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As a guitar beginner, what should I need to concentrate on? Chords or scales?

I see that chords and getting into the rhythm of songs is easier and more comfortable than learning scales.

Any suggestions on how to proceed?

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6 Answers 6

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All musical instruments can play single note tunes, but very few can play chords. Arpeggios, yes, but not full 3 or more note chords. So, as a guitarist, you'll most likely be expected to play chords for a lot of the time. Apart from everything else, they make a full sound, so as a beginner, you are already sounding good!

With triads (3 note chords), you'll be playing sort of 'skipped scales' anyway, as a standard chord consists of 1-3-5 of the scale. When you play a chord and start to play scales, you find that you already know 3 out of the 7 notes needed. (Or 3 out of 5 for pentatonics!) Fill in the spaces.

Obviously, scales are the bits of music that join together in different ways to make tunes, so they will also be very useful to you.

So, both are important, as a beginner and all through your guitar playing life. Practise them all, but expect to play more chords than melodies in general.

And try to get yourself a teacher, it'll save so much time and trying to figure things out yourself.

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I disagree with the thought that "very few [instruments] can play chords." Chords can be played on literally any instrument provided the right techniques are employed. Also, a guitarist's role is dependent on the type of music they play, so it is important for guitarists to learn how to play scales as well as chords. Above all, I'd also like to add that guitarists should learn to read music and as you mentioned, studying with a teacher is highly-helpful in the learning process. –  jjmusicnotes Sep 8 '13 at 0:40
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I'm thinking of a chord as several notes that are played simultaneously. Piano, organ, all keyboards, guitar, harp,are examples which come to mind, whereas trumpet, sax, flute and violin are examples of instruments which can play arpeggios, but not chords per se. –  Tim Sep 8 '13 at 0:59
    
I agree that learning to read dots is important, but, to me, learning to make music without that technicality ,on any instrument, is initially more important. There is a culture among guitarists (and drummers...) that says 'we don't need to read' and it always seems to have been so. Look at many, if not most, of great guitarists. I'd love to know why. –  Tim Sep 8 '13 at 1:11
    
first of all, violin is absolutely an instrument that can play chords called double-stops, triple-stops, or quadruple-stops. For the other instruments, chords may be played either through multiphonics or with the instrumentalist singing while playing. For flute you can access partials in the overtone series, and for brass instruments you can split the embouchure to buzz different notes simultaneously. All instruments are capable of diadic or more pitches occurring simultaneously. –  jjmusicnotes Sep 8 '13 at 5:20
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I agree that the culture among guitarists is such that is one that doesn't read, which is precisely why reading is so important. There are scores of guitarists who are trying to communicate with other musicians in a fumbling, inaccurate way purely because the culture is one where learning to read is not inherent in learning the instrument. For reasoning why, I have theories that point to origins in the Renaissance troubadours and trouvères - traveling "minstrels" of secular music, and therefore did not progress in performance practice along with the church - but for another time. :) –  jjmusicnotes Sep 8 '13 at 5:27

Both are important, but which to emphasize depends on what you enjoy playing.

In high school, I started off wanting to be a lead guitarist, playing mostly melodies and solos. So I practiced scales more than chords. I never got very good at lead, but I stuck with it for years because it was my dream then.

Over time, my tastes changed and I grew to prefer playing rhythm guitar. It turned out I'm naturally better at it. So I began to focus more on chords; in particular, non-standard formations, difficult chord changes and the like. I find it more interesting.

So in terms of practice, I suggest spending time with both. But also learn to play a variety of different songs. This will naturally guide you toward what you enjoy more, what your particular physiology is suited to, and thus where you should direct more energy.

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Concentrate on chords first because the foundation of almost all popular music is harmony. Once you get familiar with chords, learn ways of connecting chord tones together (melodic lines). One way this is done is with scale tones, so at that point you would be learning scales!

There's no point in learning scales for their own sake. Scales are just a tool to help you create melodies and to connect chords together as the song progresses.

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"Scales are just a tool to help you create melodies and to connect chords together as the song progresses."? Music theory teaches us that scales are the basis of chords; Without the scales we don't have tonality or chords. Understanding them both is important. Chords are easier to learn and understand, but you can't understand WHY chords work without scales. –  the Tin Man Sep 11 '13 at 1:19
    
@theTinMan. eh... really to provide a satisfactory answer to the OP, we need to find out where he wants to go with his musical studies. If he wants to learn how popular songs are constructed, and to play accompaniment to a melody, then learning the chords will get you there. But if he wants to be a more well rounded musician, then knowing the scale tones that are in the key you're playing is good. My dad played guitar for a lot of years with Spanish groups. He didn't know his scales, but he knew his chords. So obviously he wasn't a lead guitarist, but he did just fine as accompaniment. –  Michael Martinez Sep 11 '13 at 2:52
    
Said it before - Django Reinhart didn't know chords or scales (as in the theoretical nature of them, or what they were called, even) but it didn't seem to hold him back. –  Tim Sep 11 '13 at 16:28
    
@Tim good point tim. Plenty of other examples of well known musicians too. –  Michael Martinez Sep 12 '13 at 18:22

It depends a lot on what you want to do and where you want to move your play style to, if you want to concentrate on rhythm and be the "not often solo player", you should practice chords and build a solid base, if you want to play lead guitar and be the one who does a lot of solos, you should practice scales. Although this is more of a long-term advice, when you're beginning, you should really practice chords and get comfortable with both the neck of the guitar and the tonal differences in the chords, you should get used to how the guitar sounds and learn (even if you dont know music theory) what sounds good next to what, basically, you should train your ear and build muscle memory for the chord shapes and get comfortable with the guitar neck.

You should practice both though, unless you never ever want to do solos or write your own riffs, you'll need to know scales, or else you'll loose too much time experimenting with what goes with what, First scale to learn, minor pentatonic and blues variation. A lot of rock guitar players solo their whole careers without going out of that scale :p

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I think a heavy focus on chords in the beginning pays off well. You can learn a simple version of some of your favorite songs, and that will get you hooked on playing.

You will need to practice technique to advance. You'll notice that when playing chords, you won't be playing them well initially... for example, fingerpick all the chords you know and you will notice some notes don't ring.

I recommend this routine

  1. Learn some chords and have fun strumming back and forth between them.
  2. Check the quality by plucking each chord's notes or fingerpicking
  3. Run some scales to build up dexterity. You can even run chromatic scales on an unplugged electric while watching TV to work in a lot of dexterity practice.
  4. Revisit your chords and check out their quality by fingerpicking

At this point you should be able to play a simple song comfortably (and be hooked on playing)
From here you will need to add in a few new focuses

  1. Work on the gaps between switching chords. You'll find that it is hard to keep rhythm with a metronome switching chords as a beginner.
  2. Dive into music theory. At this point you should work on chord progressions and scales.

This isn't exactly the same path I took, but with hindsight... I would definitely recommend it. Focus on what is fun and keep the momentum up.

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+1 for "Dive into music theory". As a guitar player, who started with piano, bounced off trumpet, then stuck with guitar, the theory and technique I learned from playing piano, then built-upon in music theory and composition classes really helped me understand what goes on in music. And that made it immensely easier to learn advanced guitar scales and harmony, which really pays off when learning jazz. –  the Tin Man Sep 11 '13 at 1:13

Scales build the muscles in your fingers. They're like jogging. You'll get in shape walking around town, you'll get in shape faster running around town. Per unit time / practice scales pay a lot of dividends when you're a beginner.

Chords help you hear the multiple notes in tune and get started with the rhythm of the right / strumming hand. Although it will be pain I recommend practicing tuning the guitar without a tuner sometimes as that's power lifting for your ear.

Above all, keep your hands on the guitar!

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Repeating scales helps build muscle memory, but only practicing simple scales, like pentatonic and blues/rock scales can be limiting once the muscle memory kicks in, because the fingers will want to go places that the chords don't allow (or suggest). Grow into understanding which scales should be used when, and why, and learn to think and hear flexibly, so the scales become the launching platform for improvising, not "riffing". –  the Tin Man Sep 11 '13 at 1:17

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