How Many Scales Do You Really Need?
by Matthieu Delage
Have you ever wondered how many scales exist? Technically, since a scale is a combination of note arranged in a specific order with specific intervals, there could be as many scales as there are possible combinations. That’s a lot of scales… Thousands and thousands. However the good news is that you ABSOLUTELY don’t need to learn all of them. Here are some basic facts and tips to using scales on your guitar.
1. It depends on what genre you play
In pop and rock, you can play and compose loads of songs simply by using the major scale and the pentatonic scale.
In blues, you will tend to use the pentatonic and blues scale. In flamenco, harmonic minor mode, or different modes of the major scale. In jazz, you can use much more scales or modes. This list is not exclusive of course, other scales and modes might be used in these styles.
It’s important not to learn scales “for the sake of it”. You need to know in advance how you are going to use the scales you learn: are they going to help you improvise, improve your technique, write songs, learn songs faster?
2. Focus on truly knowing how to apply the scales you learn
The world’s greatest guitar players are not great because they know more scales than other people, but because they are able to create great melodies with the scales they typically use.
People have made entire careers simply by using the major and pentatonic scales, and making small variations of it.
3. Common variations on the major and pentatonic scales
By simply changing one note in the major or the pentatonic scale, you can give a different flavor to your playing.
Spanish flavor: when playing the major scale, raise the 5th by a semitone (it becomes a #5). You are now playing the harmonic minor mode, which, as you will hear, sounds very Spanish / flamenco.
Blues flavor: when playing the minor pentatonic scale, add a diminished 5th (b5) to the scale. If you are playing C minor pentatonic for example, you just need to add a Gb. You are now playing the blues scale.
Minor flavor: play the notes of the major scale, but starting on the 6th note of the scale and ending on that same 6th an octave higher. In the C major scale, that means you play A B C D E F G A (the notes of the C major scale, but starting on the 6th note of the scale). You are now playing the natural minor scale, which is also called Aeolian mode.
So as you can see, unless you are playing more complex genres like jazz or classical music, you do not need to learn many scales in order to be a great guitar player. Simply learn how to create interesting variations within basic scales, and add, change or remove certain notes once in a while to give it different melodic flavors. If you do that, you will become a much better guitar player!
About the author:
Matthieu Delage is the director of the Escuela de Guitarra de Madrid, which is considered as providing some of the best guitar lessons in Madrid. It uses a proven method which has produced significant results for many guitar students.
Matthieu es el director de la Escuela de Guitarra de Madrid, donde se imparten unas de las
mejores clases de guitarra en Madrid. Usa un método probado, que ha producido
importantes resultados para muchos alumnos.