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I am a drummer of 20+ years. I am a guitarist for only the last 5 or so (more of a guitar owner). I can play many chords, and have composed a number of songs. I learned to play drums without a mentor, and have continued the same way learning the guitar.

My weakness is that I haven't been able to improve playing solos. I have written a number of passages which could be considered solos. But playing these passages time and again starts feeling stale, because my progression is very fixed. I refuse to learn scales. I do realize that there is a great globe of musical theory and many schools of approach to learning all of these scales. I choose not to learn the same way that a vast majority of guitarists have; if I drink the kool-aid, then surely my approach will be a not-too-distant relative of any number of guitarists.

And isn't the goal to not sound like everyone else? I realize the irony of my question - how do I not do like so many others, but maybe do it like you? I am looking for perspective. Certainly there must be more than few of you who have learned to play the guitar (and solo) very well while ignoring the establishment of scales.

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    Scales are fundamental to music in general, not to particular artists. "I refuse to learn scales." is like saying "I refuse to understand Physics. If I jump off this building, I'm going to be different." It might even work for a while, but you'll be able to improve whatever style you choose much more quickly if you at least have a feel for the mathematical way in which notes are fundamentally related. – imallett Oct 25 '14 at 6:32
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    Refusing to learn scales will lead to you "discovering" those scales yourself, but it will take a lot of time. Unless you are a true innovator. If so, learning stuff will not kill the ability to create. Music is plagued by the romantic notion that learning about the craft will somehow destroy the ability to create, something e.g. painting does not suffer from. – Meaningful Username Oct 25 '14 at 14:17
  • Jason - I'm going to clean up all the comments on this and the answers. In general, comments are for gaining clarity, not for conversations. Music: Practice & Theory Chat is the place to go for that. – Doktor Mayhem Oct 26 '14 at 0:13
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    I wish someone asked you what style you play before answering. Maybe you work in the vein of Thurston Moore! – Michael Curtis Nov 2 '18 at 16:58

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tl;dr: You can always guess what notes to play by ear and find what notes sound good, but at the end of the day you are playing in a scale and you should be aware of that.


There are some guitarists that don't know scale (or music theory for that matter) and they tend to play by ear. They listen to the progression and try to play something over it and find out what works and what doesn't. By doing this, they are picking a set of notes and musical ideas that sound good against a progression.

Unknowingly to them, typically they are playing inside a scale, they just don't know it. The definition of a scale is the following:

In music, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch.

If the set of notes the guitarist comes up with are pentatonic, modal, or experimental is irrelevant, it's still some type of scale. Any set of notes is a scale. Typically even musicians who were never trained in formal music study tend to come up with musical ideas inside typical scales like major or minor without knowing it.

The theory behind scales is based on the practice and implementation. They will help you find what sound you like as there are many, many scales out there. Just because the standard scales don't interest you doesn't mean that there aren't any exotic scales you could really enjoy.

You seem to be equating scales with "boring" or "bland" solos and I would kind of agree with that, but in the bigger picture most good soloists don't stay in one scale the whole time. Combining multiple scales with chromatic and non-harmonic tones creates some of the most beautiful solos and I can guarantee most don't even think about it. They just do what sounds good. However looking at a solo you can analyse what they are doing and learn so much about what is going on and find what you like and what you don't like about it and use it to your advantage. This is how most guitarists get better and find out what sounds good and they use it where they see fit.

There are a lot of scales out there and many different ways to solo over a progression. You don't need to know every way, but anyone playing guitar should be aware that that you can break down a solo you like and most likely break sections down to sets of scales and arpeggios. It's not required, but it is a tool to improve you're playing and understanding what you like.

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I think the most important thing you need is to learn how to dive in your guitar's neck without getting lost. Moving around past a certain speed and without watching where your fingers are requires tons of practice. That practice relies in repeating some pattern over and over and over. You can try 1 million solos, practice them, improve and master them and you will get some dexterity from that. You can, however, learn a couple scales and then try a couple solos that are in that scale...life will be way easier then. You are learning from general to specific, and what you get by doing it that way is not just dexterity but knowledge about structures that you can reuse later to play other pieces or compose your own music.

Learning by imitation is a valid approach, but there may be better ways. Scales are just a tool you can use to improve. When people improvises without learning scales they are probably using them without knowing it.

With that said...Here is a post that tries to give reasons about why your music can feel stale.

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You seem to be mistaken in thinking that playing scales means you have to play the same scales as everyone else - you don't. In fact, even playing chords and/or arpeggios is a form of playing scales.

A scale is, informally, nothing more than a system of dividing a range of frequencies into discrete steps.

So saying you 'refuse' to learn scales is, in a way, saying you refuse to play tonally. That's fine, but you will have to spend many years finding note combinations that do not sound bad to people, and training your fingers to find them reliably. You may eventually come to realize that the majority of these combinations you come up with are identical to many common scales, and that you should have just played scales to begin with, but you will certainly find a great many uncommon scales that do not sound bad.

OTOH I think you might be well served by just skipping straight to learning unusual modes. That way, you have something to practice and you can improve much more quickly, but you won't be playing what everyone else is playing.

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    Well indeed those are useful but in modern usage are effectively permutations of the same scale (just with a different starting note). While the literature doesn't really have a lot of common terminology and particular genres get stuck in particular modes, in a general sense a mode could be any combination of notes (& related chords)that evokes the sound of a particular 'world music', a particular emotion, or whatever other qualit(y/ies) you want it to have. I believe Miles Davis, one of the early pioneers of modal improvisation, borrowed many of his modes from the study of ethnomusicology. – Darren Ringer Oct 24 '14 at 22:20
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Not learning scales is like being a weightlifter who ignores leg day. They are in some ways the most boring thing you can do, but fundamental in more subtle ways than you may realize.

I would say scales are not important because they are the fundamental unit of music theory (which may be wrong but the first years of music theory pedagogy can imply it), but because scales are the fundamental unit of practice.

This is, in part, because they are boring.

  • You will never play a scale faster out of excitement or greater interest in a passage.
  • You will be able to count to play more evenly (even as an experienced drummer, because physically playing a new instrument can mess up your evenness).
  • You will hear every mistake you make in a scale because you are listening intently and not getting distracted by the enjoyment of the music.
  • You will learn to play every note as part of every key it belongs to.
  • You will know exactly how fast you can play in ideal, simple conditions.
  • You will improve at slowing down, practicing evenly, then speeding back up, evenly.

I think - at least to my level of knowledge - that learning guitar without a focus on theory is a very reasonable thing to do. But you do need a focus on practicing well, and I tried to answer why scales are a huge part of practicing well, regardless of their overemphasized role in theory.

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There are plenty of arguments for learning scales, and some against. I've played with many,many musos (and loads of guitarists !!), some of whom know scales, some don't. It's often not possible to decide which camp an individual is in when they play. There are great players out there who play 'from the soul' and haven't a clue about scales, keys or theory of any sort. There's also some who know all the scales, but somehow, it doesn't help them to play brilliant stuff. Very good, yes, but not brilliant.

I think the crux of the matter is in being able to listen to a new piece, and realise pretty quickly which scale/s is/are being used. I know that I wasted an awful lot of time finding notes for particular tunes, that I could have saved if I'd known scales.Yes, they can be boring, and, let's face it, not many tunes have more than 3 or 4 consecutive notes such as you'd find in a scale. So why bother learning them ?

A new pupil wanted to learn to play like xxxx from xxxxxxx. He used tabs but was confused. He tried to find the notes to solos by moving a fret at a time up and down. Once I'd shown him a minor pentatonic, and how to move it up and down into different keys, he appreciated the usefulness of knowing his scales.

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I learned all the music theory I know (not much, but enough to get by), and a lot of great stuff about how chords (and thus solos) are built, from this pretty awesome...comic book: http://www.planetalkguitar.com/

The author is a professional guitarist who never worries about scales - the whole book is about chord tones (which like everything else in music, are related to scales). But you only learn about them so you can learn how to find your way around and between them where it matters, on the fretboard.

This is not a magic method or some sort of scam that purports to make you an amazing player without effort. This is a solid system that's based on real understanding - it just doesn't focus on learning scales and practicing them.

Chord tones are almost as fundamental as scales, it's not musical snake oil. But it does offer a clear pathway to improving as a guitarist and especially as an improviser, without the focus on scales I totally understand your dislike of.

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The guitar neck is a featureless grid of notes. The vast majority of music is played in a key (which if you read about the history of music, and in particular pythagorean tuning, is fundamental to the way frequency ratios between notes work.)

You only need to learn one scale by rote: the pentatonic. That will give you a sense of where 'home' is on the neck for playing in a particular key. That will be an enormous boost to your tendency to find notes that sound right (i.e., not horribly discordant.)

I'll say that again. Learning one scale (the pentatonic) will give you a sense of where 'home' is on the neck.

What you choose to do next, is up to you. Once you've learned the pentatonic you will gradually find the additional notes to form the diatonic scale by ear yourself (for major and natural minor.) You will also find the various other notes that are frequently added as accidentals. These include sharp 6ths, 7ths for the harmonic and melodic minor, plus the sharp 3rd (rather less used, as it tends to force a key change into the major scale of the same root.) They also include the flat 3rd known as the Blue note.

You may prefer doing it this way than reading a book, but you're going to find the same notes everyone else has found. There are, after all, only 12 of them. Once you've learned the pentatonic, additional theory may possibly accelerate your learning of how to play. It will, however, definitely consolidate your learning and improve your knowledge of terminology.

But by avoiding the subject entirely, you're just making life hard for yourself unnecesarily. Learn the pentatonic, which is the most basic of rules. That will help you to move about in a key.

Once you know the rules, you will be in a much better position to break them. And music, like painting, is about knowing when to follow the established rules and when to break them. You can change key in a song. You can add in strange notes. But you need to do it just enough to keep your listeners on their toes. Follow the rules too much and they will get bored. But ignore the rules completely and you will just make undirected noise, which they won't like either.

  • Guitar fingerboards are hardly featureless - most have dot or marker patterns so we know where we are. The pentatonic you mention is the minor, I guess, closely related, certainly physically on guitar,and musically, to major pent. Blue notes can be b3, b5 and b7. – Tim Oct 26 '14 at 11:21
  • @Tim Pentatonic Minor & Major are just modes of the same scale. If you've learned Am pentatonic in 2 octaves, you've learned Cmaj pentatonic, too, just start on a different note. I use the dots a bit, but I have 3 frets I call home: The ones where the 1st, 4th and 5th of the major mode of the key I'm playing in are on the G string. I can play all the notes of the tonic fret if I'm playing pentatonic and all the notes on all three frets if I'm playing diatonic. If the key moves up a semitone I mentally move the whole pattern up a semitone. But now the dots are in a different relative position. – Level River St Oct 26 '14 at 12:52
  • I know that ! That's why it got mentioned ! A, for example, is always 5th fret, E string, usually 2nd marker. Bb is always between that dot and the next one up. So the landmarks are there to guide you, and their features should help. – Tim Oct 26 '14 at 13:06
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I'm assuming you have a core tune you've written and you want to add a solo. If so, then my suggestion is to put down the guitar, put on the headphones, and listen to the song for... weeks or months if that's what it takes. Start to hear a solo in your head. When you have a very accurate "sonic vision" of the solo you want, then grab the guitar and find the notes... rearrange them as needed so that it's easy to play... maybe tweak it as you stumble across interesting twists. Etc. The key is to use your imagination, and to be precise... listen again and again until that thing is painted in your brain with enough clarity that when you're digging for it on guitar, there is no "close enough."

If you want to improvise something cool on the spot... well, then you need to be a rare genius or you need to learn some theory and scales.

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There are two parts to your question. One pertains to art in general, while the other relates to the specific craft of music.

With regards to art, generally speaking you need to become proficient in the standard ways of doing things in order to be capable of effectively forging new ground. A painter needs to know how to draw figures and landscapes before they can paint surrealistic art. A writer needs to know how to write a newspaper article or an essay before they can write a work of literature. Likewise, a musician needs to know how to play popular rock songs, blues, etc in order to have the tools and skills necessary to find your own voice.

With regards to scales. Most, if not all, musicians who improvise on guitar are using scales. Some of them know what scale they're using, while others don't. But generally improvised lines can be analyzed and it can be said "they're using such-and-such scale there." Now, many guitarists learn to play by ear, by imitating the solos of other guitarists. While others learn the keys and scales and learn it that way. So just pick whichever method is comfortable for you.

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We're all trying to persuade you to play scales! I'm going to too. But don't play scales because the Berklee teachers have a method of faking improvisation by associating scales with chords. Learn them to develop fluency, to learn where each pitch "is" on your instrument, so that when your ear wants "that" note, your fingers know where it is. Play arpeggios as well. Major, minor, dominant 7ths, dim 7th... Now, buy the auto-accompaniment program Band-in-a-Box. Enter the chord sequence to a song you want to work on. Set the accompaniment to just bass and drums, tell it to loop forever. Now sing a solo - hum, sing "la", whatever. Keep it simple, we don't need a lot of notes. Play what you sung. After all that scale and arpeggio practice, your fingers should KNOW where to go.

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The idea that learning the scales will make you sound like everyone else is like saying you will write like Shakespeare if you learn the alphabet - scales, in some form, are just the foundation of 99.999% of all western music so, unless you are planning to play experimental noise music, all learning scales will do is make life so much easier for you. What you do with them is then up to you, and that is where your own voice comes in.

There are approaches that can help improvisation without learning scales - but again, if you know your scales you will make this a far easier process for yourself.

Take a chord and then play every possible note over it to hear how it sounds. Sometimes notes that are in the relative scale will sound spot on while others sound a bit off. Sometimes notes outside the parent scale will have their own interesting flavour. Then when soloing over that chord, use the notes that worked best or choose which flavour of note you are looking for at that point, rather than thinking necessarily about the parent scale.

That can be a very effective non-scalar way of approaching a solo, but again unless you know your scales you will struggle to transpose these ideas to other chords, or know which notes are which in relation to the chord, so you will massively restrict your ability to re-use this information and therefore hamper any progress.

Just learn the scales! Why make life hard for yourself?

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Travel way back in time, before people realized there were notes that sounded good together when they tried to compose a melody. As best I can figure that's what you're interested in learning to do. Perhaps by studying that part of historical musical development you might find the answer you are looking for. But by doing so, you may actually discover the actual value of scales just like musicians from centuries past. Then again you may discover something entirely new. That would be my suggestion. Some call it study and experimentation, and often find something that they didn't find before, but there's no guarantee some one else hasn't already found it and just didn't pursue it the way that you might choose too. Two days later I decide to edit my answer and add a thought that occurred to me this morning. There is an area of study called chord melody that focuses on using chords to make your melody lines with, it's generally used in jazz and can be considered pretty advanced stuff by many, but it might be just the ticket for you. Check it out.

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Why refusing to learn scales? Besides if you are playing something that makes sense (sounds good) you are playing a scale for sure, whether you know it or not. Here is a nice A minor (C major) pentatonic diagram,just play a song in one of these keys and try playing tones in the diagram,there is no way it would not sound good or at least musical: Cmajor Aminor pentatonic

Made using Chords & Scales software.

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Let me get this straight. You think that the way you play the guitar is unique lol. There isn't anything anyone could play on an instrument that hasn't been done billions of times before in tonal music. You are already playing scales whether you like it or not. You think you are playing by ear, but guessing witch notes sound right isn't really playing by ear. You will not develop your sense of relative pitch unless you know some form of scales. You don't have to know what those scales are called and you don't have to learn them formally but you have to learn them if you want to develop your ear and expand your knowledge and ability on your instrument. Not to be mean, but when I hear people like you say that they refuse to learn scales or any music theory because they want to be unique and they often think they have a very good ear for music, but I am here to tell you that that is completely backwards.

Usually people that don't know any scale patterns are the most predictable and stale musicians. I guarantee if I heard you play your licks and runs that you do right now, those runs would probably consist of notes from the most common scales used in American music such as the minor and major pentatonic scales.

Im not saying that's a bad thing, I am just saying that its far from unique, because every beginning guitarist in America and most of the world learn those scales first whether they are self taught or formally taught. Also one more thing, its not about what you play, its about how you play it. Like I said before every thing that you can think of has already been done in music billions of times, so if you think that not learning scales will make you a unique musician you are sadly mistaken.

Learning scales and harmony is the key to becoming a musician, and once you learn the Music Theory you will get so used to it that you don't have to think about it, and that more than anything is what can set you free as a musician

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    I agree with most things here. A suggestion is that you divide the answer in paragraphs, since it will improve readability. – Meaningful Username May 6 '15 at 11:34

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