An advice for beginners I keep hearing is to memorize scale shapes. Minor pentatonic, the major scale, etc. But if I've fully memorized the fretboard notes, and I know the notes and theory around each scale, why do I also need to develop the muscle memory for the various scale shapes?

The way I'd practice scales would be: pick a scale (i.e. G major), figure out its notes and chords in my head, then improvise on them, solo and create triads etc through my understanding of the fretboard. As opposed to mechanically moving my fingers to the shapes' positions.

My goal is to progress from memorized licks and mechanically walking on scale shapes to playing more interestingly, being able to solo in different scales (knowing what I'm doing and not just hitting strings), and eventually improvise elegantly with other musicians.

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    If I had theory to back this up, I'd write an answer instead of this rambling: Listen to good (=you like the musicians) music that you don't like (=but not the music) and try to make it into something you do like by jamming along to something you'd never choose when putting on a record. Something that hurts a bit at first and that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Make it a regular event with different types of music and styles. Perhaps improvising elegantly with other musicians becomes second nature.
    – Ted Lyngmo
    Commented Jan 12 at 19:18
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    It's hard to say what you need to practice, without knowing how far away you are from your goal. Is there something in particular that you don't like about your playing? Are your lines already elegant and interesting? Generally speaking, if you want to play fast, you'll want to see the shapes without thinking about note names and having to figure out anything. Can you play elegant and interesting lines very slowly, but not fast enough? Or do you think your lines are bad? Is there a particular problem? I don't think memorizing chord shapes is going to do any harm in any case. Commented Jan 12 at 21:43

3 Answers 3


These two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Why not do both? Some people somewhat blindly play scale shapes and manage to get good results by using their ears, trial and error and watching other musicians. Others play them and actually know what scale degrees and notes they are playing and also can get good results. Deciding how deeply you want to immerse yourself in musical knowledge is a personal choice.

You seem to be asking this question from a “what if?” position as opposed to something you have already worked out. Thinking practically and using your example, if you know the notes on the fingerboard and figure out the notes in a G scale in a given position not the neck, you will in effect be playing a scale shape that you figured out on your own. Once you have learned and played that scale shape are you going to purposely forget it and re-learn it to play a C scale somewhere else on the neck? Of course not. You will remember previous shapes you came up with and use them again.

This information is already widely available in diagrams like the one below, there’s no reason to not take advantage of them. This is a diagram of the 5 positions of G major. The orange boxes show the places where the positions overlap:

You can painstakingly figure this out on your own or take advantage of pre-existing knowledge like this. All the scale degrees are labeled. That means if for example, you are playing position 2 you know the notes on the E string are A,B,C, The 2nd, 3rd and 4th degrees of the G scale. You also know the root note, G is on the D string, 5th fret.

By knowing your fingerboard and keys you:

  1. know what notes and scale degrees you are playing in any position

  2. can transpose these positions and play scales in any key and know what notes you are playing in other keys as well.

If I want to for example, play in the key of Bb around the 3rd to 6th frets I will use position 5. I know Bb is the E string, 6th fret. I will place my hand so my 4th finger is on the E string, 6th fret and play that position.

You can also be creative and come up with your own shapes as well, this is just a reference and a foundation to build from.

  • "These two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Why not do both? ... Deciding how deeply you want to immerse yourself in musical knowledge is a personal choice." This is the ultimate answer to the question I guess Commented Jan 14 at 2:16

Simple reason is that we don't use the theory as in which note is called which by name when we play. It just doesn't work, and never could.

Knowing the patterns and what fits where is important on every instrument, so we can go straight to whatever note we feel, without actually thinking 'what is this note's name in this key'. It's the relationship between notes that provides the melodic structure of a solo, and knowing the notes in a key - thus the notes which may not fit, but still sound good, is important.

Experience is paramount here, and simply playing with others (a lot) will help that happen. The academic side doesn't really help - there are many players out there who don't know the theory behind what works, but mechanically (it seems) are capable of far more than those who know what the notes are called. Food for thought there..!


If your goal is to fluently improvise then the muscle memory so knowing shapes is more important than spelling out the notes. Thinking about note names when improvising is a distraction if anything.

But there is something more important - ear training and ability to instantly execute scales or any melodies that play in our heads on fretboard. Many master improvisers don't even know scales or note names but they all have the ability to instantly execute the melodies they think about. So take a simple melody like Happy Birthday and try to just play it starting on different notes and strings - that's the simplest test anyone can take to gauge the state of basic apparatus for improvisation.

The more existing melodies you can just play, the more deliberate are your note choices and improvisation. It is a muscle memory at the end of the day but doesn't mean you keep playing predrilled shapes - it just means your muscles play the melody you though about.

The modern education on improvisation starts from scales and I'm always baffled why this most fundamental ability and its training rarely gets mentioned. Once we have this ability on a decent level and our ear works better, suddenly the scales become much easier to study and memorize as we then memorize the sound and the shape and associate the sounds with what fingers should do.

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