especially by John Williams who did the Star Wars soundtrack.

Other classic movies also use the major scale, like “Back To The Future” and “Indiana Jones”.

The major scale has a powerful, uplifting sound that is easy to hear in your head. It can make an easy melody sound very memorable. Some people associate the major scale with “happy” sounds, and that can be true as well.

But if we are going to get into memorizing guitar scales, we need to get just a little bit academic. But don’t worry, I promise this will only hurt for a minute! Memorizing guitar scales are “entry level” music theory lessons.

The major scale forms the foundation of Western music and serves as the basis for many other scales and chords. To memorize the major scale, start by learning the pattern on a single string. For instance, let’s consider the E major scale starting on the OPEN 6th string:

E Major Scale Guitar

Memorizing guitar scales

If you are using a backing track to play this scale, look for E major. If you are using a looper pedal, then just play an E major chord to the metronome, and let it loop. Both ways will have you playing to a beat, and hearing the individual notes in a song context.

Pretty simple stuff right? That is the entire E major scale up to the next octave, the 12th fret. Once you memorize this pattern, it will make a lot of sense when we move to the next exercise. These are the notes of the E major scale, and they do not change. So get the “sound” of this scale in your head, by playing it a few times.

But those notes can be found in other places right? Like we know that the 5th fret is the note A. But we also know that the next open string is ALSO an A. Likewise, the next note in the scale is the 7th fret, which is a B note.

Well the B note is also on the second fret of the A string. Do you see where I am going with this? That means that we can play the E major scale again, in a more economical way. When I say “economical” I mean that we can play these exact same notes without moving up the neck to the 12th fret.

This economical way of playing scales is exactly how shredders play note quickly. The notes are much closer together, and you do not have to move you hand much to get to the next octave. So let’s play that same scale again, but in the most “economical” way possible:

Memorizing guitar scales

We have made it up to the octave of the low E string again, but we didn’t have to move our hands very much. This is exactly how you get into playing solos, and really start memorizing guitar scales. This is also where a term that every guitarist should know makes an appearance: Timbre.

What Is Timbre?

In music, timbre, also known as tone color or tone quality is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments. 

With guitar, this means that the same note played in different places will sound different. Take our E major scale that we just learned. The Eb on the 11th fret on our first scale example is the exact same note in quality as the Eb on the first fret of the A string (second diagram).

But if you listen to them both, the sound the same in pitch, but not in timbre. This is because the strings are different, and you are hitting a completely different fret on the guitar. You may like the sound/timbre of the Eb better on the 11th fret, but it is just not economical to reach.

The exact same notes can be found like this all over the fretboard, and even thought the notes are identical, they will have a different “feel” or sound to them due to the timbre of the note. Try to see if you can hear the difference in the examples above.

The Minor Scale

When memorizing guitar scales, you have quite a few different “flavors” to choose from, but today we are just looking at simple examples. Next up is the minor scale, which we associate with drama, sadness, and darker emotions.

The sound of songs in a minor key can have a melancholy feel, so we usually equate the sound with sadness. But it can also sound powerful and dramatic, creating suspense in the listener. The minor scale is used to create the melodies in songs.

We are only changing a few notes around to get to the E octave again, but notice how changing a few notes makes the sound completely different. The minor scale is used a lot in TV and movies when something sad happens, and many Metal songs use minor keys to sound heavy and serious.

The minor scale is equally important as the major scale, providing a unique tonality and emotional character to your playing. Employ the same methods mentioned above to memorize the minor scale. But this time, we are going to just show the economical pattern. Let’s look at the E minor scale:

E Minor Scale

If you are using a backing track to play this scale, look for E minor. If you are using a looper pedal, then just play an E minor chord to the metronome, and let it loop. Both ways will have you playing to a beat, and hearing the individual notes in a song context.

Sounds much different from the major scale, doesn’t it? All we did was shift two notes around, and it changes the entire sound, right? We changed just two notes, and now we are in a totally different feel, and scale! See if you can find all of the E minor notes on the low E string only, like we did in the beginning.

How Do Scales Relate To Chords?

This is an important part of memorizing guitar scales, since these notes also help you understand how chords work. Let’s use the minor scale as an example, and then you can go back and check the major scale on your own.

Which notes make up an E minor guitar chord? How do those notes relate and translate to the E minor scale? Well, if you play and open E minor chord, these are the notes you are strumming:

memorizing guitar scales

Now, take a look at the notes in that chord, and then take a look at the notes that we used in the E minor scale above. All of the same notes are there, aren’t they? The reason the chord sounds “minor” instead of major is because of the G note, just like in the scale!

Now, do the same thing with an E major chord, and I think you will see that the change we made. Just one note can change the “feel” of a scale or a chord. As with most scales, just shifting around a few notes can change everything!

This works with any chord, so maybe try something other than the key of E. You will notice that the same notes that make a chord major or minor, also make a scale major/minor! It is all relative, and once you learn that these note repeat. Suddenly, the fretboard, and memorizing guitar scales seems a whole lot less intimidating!

Major And Minor Pentatonic Scales

I think it is a good practice to work with the major and minor scales first, and try it out with different notes and keys, but if you want to get to playing solos quickly, the pentatonic scale is what many guitarists use. To keep things simple, we are going to look again at the Key of E.

E Major Pentatonic Scale & E Minor Pentatonic Scale

Memorizing guitar scales

If you play this scale, you will probably recognize the “sound” really fast. The pentatonic scale is used in Blues, Rock, and Metal all the time. So where does the pentatonic scale fit in when it comes to scales? What makes it different?

The prefix “Penta” translates to “five”. A pentatonic scale is using only 5 notes to get to the next octave, instead of all 8 notes like the major and minor scales that we learned above. By omitting some notes, you can make easy “box” patterns like the ones above, and the pentatonic scale has a distinct sound.

Plenty of guitarists use the pentatonic scale to craft some really cool solos, but it can also sound stale and unoriginal. It really depends on how you use this scale to craft a melody.

I am honestly not bashing it, since the pentatonic shapes are also important when you are memorizing guitar scales.

Go ahead and experiment with using it, but don’t forget the major and minor scales!

Try out these pentatonic patterns with a backing track on YouTube. That way, you can keep a beat going as you play along.

Pick a slow backing track and just hit the notes in order from highest to lowest. Once you have the pattern down, try hitting notes in a different order.

This is how all solos start, even when it comes to the pros!

Memorizing Guitar Scales: Wrapping Up…

Gibson Brand trouble

Everyone is going to be different when it comes to memorizing guitar scales, but I always teach the major and minor scales to my students the same way that you learned today: Using only one string at first, and then using a box pattern.

Both ways are going to get the “sound” of a scale in your head, and this makes memorizing guitar scales a breeze.

Eventually, you can train your ear to recognize these sounds and the different timbres the strings make across the entire fretboard. This is why some players prefer 24 frets over the standard 22.

Memorizing guitar scales doesn’t have to be boring these days, since we have looper pedals and YouTube videos to play along with!

Learning these scales are the first steps to becoming a better guitarist, and eventually you will know these scales by heart.

Maybe you just want to use the guitar as a rhythm instrument, in a singer-songwriter fashion. You should still think about learning scales, even if you never plan to solo.

With the knowledge of how scales work within chords, you can create interesting voicings, and scales can help you to write melodies.

While you may have a lot of fun with the pentatonic scale, it can easily become a crutch. I am sure that once you memorize it, you will start making up your own licks, and that is great!

But don’t rely on it too much, and try to work in the notes from the major and minor scales that the pentatonic scale omits.

Adding notes and bends within the pentatonic scale is what makes solos sound unique, and have an amazing melody. Going back to the beginning of this article, the song “Comfortably Numb” uses a little bit of everything we learned today.

If it was only the major scale, or only pentatonic scales, then it would not be as interesting!

Using backing tracks, or a looper pedal will take out the feeling of “boredom” when it comes to memorizing guitar scales. But it will also help you to understand how the “sound” of each scale is very different. Just practicing scales alone can be very dry, but technology allows us to play along!

Memorizing guitar scales is an indispensable skill for every guitarist. By understanding the major and minor scales, you gain a solid foundation to explore countless melodies, harmonies, and improvisations.

Through consistent practice, using methods like single-string patterns, box patterns, visual cues, and scale sequences, you’ll build the muscle memory and mental acuity necessary to play scales with confidence

Is Memorizing Guitar Scales Hard?

Not at all! Once you learn the scale pattern that you are trying to learn, play it along to a looper pedal, or a YouTube backing track. This makes learning easy, and you can hear the sound of the scale properly.

Do All Guitarists Memorize Guitar Scales?

Most pro guitarists probably memorized quite a few guitar scales. If you only plan on strumming chords to accompany singing,

Absolute Beginner? No problem.

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