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Are guitar scales important or is that stuff just for the theory buffs who want to do everything by the book?

The short answer to this question would be:

“Yes they’re important. But to what extent and how many scales you should learn depends on your musical goals.” 

Let me explain further.

I talk about the importance of goal setting in many articles but for the specific purpose of learning guitar scales, I’ll simplistically divide your musical goals in two:

  1. Whether you intend to just play other people’s music only.
  2. Whether you also intend to create your own music.

Because while learning scales is important if you have either of these goals, a more thorough understanding of, and ability to use, scales is desirable if you plan to improvise on guitar or write songs. 

Now let’s see why scales are important depending on the musical goals you have.

I want to play my favorite songs and just that

If your musical goal is say, to entertain your friends by the campfire, or play in a covers band, guitar scales are, strictly speaking, not mandatory.

You can learn your songs from guitar tabs or standard music notation without any knowledge of scales.

That said, learning the most important scales – namely the major scale, the minor scale and their equivalent pentatonic – does have benefits if you intend to learn other people’s music.

The reason is that most probably, who composed that music, was using either a chord pattern or a scale.

Think about it like this.

The reason you learned how to play the chord of G major is that every time you’re going to find a G major chord in your lead sheet or guitar tabs, you don’t have to figure out the notes on by one each time.

Your fingers have developed the muscle memory and know exactly where to go to every-time they see the letter G above the notes.

With scales it’s less obvious.

However, by practicing guitar scales and sequences you will still be developing you muscle memory and many note patterns you will start encountering in the riffs, licks or solos that you’re learning will start finding themselves familiar – thus easier to learn. 

I also want to create my own music on guitar

If this is your goal, then scales will come even more useful.

It is also important that you don’t just learn how to play scales but also understand clearly what their role in guitar playing is.  

The following are some reasons why learning scales is important for your present or future guitar songs, licks, riffs and solos:

  1. Scales are simply paths of notes you can follow. 

When you learn a new scale, and have done a few exercises and sequences on it, the first thing you should do (rather than go for the next scale) is to create a melody using the notes in that scale.

By doing so, you will not just be learning the scale better, but reaching the ultimate goal of expressing yourself using the “path” of notes that scale offers you.

  1. Scales really help train your ear.

When you play the same scale (or sequences on that scale) for a while, you gain the ability to hear how the next note in the scale sounds before you even play it.

This will be extremely valuable when you start improvising your own guitar solos. 

Tip: Don’t practice scales fast most, or all of the time. Also spend time listening to the flavor of the scale as well as singing the notes while playing them on guitar.

The goal here is not to become good at singing – you can sing the notes of the scale even if your voice, like mine, is untrained – but to teach your ear to identify and organize the sound of that scale.

  1. Scales make it easier to play with others.

If your friends are playing music and they invite you to come jamming with them, what would you play?

This should depend on quite a few things, such as the genre of music they’re playing, the beat the drummer is using and the tempo of the song.

But one thing you can, in most cases, rely on, is that the other musicians are playing in the same key.

Thus, if you ask the bass player what key they’re improvising in, and he tells you they’re playing in C major, you know that you should play notes from the C major scale. 

It’s that simple!

  1. There’s a bigger picture

If your goal is to become a songwriter, or to improvise licks and solos, I suggest you don’t just learn scales on guitar but also music theory basics as well as a good understanding of the guitar fretboard. 

With such things in place, scales will be even more valuable since you also know where to use them in the music you’re creating.

Robert Callus is a guitar teacher, songwriter and blogger based in Malta. Read more articles like this on www.learnguitarmalta.com