Guitar Scales vs Scales for Piano and Other Instruments

What do you think of when I say 'scales'?

Does it conjure up images of authoritarian piano teachers snapping their ruler over your knuckles for every missed note?

Do you think of boring old classical music or forcing yourself to memorise collections of notes?

Here's a little secret - scales on the guitar are not only great fun to play, they're dead simple to learn. Especially when we compare scales on the guitar to other instruments like the piano.


Why do we even care about learning scales?

Easy - we use scales to create guitar solos! 

More specifically, using the right scale for the song will mean every note you play will fit the song. That's heaps easier than using trial and error and hoping you come up with a nice sounding solo.

On top of that, scales are the building blocks for chords, harmonies - pretty much everything we do in western music, so having a good understanding of scales will help you understand and connect the dots.


Each scale will take you 10 minutes to learn. That's it.

On many instruments, to learn an A Minor Pentatonic scale, you would need to memorise the notes:

A - C - D - E - G

Then, if you wanted to learn a B Minor Pentatonic Scales, you would need to memorise the notes:

B - D - E - F# - A

Repeat for all 12 minor keys and you're done.


On the guitar, we have it much, much easier, because we don't need to memorise the specific notes to play the scale. 

To play an A Minor Pentatonic Scale, play this pattern starting from the 5th fret on the bottom string (A).

Now, to play a B Minor Pentatonic Scale, play the exact same pattern starting from the 7th fret on the bottom string (B).

To play any other key, just find the root note on the bottom string and play the exact same pattern.

See what I mean? That pattern is easy to remember (admittedly, hard to master), and you can use it to play in ANY key, without any memorisation of specific notes.


So how do I use scales to solo?

There are 3 things you need to be able to understand and play to be able to solo over a song or chord progression:

  1. The key of the song (ie. A Major)
  2. The relevant scale pattern (ie. a major scale pattern)
  3. Where the root note of the song is on the guitar (ie. where A is on the bottom string of the guitar)

From there, you have all the notes you need to create a guitar solo. Play the notes in any order with any rhythm you want and get creative.


Finding the Key of a Song

There's lots of different ways to do this, from using sheet music to chord theory, but if you aren't comfortable with these concepts yet, try using the first or the last chord of the song (ie if it finishes on Em, assume it's in the key of E minor).

The first and last chords of the song won't always give you the key of the song, but it's a good starting point. 

If your solo is sounding a bit off, try any of the other chords in the song (for example, if there's also an Am in the song, try soloing in A minor).


Learning Scale Patterns

Only learn ONE scale at a time when you're first delving into the world of scales. It's hard to memorise multiple patterns at once, so don't overcomplicate things.

Trust your teacher to give you the best scales for your abilities, but if you need some guidance, the 3 most important scales (in order) are:

  1. Minor Pentatonic
  2. Major
  3. Harmonic Minor

In fact, with some clever use of music theory, you can create most of the scales that exist using just those three patterns.

To build on your scale knowledge, try learning some licks that use the scale pattern or learn some recorded solos that are in the same key.


Finding the Root Note on the Guitar

Most scale patterns have a root note on the 5th or 6th string of the guitar, so no excuses, memorise the notes on the bottom two strings!

Doing so will not only help you with solos and scales, it'll also help you find the right frets to play barre chords and power chords.

Is that really all I need to know?

Yes, but learning the names of the notes, new variations on the scale pattern and appropriate scales for specific chords will help you come up with new soloing ideas in the future.

The tips above are pretty much all I used to solo for at least the first ten years of playing the guitar, filling in the gaps by ear (even when doing live performances).

Once you feel constrained by your current knowledge, which usually happens when your solos start to sound too similar to each other, that's when it's good to try a different pattern or delve deeper into understanding what you're really doing when we play the patterns.


As always, follow the golden rule: Only learn theory that you can apply to your playing, today.

Don't learn a Phrygian Dominant scale unless you know what you're going to use it for! That way, you'll not only have a better understanding of the theory you're learning, but you'll improve your guitar playing much more efficiently.

Pick a scale and get soloing!