I'm a beginning guitar theory learner and I'm confused about certain things when improvising/soloing/figuring songs out. I've just started learning, and certain things seem hard to imagine.

Let's say I learn the major/minor/pentatonic scales and I become decent at improvising, soloing and figuring songs out by ear. This, however, would only apply to the scales I know. Let's say I hear a song that seems to be based on an exotic scale I don't know (something typically Japanese, Indian, etc).

Let's say I want to improvise to that song, or I want to figure the song out. Do I need to figure out the scale and learn all the possible patterns first, or does a good guitarist just do it by intuition? What's the process of this kind of stuff?

3 Answers 3


Most scales, or sets of notes, will have a fairly close relationship with each other.

The major scale has the same notes as the natural minor, just centred on a different note. The major pentatonic has the same notes as its relative minor pentatonic. The blues scale has pentatonic notes plus one more. Modes all use the same notes as their parent scale.

So, knowing those, a new scale will most likely be easily adaptable from one already known.

Asian, Indian and Eastern scales may contain notes which are 'in the cracks', and consequently, it'll be impossible to relate those to known Western scales.

So, to sum up, if a new scale is diatonc, adapt your knowledge.If it has quarter tones, etc., then it'll be possible to play on guitar, but a bit of bending may be required,but based on what you already know.

  • 1
    I meant actual diatonic scales like these jazzguitar.be/exotic_guitar_scales.html, not genuine eastern music which has entirely different theory than western. Knowing this, do you think it's necessary to learn these scales and all their patterns explicitly later on, or will it be easy adapting basic scales to these?
    – ZimZim
    Apr 28, 2014 at 9:55
  • Adapting is what we do in life anyway. Or should do. Look for patterns amongst new stuff that remind you of things you already know, and work from there.For example, some folks will learn,say, a Dorian scale from scratch, whereas I see it as the parent scale, but going from the second note - same pattern as major.
    – Tim
    Apr 28, 2014 at 10:42
  • So basically it depends on the guitarist, but there's always a bit of new practice involved, as far as I can understand. Thanks.
    – ZimZim
    Apr 28, 2014 at 22:41
  • Classical western theory has plenty of shortcomings, but to say anything has 'entirely different theory than western' is refusing to bridge the communication gap. I know western theory can fully accomodate eastern traditions, and I wouldn't be surprised if western scales can be seen as a special case in eastern theory. I get somewhat of a bad feeling in my gut for even using the terms 'eastern' and 'western' in the 21st century, though, at least particularly in regard to something like this. Music is supposed to be a universal language, yet we insist on our own vocabularies. Oct 26, 2014 at 22:09
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    @Darren Ringer - that quote from Longfellow, mid 19th C, was probably made with no knowledge of Eastern music - he was American, and not a musician. Just because someone famous said something, doesn't make it true ! "What do you mean, the world's not flat ?"
    – Tim
    Oct 27, 2014 at 7:25

Scales are double-edged swords, if you don't learn them at all it becomes harder to improvise and transcribe especially for beginners (it's easier to play with 5 or 7 notes instead of 12 if you're just starting out).

But if you rely on scales too much, you'll be missing out on a lot of interesting ideas. What you need to develop as a musician is the ability to recognize all twelve notes regardless of the context. You don't always get to know the chords and scale before improvising ; you'll have to listen and identify some notes before you do anything else.

For example: you may hear a minor third, a flat seventh and start with an idea over the minor scale, but suddenly you feel like playing a major sixth and then you realize that Dorian was the scale you were looking for. If you don't know well enough what a major 6th sounds like, you probably would have played the minor 6th and sounded awful in that particular context. But because you know very well what that 6th sounds like, you confidently use it in your solo, and you can always use the minor 6th later on as well if you feel it would sound nice again, or you like the tension it would create...

If a person were to analyse you solo, they would probably say that it is in Dorian and moves the Aolian mode, and that it's a modal solo in general... But you couldn't care less because you're just expressing whatever comes to your mind. You didn't make a conscious and calculated decision of using whatever scale degree over a given chord because the theory said you could. I'm not against thinking that way, we all rely on theory at some point. And many guitarist will explain their work that way but it doesn't mean that they created it that way. Don't learn more theory than you can handle. I made that mistake as a beginner, and I ended up using theory too much when playing. Theory can grantee your next note is going to sound nice, but it doesn't get you the note you want. For that you need ear training (a lot of it).

So how should you learn the scales. The approach I would recommend focuses at learning what the additional degrees (minor degrees in a major context, major degrees in a minor context, and the odd sounding flat 5th and flath 2nd):

  • Dorian : teaches you what a major 6th sounds like in a minor context.
  • Mixolydian : teaches you what a flat 7 sounds in a major context.
  • Phrygian : teaches you the minor 2nd
  • Blues scale : teaches you the flat 5th, and minor third in a major context (it's common to use the major third in blues as well)

    Experiment with these modes, and focus on what the altered notes (compared to the minor (Aolian mode) and major (Ionian mode) scales) sound like. There are two more mode I didn't talk about which are Lydian and Locrian. Locrian is just a mess, it doesn't even have a perfect fifth, I never came up with an idea that uses the Locrian scale, it's a waste of time in my opinion, because event when I want to use a lot of flat 5th and flat 2nds, I can't give up the perfect fifth. Lydian is like the major scale, but with a sharp 4th. I sounds very nice but it's confusing to the ear, and it won't help you learn as much as the others.

    So what I'm saying is learn new scales to better recognize all 12 notes, and you'll notice that these new notes will start to stand out for you as you listen to music, and you won't be too much concerned about which scales to use or learn. It will give you much more freedom when playing. So you may indeed end up using a scale you have never used before. But be careful, after learning these new "exotic" notes, never use them just for the sake of using them, keep it natural! You goal is to play the music in you hear mind, not being a smartass.


    To use a scale one has to at least know what the relationship is between the degrees. It's not necessary to learn the pattern all over the fretboard in order to use the scale. One can experiment by playing it on one string, for example.

    Most improvisation is built on a foundation of theory and pre-learned patterns, very few players "just play", so as a beginner, I think it's a good approach to begin with the scale...

    • Agree- Begin with a scale then, see where you can break it to stop it getting too stale :-D Apr 30, 2014 at 13:33

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