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The title really sums it all up but I'll try expand it slightly. Lets say I'm learning guitar and would like to improve my guitar work. Which of the scales should I learn first and why?

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This is a tough one. 'Silver Light', 'DRL', and 'yossarian' all have great answers. Major for theory vs Pentatonic for quick jamming. Both great starting points. I think DRL had lots of great information but some drifted into modes etc. That weren't all that focussed on the actual question of a persons first scale (but it was a great answer). Overall I think yossarian touched nicely on which you would choose depending on what you wanted to achieve (or the angle you wanted to approach) in improving your skill on guitar (guitar work). Which is why I'm giving him the correct answer. –  Anonymous Jan 25 '11 at 9:46
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Identifying the "first" scale you should learn is irrelevant. You should learn ALL of them. It doesn't take much time at all. –  Wheat Williams Jul 22 '12 at 4:13

5 Answers 5

It really depends what type of music you want to do; and how deeply you want to understand the mechanics of music itself.

If you just want to get straight into jamming a tune; learn the pentatonic scale, its about the easiest scale to learn and very versatile; something like 70% of the licks in all popular since the mid 60's is pentatonic based, and even before that most blues was pentatonic based (with an added note between the third and the forth intervals)

Here is Pentatonic scale in A

$6.5  $6.8  $5.5  $5.7  $4.5  $4.7  $3.5  $3.7  $2.5  $2.8  $1.5  $1.8

Its a good idea to learn this up and down; learn it well slowly before you start to speed up. A wise man once told me that if you never practice to play things slowly first you never learn how to play slowly. Practice it in different keys; its a good idea to find backing tracks to jam over, be musical.

Here is Blues scale in A (with the added note)

$6.5  $6.8  $5.5  $5.6  $5.7  $4.5  $4.7  $3.5  $3.7  $3.8  $2.5  $2.8  $1.5  $1.8

Note the added chromatic interval this where that classic blues sound comes from; its a good idea to try sliding into this note, or bending into it rather than playing it straight all the time; be expressive with it its the blues.

If you want to take this further you could bleed over into the natural minor as the mood takes you, since it differs from the pentatonic by only two notes.

A Minor scale

$6.5  $6.7  $6.8  $5.5  $5.7  $5.8  $4.5  $4.7  $3.4  $3.5  $3.7  $2.5  $2.6  $2.8  $1.5  

These scales are all pretty interchangeable in the key of A minor; however learning the minor scale particularly give you a whole new range of options.

A minor contains all of the notes of the Key of C Major, and so is rooted in C major, starting from its 6 interval (Aeolian Mode). This being the case, if you play A minor from its 3rd interval you are playing C Major. Because of this you have access to all of the other modes of the C Major Scale.

B Locrian - C Ionian(Major) - D Dorian - E Phrygian - F Lydian and G Mixolydian

If you start the A minor scale from each of the notes above, and carry on through an octave, you are playing the corresponding mode above. Each of these modes sounds good at certain times (over certain chords (their own)); each mode contains 'deviant'(from the major scale) intervals, which when embellished over the right chords really bring out the sound of the mode.

So technically by 'really' leaning A minor you have learned a whole branch of music theory, actually using this stuff really opens up your playing.

The stuff that I have just mentioned is the essential 'in the box' stuff. Things can get a lot more interesting if you start swapping modes in and out of your root key, from A minor to A Dorian for instance. A Dorian is rooted in G Major/E Minor, so you have the whole set of modes again from a different key signature, but you can remain rooted in the key of A.

Im not going any further since i'm already Waaay past the scope of the answer, so in summary:

Pentatonic/blues is a good first scale to learn if you just want to get playing.

Then if you want to take your knowledge further, the minor scale is only two extra notes, and it gives you access to all of the above and a whole world more.

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Your first scale is a minor pentatonic. Although it is often referred to as just pentatonic, the third is flat so it's minor. The major pentatonic is not used as much, but sounds quite different (Stir It Up for instance). –  yossarian Jan 21 '11 at 14:37
    
The major pentatonic is simply a different position of the same same scale. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 19:22
    
I'm not sure what that means. The two scales have different notes in them. That makes them not the same. Do you meant that C minor and A maj pentatonic have the same notes? That is certainly true, but they're not the same scale when you put them in the same key. –  yossarian Jan 21 '11 at 20:18
    
What I mean is the major Pentatonic shape can be found in one of the 5 positions(similar to modes) of the Pentatonic scale on the neck, it is used very often, as a mode of the Minor pentatonic, in rock/popular music. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 20:41
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Thanks to this answer I actually understand what all of the modes are now. I have tried for years to figure that out on my own or read books about it. Thanks a million! –  Jduv Jan 22 '11 at 3:34

I would suggest a major scale. Although, pentanotic and blues scales are easier, because they have less notes and easier shapes, the major scale will give you a great starting point, because all other scales are, in one way or another, modifications of a major scale.

Here's the formula:

root note + 1 tone + 1 tone + 1/2 tones + 1 tone + 1 tone + 1 tone + 1/2 tones

Here is C major scale on 5th string:

$5 3 5 7 8 10 12 14 15

And the same scale in one position:

$5 3 5 $4 2 3 5 $3 2 4 5

Good luck in your playing!

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Major scale is not a good scale to learn if you want to get jamming straight away; minor scale is much better for that and easier shapes are a matter of opinion, try playing the pentatonic in all five positions for instance. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 9:39
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@DRL quite possible, I'm just judging from my own experience. It was the first scale I've learned, and it helped me very much, when I learned the next ones, including pentatonic. –  Silver Light Jan 21 '11 at 10:20
    
Well you right in that the major scale is the root of all music; but there are many ways to approach the learning of it, since its all linked. Going in via the minor scale teaches, everything that the major scale teaches you, your just going about it from a minor perspective. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 10:38
    
There are a couple of mistakes in your first tab. The 6th fret on the A string is an Eb, which is not in the C-Major scale. Instead it should be the 7th fret, which is an E-natural. Also, the 13th fret on the A-string is Bb, which also isn't in the C-Major scale; this should be the 14th fret, which is B-natural. Finally, you should include the final C, located at the 15th fret. –  Alex Basson Jan 21 '11 at 14:00
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@DRL, Major scale is better to learn if you're interested in theory. Minor pentatonic if you just want to get playing. –  yossarian Jan 21 '11 at 14:35

Silver Light and DRL both give excellent answers outlining scales to start out with, but I think they've missed the important aspect to choosing between the two, what type of music do you play, how do you learn, what do you want to learn?

If you a rock / blues player that wants to get jamming with some friends as quickly as possible, then start with your minor pentatonic scale (often referred to as just pentatonic). It's very accessible and is used by a lot of the guitar greats of the 60s-70s. You can play it over an awful lot of music.

If you are a jazz player, start with your major scale. It's as useful for jazz as the pentatonic is for blues. And more importantly leads us to my last point:

If you want to learn music theory, start with your major scale. All music theory is based off your major scale. Absolutely all of it. If that's what you're interested in, learn it as soon as possible. Certain types of playing will absolutely need this knowledge (see Jazz and to a lesser extent Classical).

Here is your C Major Scale

$6 8 10 $5 7 8 10 $4 7 9 10 $3 7 9 10 $2 8 10 $1 7 8 10

Here is your C Minor Pentatonic Scale

$6 8 11 $5 8 10 $4 8 10 $3 8 10 $2 8 11 $1 8 11

Note that your first note in each scale is the root note of the scale. Low E, 8th fret is a C, so the scale is a C scale. If you were to move everything down one fret, then you would have a B scale. One more fret, and it's Bb / A#, etc. This is one of the big advantages of learning scales and chords on the guitar, once you know one, you know them all.

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", but I think they've missed the important aspect to choosing between the two," - Again did you actually read my answer? –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 19:25
    
@DRL, see my answer above. I disagree with you approach for learning theory. While you can certainly learn theory after the fact from knowing your minor scales, I don't think it's the best way to approach it if you want to start with theory. The major scale makes way more sense for that approach. –  yossarian Jan 21 '11 at 20:23
    
"After the fact"? I have explained in clearly how they are related and how by learning minor, you can learn all the modes of the major scale; i left out a lot related to minor scale theory which can only really be learned via the minor scale. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 20:30
    
In addition; you have stated above "what type of music do you play, how do you learn, what do you want to learn"; and offered an either/or answer; if you properly read my answer you will see it makes the clear link between jamming with the pentatonic scale and theory, progressing through into the minor scale which is not very different and so is a natural progresssion. –  DRL Jan 21 '11 at 20:36
    
@DRL, I presented an either or because the question asked what to learn first. You can't learn two different things first. As I've said, I don't have anything against your approach, and it was the one that I learned and what I usually teach. But I think that it's not perfect for everyone. I'm not sure why you are getting so worked up about me having a different answer than you. –  yossarian Jan 21 '11 at 21:59

The seventh mode of melodic minor. Also there are plenty of symmetric scales out there, meaning the number of modes (starting points) doesn't necessarily go up to seven.

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Please justify this ! The 7th mode of melodic minor could start on 2 different notes ! Take Amin. ascending the 7th note is G#; descending, it's G natural.How confusing is that for a beginner ? What's a symmetric scale ? –  Tim Mar 20 '13 at 10:24

The C major scale in the first position would be an easy scale to learn first.

I remember when I was 10 or 11 and I'd already learned to play all the first position chords. Then "La Bamba" came out (redone by Los Lobos) and of course I had to figure out that solo... which is the C Major scale played all in the first position.

The good thing about figuring this out is that the scale already has a context - C/F/G, and it has a melody you can hum/sing and a distinct rhythm! Perfect for a beginner!

Don't worry about knowing the scale and the notes - go by the sound of the notes and being able to play with the record/cd/mp3. Use the open strings! Once you can manoeuvre your fingers around the open position - you can then begin to study what you've just learned ;-)

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Are you advocating learning the C Major scale first? Your answer is a little rambly and unclear. –  Matthew Read Oct 18 '11 at 22:17
    
Matthew, you're right - I wrote this in a hurry. But yes, the C major scale in the first position would be an easy scale to learn first. Learning it in context of a song also makes it easier for beginners to digest. –  Vlad - geetarCOACH.com Oct 18 '11 at 22:50

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