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New guitar player here trying to learn music theory and guitar from the ground up. I have somewhat of a two part question. Trying to wrap my head around the first part.

So far I have learned the basic chords, have a pretty firm grasp of the CAGED system (Moveable chords) and have learned the major scale and its associated formula WWHWWWH. Starting to dig into tonic/roots and 3rd 5th for the major scales. Upon searching for the best way to practice scales, I have seen two main starting points: 1) learn the 5 (or 7) scale shapes or 2) start with a few select widely used scales (E min pentatonic, C Maj open, etc.).

As a beginner my thought is to learn all the major scale shapes so that I can move them up and down the neck to play scales in different keys. Then move on to modifying them for minor scales, then major and minor pentatonic. Is this an effective method of learning scales as a complete beginner? Or should I focus more on playing along to songs with the more popular scales?

My ultimate goal is to play blues. My worry is that I will spend months learning these scale shapes and then kind of forget them as I move onto just using pentatonic scales.

4 Answers 4

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Since pentatonics are simplified full scales - and can be used, as they are, in Blues - do that first. Major and minor pents are related, so it's not too onerous. That's where guitars come into their own, as the shapes used lend themselves to being played on guitar.

Then, as a bonus, just slip in the ♭5 to the pent. minor, and you're ready to go with minor Blues. It won't then take much to find the extra note to change major pent into major Blues.

After, use those notes in those shapes and add the two missing notes to produce full major and minor scales, although for Blues, what you'll already have will work pretty well. Don't neglect bending, though, as certain notes get bent for Blues, and knowing which and how is all part and parcel of being a Blues player.

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  • I feel like as an older beginner, learning the pents and building upon those will be much easier for me to remember. I assume that since major to pentatonic is just removing the half steps, that the shapes will still pretty much remain the same? Once I learn the easier pentatonic shapes I will hopefully be more experienced and able to add in the extra notes for the major if needed or just for my own knowledge. Dec 17, 2020 at 18:09
  • While I appreciate your desire to learn Blues I'd caution against thinking that adding a note doesn't change the "shape". If you want to learn the full diatonic scales one day your Blues muscle memory will defeat you. Just some advice.
    – user50691
    Dec 17, 2020 at 18:52
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I think from your question wording it's clear you understand that major/minor scales and blues scales play are significantly different. But I think there are two things to think about regarding "woodsheding" the fretboard:

  • think of three basic finger groupings: lower, middle, upper
  • shift patterns across the strings - not up the frets

For the finger groupings the basic idea is the same thing can be played with three different finger groupings (positions.) Here is an example for a major tetrachord (the first four tones of a major scale.)

enter image description here

The G D are string letters and the numbers of the scale degree numbers. Green is what I call "lower" position and the 1 scale degree would be played with finger 4.

Orange is middle position, degree 1 would be played with finger 2.

Blue is upper position, degree 1 would be played with finger 1.

The point is to associate alternate fret choices with the direction your are moving on the fretboard and then practice the right fingers that make things reachable. It makes sense for "three notes per string" which is a common approach for playing diatonic scales & modes. It doesn't apply to two notes per string pentatonic boxes.

Transposing scale across the strings - transposing by perfect fourths - will help learn patterns and especially internalize the funny shift in the "shape" patterns that happens when moving over the G and B strings. Here is the major scale transposing by fourths...

enter image description here

The dot enclosed in a box is the tonic for each scale and the numbers are the other scale degrees. The three colors just highlight three basic box shapes that make up the diatonic scales & modes, and each color represents a lower, middle, and upper position as I described above.

Lower, middle, upper positions aren't all on that charts, here are all three line up so the tonic stays on the same fret starting with string 6...

enter image description here

Notice that with C(B) box the tonic shifts up one fret on the B string. At that point when you transpose up another fourth you will go back to the E(F) box but it will now be shifted up one fret. When you keep transposing in fourths like this you will repeat the five patterns across the strings and shift up one fret after each series of five.

It's important to start and end each box on the tonic to get the proper sound of the major mode and feel the targeting of the tonic in the various lower, middle, upper positions.

While that sequence will take you through the major scale in all keys, it also provides a sort of "hidden" mode exercise. As major scales the tonics ascend E, A, D, G, C... But, we can imagine the starting tonic for E - string 6, first fret - staying fixed and then the five patterns move through the various modes on E. The A major box becomes E mixolydian, D major becomes E dorian, G becomes E aeolian, C(B) becomes E phrygian.

If that stuff about modes is confusing, don't worry about it for now. When you get familiar with playing in all 12 major keys the understanding of modes will come easier.

Basically those three colored boxes repeat across the strings endlessly, and you can shift around your fingering, or change the starting point to get the major scale and all the modes in various positions.

I have seen a number of guides that show "three notes per string" scale where the patterns shift up the frets essentially going through all the modes of one scale. There is a subtle difference between that and transposing by fourths across the strings. When you go up the frets through the modes you get a sense there are many, many different boxes for all the modes and which string gets the tonic. But in reality there is only one diatonic pattern on the fretboard!

It's hard to see the pattern, because of the one fret shift between the G and B strings to go up a perfect fourth. You can visualize it by looking at the orange box in the E and A patterns. In the E pattern it looks like a square next to a rectangle. But in the A pattern it sort of leans over and becomes trapezoidal. That's the "shift!" The box is the same, just tilted. If you practice across the strings, transposing by fourths (you can do it with any musical passage, pentatonic boxes, arpeggios, and so on) you will start to see there is only one diatonic pattern instead of many confusing patterns.

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  • For a different take of something similar I coincidently posted after this post on an older question: music.stackexchange.com/a/108800/73840 But yea.. one pattern for a scale and its modes on the fretboard! Breath of fresh air, haha. I often cringe at the multiplicity of patterns I see in literature. Anyways, just wanted to link the same thing but in different words (in case it's helpful) and say I appreciate you and the answer.
    – Derek E
    Dec 19, 2020 at 17:35
  • Trying to understand 'one diatonic pattern on the fretboard!'
    – Tim
    Dec 22, 2020 at 10:38
  • @Tim, do you understand my point about the boxes "leaning" over to trapezoid shapes on the G & B strings? Dec 22, 2020 at 13:43
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There are way more than 5 or 7 scale patterns or shapes. And you should devote some effort to learning the open string keys in open position. They will feel way different.

There are version of the scales that match the 5 chord forms in the CAGED system and it definitely makes sense to learn how these are connected. But there are 7 modes that are related to the diatonic scale and they all serve a purpose. After that there are the minor scales, not just natural minor but harmonic and melodic and there are 7 new scales associated with the melodic minor.

For any of these there are several ways to finger them. William Levitt has a specific way of fingering the major scale so that you stay in position near a movable chord form. Many guitarists do not like his "finger stretch" method. On top of all that there are the infamous three note per string patterns for each mode that climb up the finger board shifting position twice as you go. These are great for shredders as they have repeating finger patterns on string pairs and can be played very fast once mastered.

I think that for a beginner rather than try and discover the "best way to learn" just pick one and commit it to memory, muscle memory. There is no reason not to start with the 5 paterns that line up with the CAGED movable chords.

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  • All good stuff, but if OP ultimately wants to play Blues, are modes et al going to help that aim?
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2020 at 18:15
  • Absolutely. I've never heard a self respecting "Blues" guitarist NOT use a mode once in a while.
    – user50691
    Dec 17, 2020 at 18:51
  • @Tim, I would also add that even though the OP eventually commented on Blues in the last sentence the title and description speak to a wider audience.
    – user50691
    Dec 17, 2020 at 18:53
  • Fair dos. I'd expect any player after a while to use other notes, whether by accident or design, so they'll stray into all sorts of territories and often in complete ignorance, as I often did. And, let's face it, do we need to know what we're doing to be great players. I've played with many who don't, and the pleasure has been mine!
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2020 at 19:00
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Starting with this:

My ultimate goal is to play blues.

That is simultaneously a larger and smaller target than I think you're currently aiming at.

  • Harmony - there is the 12-bar form, but that can be as spare as John Lee Hooker or ZZ Top's "La Grange" or as lush and jazzy as "Stormy Monday". 7th and 9th chords are good to know, as well as the magic tricks you can play with the major third and the dominant sevenths.

  • Melody - if you are playing the blues, getting the whole major scale under your fingers is going to help you a little — no such thing as wasted knowledge — but the major and minor pentatonic are your bread and butter. But when you listen to blues players, and I say when because that's where you learn, you will hear more than those five. Everything from the major second to the dominant seventh is fair game if used correctly. But yes, up and down the strings. Yes, across the neck. Yes, every scale, although G, A and E will dominate, as will Bb if you play with horn players.

  • Blue Notes and Bends - I say "notes" because there's more than one. The flat five is important and good, but that's easy to play, even on a piano. The next one is the just third, which is sharp of the minor third but flat of the major. It's the "spoon" of "Spoonful", and this is the note Floyd Kramer was trying to trick you into hearing on piano. And I'm told that the third is between the major sixth and dom seven, but like Rats of Unusual Size, I don't think that exists. But these, as well as the more standard notes in the scale, are the notes you want to bend into. You don't just bend just to bend. Those bends should be controlled but looser than the steel-guitar-based country bends, which generally are trying to be as smoothly moving from exact notes as possible.

  • Rhythm - I can't say much beyond "shuffle" and "boogie", but I'll say that you'll go farther hitting the wrong note at the right time than the right note at the wrong time.

  • Material - Blues existed before Cream formed. Blues existed before Muddy Waters moved to Chicago. Blues existed before Robert Johnson went to the crossroads. I get the draw of an electric guitar singing with an overdriven amp, but some of my favorite blues came from fingerstyle Piedmont players like Blind Blake and the Reverend Gary Davis, which feels a lot different than the Delta style that fed into Chicago and became the main branch of the Blues.

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