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I have been playing guitar for about two years. I have never been formally trained in music and all my knowledge is self taught. I know a little about improvising but I would classify myself as a beginner. As far as scales go I know all the basic scales and modes but only in the standard shape/pattern of these scales and I rely upon shifting the same pattern up or down the fretboard to change the tonality rather than changing the shape of the scale.

Should I prioritise learning the scales in all the patterns for better improvisation ability or can I leave that task for later ? I personally feel like it would bolster my arsenal significantly but I wanted to hear your input on it.

I also wanted to know how to make improvisation using scales sound less like robotic scale playing and more like music. I know a little in this regard as well for example when playing the major scale we generally follow the seventh by the eighth because the seventh creates dissonance and tension and the eighth being the tonal centre resolves it. So I suppose I probably need to study arpeggios within the scale and the relation of the notes with the tonal centre to make my playing sound fluid and also improve my sense of rhythm and dynamics to make the music less robotic.

  • VTC? I guess more than half of the questions on this site elicit personal opinion contained within their answers. That cannot be avoided. Can it? – Tim May 29 at 9:30
  • Edited to make it a little less a call for opinion - as while we are one of the subjective sites, SE formally doesn't suport/approve of questions asking for opinion – Doktor Mayhem May 29 at 10:15
  • You might break up improv and songwriting into two separate questions. Explain what style you are working in and anything you've tried so far. That might help keep your question opened and get answers. – Michael Curtis May 29 at 19:32
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Guitar is an instrument on which patterns play (literally!) such an important part. Let's take the pentatonics. The popular one, say Am pent. can be played across all six strings, using every 5th fret, and 8, 7, 7, 7, 8 and 8 for the other notes, ascending. A lovely, simple to know pattern. It's probably the first 'solo' set of notes most guitarists learn, and it sets us up for ever.

What those notes are, as far as soloing is concerned, at least in the early stages, is academic. I used the pattern for years, without understanding. That didn't matter, because using those notes did a good job.

Learning new pieces, or playing different solos, though, didn't come easily until later: after I went to the 'trouble' - as you say - to learn other scales - major, 3 minors, modes etc. Those filled in the missing notes from the pents, which were extremely useful to know.

But, again, it wasn't actually knowing what each note in each key was called, so much as knowing where each was in its pattern.

Key notes for soloing will often be the chord tones - 1,3,5. So highlighting those in the patterns meant navigating became easy. Add the two 7ths (m7 and M7), and it was pretty well there. 2, 4 and 6 weren't difficult to find - they were between the other number notes!

So, yes, 'bother' learning them! Scale notes are like the alphabet - you couldn't spell without letters. Added bonus - when working out a diatonic solo, for example, all notes will be from that pattern. There will be five places that won't be part of that pattern, so there's no time wasted even trying them!

An aside: when learning piano, my teachers' reason for learning scales was always 'cos you need to play them in exams'. That was true, but had even one explained the real reason we need scales, I'd have been a far better player far sooner... Now, every one of my students understands - and loves - scales, knowing why they are so useful.

Knowing scales, and how to play them up and down - as scales - is like knowing which end of a scalpel to hold.

Making up phrases using ony four of the notes from a scale might be the next step. start on root, and play a phrase only with four notes. Move it around to another pattern position. Play a new chord, and then play the same phrase in that new key. Play it an octave higher/lower. Listen to a phrase in a new song. Work out mentally which note in the key's scale it starts on. Establish where that is on guitar. Play it straight off - having mentally mapped where it will go.

That's for starters!

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  • Thats what I wanted to know, I know most of the scales and modes but only in their standard most famous forms. Learning different patterns of the scale I believe is related to the different positioning of the root from each other. So there are 5 for each scale which makes it quite an investment of time. Scales learnt half heartedly are not very useful as you can't use them as spontaneously while soloing so thats why I wanted to verify that they are helpful during improv. Could you tell me more about using a scale effectively and creating good music out of it. – Euler's_Hotel May 29 at 7:55
  • There are 5 shapes for the pentationic and 7 shapes for diatonic scales – mkorman May 29 at 9:20
  • @mkorman - does that include 3 notes per string? – Tim May 29 at 9:26
  • @Tim - The 7 patterns for diatonic include the 3nps (I think). The pentatonic doesn't. Once you glue all of these together, there are no longer any patterns, just the full fretboard. How many patterns do you count? – mkorman May 29 at 13:47
  • @mkorman - never counted them! Just play! – Tim May 29 at 16:46
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I would go through the effort of learing different patterns. The reason is that muscle memory plays a relatively important role when improvising. If all your improvisations happen using the same "shape" or "box" as we call it, then the licks/phrases you can get out of it is limited. If you know more positions, there are different phrases available to you.

I still find it hard to break the "robotiness" of my playing. I don't know what genres you're into, but my advice would be to look into the expressivity of the notes. You'd be surprised at how much it plays a role.

Things like glissandos, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends (even unison bends) and double stops add a lot of expressivity to your solos. Depending on what style of music you're playing they are also an essential part of the vocabulary. Finding good notes to bend up, nice double stops, etc., can add a lot of flavour to your soloing.

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  • I am into jazz and classical and delve into rock and metal once in a while. One more thing I noticed was my improvisation improved a fair bit when i started varying the rests I took. I studied a few greats like BB King and found that they could make licks out of 1 or 2 notes sound very good simply by varying rests. Try including a variety of rests (1/8 1/4 3/8 1/2 3/4 rests) tastefully and your improv becomes far more smoother. – Euler's_Hotel May 29 at 15:32
  • I say to students 'if you play something really nice, don't immediately go and play something just as nice on the back of it. Give listeners a chance to think yeah, that was nice'. Hence - rests! – Tim May 29 at 16:49
  • @Tim I never thought about things that way, but that does make alot of sense. Earlier I used to jam out my best licks one after the other but studying the music of other greats made me realise my mistake. Guitar playing happens to be very energy inducing and I often forgot to take rests but alternating between slow and fast sections not only happens to be an important part of jazz but allows me to think more and make playing more fun. – Euler's_Hotel May 29 at 18:21
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Learning more scale patterns is definitely useful.

But to play something that sounds less robotic you should spend time learning parts of other people's solos that you like. Preferably "by ear" rather than using tab etc, because training the ear is very important for improvisation. I think good improvisation comes from having a strong sense of what you want to hear. It's hard to do anything meaningful with the building blocks (the notes in their scales) unless you have an idea of what you want to build.

Music is not merely "organised sound", it is a cultural practice. Our enjoyment and appreciation of music is not just based on the math-like principles of harmony, but also on more language-like elements - if you think of things like regional accents, idioms, catch-phrases, in-jokes that only fans of a particular tv show would recognise, and ways of conveying a mood or tone - serious, friendly, angry, joyful etc... well, music has equivalents of all of those.

Recognising these kind of features is one aspect that contributes to our enjoyment of listening to music.

These things will happen naturally when we improvise, because we are human, but you can also get better at evoking them by actively paying attention to these elements - by listening for them when you listen to music, by asking "who did this artist listen to, what contributes to them playing this way?" and mimicking the things you hear that you like.

It is not simply that you are copying someone who "already has the answer". But by choosing what you like (and dislike!) from those who have gone before, you begin the process of binding yourself into the cultural fabric of music-making. All of us start by copying, but your choices will be different from anyone else's so that gradually, over many years, something emerges that is uniquely you.

By analogy, think of the difference between learning math and learning language. Beyond perhaps basic counting and addition, most math has to be taught to us - various rules and methods which have to be memorised and then become useful tools. Whereas language we learn largely by imitation, as babies, long before we later learn about rules of grammar at school.

Music is neither purely math nor is it a language, but it has aspects that are similar to both. It also has a physical element, like wood-carving or ballet or football. Music has a bit of everything, excelling in any one aspect of it is great but if the other aspects are all atrophied the result is not so pleasing, we try to have a balance.

So again, my number one advice is choose parts of other people's solos that you like and learn them "by ear". Try to sing along with the phrase that you are learning as a way to help hold it in your head while you find the notes on the fretboard - it makes it easier and it also builds mental connections between the ear, voice and fingers.

But also learn the scales in all their patterns :)

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  • Your answer was beautifully written. My problems with playing with ear are different though I have some basic ear training but not good enough to learn songs of my ear. This has already restricted me as often I cannot play the musical ideas of my brain on to the fretboard and neither can I hear sheet music in my brain. So my soloing and improv abilities rely upon my familiarity of the scale and theory. With all the academic workload, and spending the little time i get on playing I rarely find time to devote to ear training (I use earmaster). – Euler's_Hotel May 29 at 18:35
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I wanted to ask if it is worth learning the scales in all the patterns for better improv ability as a priority or I can leave that task for later.

I'd recommend learning things in this order:

  • Putting aside your instrument for a moment, learn how the most important scales are defined in terms of tones and semitones. Hopefully you know this already, but if not it's not a big job.

  • Learn the layout of your instrument in terms of intervals, so that if someone pointed to two points on the fretboard you'd be able to tell what interval it is; or if someone pointed to one point on the fretboard and asked you to show them three point that represent a perfect fifth up from that, you could do it.

At this point, you will have enough knowledge to play any scale, starting at any point on the fretboard. You might not be able to play it at 100mph, but you'll understand in your head how to construct the scale. You can then build your speed and agility on that foundation.

  • Additionally, you could learn the names of the notes on the fretboard, and get into the habit of saying them as you play the scale up and down. This will be useful to know in some situations.

That's all you need to 'know' the fretboard. You don't have to learn dozens of different shapes in isolation - you can let the shapes form in your mind based on your understanding of the nature of the scales and the layout of the instrument.

I also wanted to know how to make improvisation using scales sound less like robotic scale playing and more like music. I know a little in this regard as well for example when playing the major scale we generally follow the seventh by the eighth because the sixth creates dissonance and tension and the eighth being the tonal centre resolves it.

To be honest, saying "we generally follow the seventh by the eighth" sounds a little bit like robotic scale playing! Different styles of music do different things and tend to follow different 'rules'. Learn some different specific styles of music that you like, and see what they do.

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  • Interesting point about 'knowing how scales are defined in terms of tones and semitones'. On piano, I'd agree wholeheartedly, but on guitar, where the same note can be played in different places, I don't think that helps much. If one was to play all on one string, yes. But once patterns are established (using those t/s if you like) then it's the places in those patterns that are key. Actually knowing ttsttts = maj.on guitar isn't that helpful. – Tim May 29 at 6:27
  • As far as the scale formula's go I am well versed with them. Coming to the intervals, I am well aware of the layout of the fretboard in terms of the intervals but it takes me a second or two to think about it. So I suppose I could improve my speed even further. I am comfortable with the name of the notes. With the last statement about following the seventh by the eighth I was talking about how different notes have different functions in scales and learning about them, pardon me for my phrasing I get how you could have misinterpreted it. Thank you for taking the time to answer. – Euler's_Hotel May 29 at 7:06
  • @Tim Certainly on guitar there is more than one way to play the same scale definition (such as ttsttts) because of the overlapping string ranges, but I still find it helpful to see those as different ways to play the same one underlying scale. You can then choose the way that sounds best and is easiest to finger, rather than be stuck in a box 'cos it's the only shape you know. Sometimes it seems to me that guitarists that base their knowledge on shapes can start to lose the wood for the trees - feeling they need to learn dozens of scale shapes, having a "Dictionary of 1000 guitar chords"... – topo Reinstate Monica May 29 at 7:08
  • @Euler's_Hotel "With the last statement about following the seventh by the eighth I was talking about how different notes have different functions in scales" - sure, but I'm just saying that it's hard to generalise about note functions without reference to styles of music. Some songs that could be characterised as having 'major' tonality won't use that major seventh leading note very much at all - it's something of an 'avoid' note in some rock styles, for example, while in other music, it's pivotal. – topo Reinstate Monica May 29 at 7:13
  • I take your point. But eventually, don't you agree that we play using those shapes/patterns rather than thinking in tts etc? If I play something in one key, the need to transpose (too often!) apart from knowing where a pattern is, and probably pinpointing the root, it's a pattern I'm using rather than certain notes by name, or certain intervals. Those intervals emanate from the pattern, not vice versa, while playing. – Tim May 29 at 7:25

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