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Published on January 6th, 2014 | by Sam


Scales Are Lame


Ok, so I said it, scales are lame.  Blasphemy in GuitarLand.  I’m doomed to go to guitar center hell.  But admit it, you’ve thought this too right?  I mean the hours you’ve spent (or not spent because you hate scales) helped you come to this same conclusion I bet.  But let me try to convince you that they are in fact lame.

Here are 5 reasons they’re so lame.

1. Scales are boring.

 I mean it-this is not the place for righteous ‘you gotta do the boring stuff too.’  I mean as a listener.  They’re actually boring to listen to.  “Well if you hear a masterful player play them…” Oh really? That’s why my iTunes is filled with Wes Montgomer Performs the Major Scales and Brad Paisley Plays Mixolydian Scales…LIVE!  Seriously, they’re not fun to play or listen to.

2. Practicing scales too much leads to sounding mechanical

I think this is mostly because we get stuck in ruts – playing the same thing the same way we practiced over and over.  And if we practice scales, guess what??

3. It’s very difficult to make music with scales

I know they’re the basis of most of our music, but go ahead and try to come up with a really meaningful melody while you’re thinking of a scale.  Difficult right?  It’s so much easier to make music using vocabulary, or playing what you hear.

4. Guitarists love scales

It’s almost a rite of passage-how many scales do you know? I’ve had students ask me that, and are disappointed when I say ‘Like 4 or so.  Major, melodic minor, pentatonic, I guess diminished is a scale.’  They’re expecting me to say ’50+ But Oklahoman Minor is my favorite mode of the Samurai Diminished, raised 2 scale’ (for those of you who don’t know, to Samurai a scale you raise the root…).  Stop being so guitar-y by doing what the great guitarists do-concentrate on the music, not the scales.

5. That brings me to my last point: The greatest improvisors/composers used vocabulary, not scales to create.

 Here at SSM, I write a lot on ‘going to the source‘ or learning from the music instead of exercises and theory.  If you start to look at the greats, they’re clearly not coming from a scale perspective- that is, the greats make music from somewhere other than the head.  I’m not saying they’re not intellectually aware and invested, but it certainly isn’t where that music is coming from.


OK so I would be a bad guitar teacher if I didn’t mention a COUPLE good things that come from working on scales. So here are 4.

1. Scales help you learn the keys

Huh? Ok, there’s a difference in mindset from knowing and working on ‘keys’ vs ‘scales’.  A scale is a series of notes played in a certain order, you can come up with patterns but it’s still based in a set order.  A KEY on the other hand, is thinking of the collection of notes, chords, and harmonic tendencies.  So in G major, the C has a tendency to resolve to B, the F# has a tendency to resolve to G.  There’s an Ami chord, and the B sounds great on it in most contexts (the 9th).  B on an Ami chord in the key of F major doesn’t sound as good as often.  So it’s things like that that make up a key, and distinguish it from a scale.  Scales help you learn them though, but it’s improtant to get out of the scale ASAP.

2. Scales are helpful in ear training

This is very similar to #1.  Ear training in a key, how do these notes tend to move?  What chord are you hearing? Etc, but this information sometimes comes from hearing the scale so much.

3. They are helpful in developing technique

 I get this one, because it was my primary way to try to get faster and get technique.  They can be good opportunities to work on finger position (I do this with my private students).  Lennie Tristano would have his students play scales for a year before having them improvise.

I found something funny though when I was able to develop some major speed way into my playing career.  When I went back to school for my Master’s (2008) my teacher, Fareed Haque, helped me increase my speed dramatically.  This wasn’t by moving the metronome up a couple clicks now and then.  It was by taking small bits of vocabulary and trying to play these small phrases really fast.  I made more speed gains in that one lesson than I think I did the entire previous 5-7 years!

4. They are helpful in getting the neck together.

Guitarists traditionally know the open position and maybe 12th fret area pretty well.  Scales are a good way to gain better understanding of the fretboard.  The thing is that you have to think of it as a vehicle, not the goal.  In other words the goal shouldn’t be “5 fingerings of C major” but “learn the G and D strings in C major” or “get familiar with the 9th position using C major.” See how this takes the emphasis off of the scale and puts it on a musical goal?

So I want to close this out by just saying that practicing scales IS necessary in really learning the guitar and learning almost any style of music.  It’s just best if you can get off of the scales asap and put your focus on something more musical.

By the way… let me know in the comments on how have you worked on, or not worked on (!) scales?


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3 Responses to Scales Are Lame

  1. Erhan Akdeniz says:

    I disagree. Scales are indeed part of vocabulary and instead of copying someone else’s lines, I’d like to create my own. Then I like to see which ground I am moving on, instead of lurching blindly!!

    • Sam says:

      I think that exactly is the point though! Concentrate on the MUSIC not the scales. So focusing on your own lines/phrases is still going for music, not scales.

  2. r. bourne says:

    let you know scales are so nice when you don’t won’t chords.Arps and scales is okay.

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