I would like to know which approach to learning the scales/shapes is better. As in, is learning the shapes for major and minor separately benefitial? Or is it good to just learn the 5-major scale patterns, know them perfectly and then focus on the tonal center or 'ROOT-NOTE' while playing?

Let's assume I'm playing in the key of Am, and all I know is major scale patterns, I can still use C major scale pattern for A minor right? And I would be GOLD if I knew where those A's were as I play C major. Now, is this approach good? Or am I better of learning the 5 minor scale shapes as well?

In the long run, I thought the same could be applied to modes. For instance, say G Mixolydian, where I could just visualize G root note while playing C major scale, essentially playing G Mixolydian.

How feasible is this approach? What is the ideal way to get this all down?

6 Answers 6


I'm convinced that it is important to learn each scale or mode independently, without reference to a related mode or scale. It boils down to knowing where the root is and to know (and hear!) which intervals are part of the scale that you're playing. Of course you will realize that the patterns are all the same, just with different positions for the root, but it is essential to practice each mode and to see its root and the relation of the root to the other scale tones.

The reason why I think so is the fact that even though the patterns for all modes are the same, the meaning and the relative importance of the scale tones are different. I often notice that beginning or intermediate students think minor when playing major. The consequence is that they play correct notes, but they often emphasize notes in a strange and not so musical way. They play their minor or blues licks as if the root were the root of the relative minor key, so they often overemphasize the 6th scale degree of the major scale (which is the root of the relative minor key). A similar argument holds for all other modes.

Even though the task of learning all modes separately may seem overwhelming and also inefficient, I believe it is the only way to really learn to play modes in a musical way. The task is made much easier by not only learning patterns in a visual way but by using your ears and learning how to play the right notes in an intuitive way. I've noticed that most students learning modes initially use an almost purely visual approach to memorize the scale patterns. I always encourage them to learn the sound of the mode and to be able to sing the mode and to think in terms of intervals. In the long run all these different approaches become one and you know and appreciate the differences between the modes while obviously realizing that their patterns are all the same.

And as for playing freely up and down the neck I totally agree with Meaningful Username that playing each mode on one string helps a lot. You can generalize this idea by playing melodies on only two strings, by practicing scales not only in the standard way (i.e. in 1 position or using 3 notes per string) but to use a fixed number of notes per string (greater than 3), e.g. 4 notes per string. Also learn melodies or licks you like in all possible positions and on all possible combinations of strings. Be creative and you'll come up with many challenging exercises to improve your knowledge of scale patterns.

  • Yes very true. I appreciate your thoughts. I would also like to know if you have something to say for the following.. Is it right to say the one would be visualizing more music theory and interval relationship by learning one shape and concentrating on the notes and honing in on the intervals rather than learning individual shapes(which is less of theory learning and time consuming) and the intervals in it? Dec 23, 2014 at 9:37
  • @Komal-SkyNET: I think it's important to try to see the commonalities of all the shapes and how they reflect the intervals of the scale. So the goal should be to understand and see that all shapes are basically the same. Not sure though if this answers your question.
    – Matt L.
    Dec 23, 2014 at 9:45

Here are three methods that I especially like for learning the fretboard. I often sing the names of the notes as I practice these exercises – you can can even combine guitar practice with solfège.

1- and 2-string octaves

Practice playing octaves on fewer than three strings. Work out a few different ways to make the position shifts. Ideally, you will want to learn octaves both with small shifts (a whole tone) and larger ones (a perfect forth). The larger position shifts teach you to move your hand quickly and smoothly. The smaller shifts teach you how to reorient yourself from different scale degrees.

Scale practice books can help you get started with some patterns and exercises. I liked Paul Farnen’s exercises in Bass Fretboard Basics, for example. Once you get comfortable with a single octave, you can practice multiple octaves the same way. There are lots of ways to play two octaves on four strings, for example, and getting familiar with all of them will help you break out of “boxes.”

Shifting modes

In The Jazz Theory Book, Mark Levine recommends practicing scales by shifting through modes. Start with an ascending C Ionian scale, then come back down with the D Dorian scale, then back up with E Phrygian, down F Lydian, up G Mixolydian, down A Aeolian, up B Locrian. Then cycle back down through the modes with the directions reversed. This will teach you how to navigate a key from any scale degree or direction, which helps both with modal play and functional harmony. You can combine this with the first approach – limiting yourself to 3 or 4 strings for this exercise will force you to move around the neck more.

Note spotting

Finally, you can learn to visualize the different notes around the fretboard by drilling yourself on their locations. To begin, find all of the A notes on your neck, one string at a time: E string, 5th fret; E string, 17th fret; A string, open; A string, 12th fret; and so on. Continue with all of the B notes, all of the C notes, and on through the rest of the scale. If you can sing the note names as you find them, it will help you associate the muscle memory of your hands and voice with your visual knowledge of the fretboard and your intellectual knowledge of the note names. The other two exercises will help you break free of the “boxes,” and this one will help you stay oriented.

  • 1
    when you say "play octaves" in "small and large shifts".... do you mean C, C(8va), D, D(8va), E, E, F, F, etc...then C, C, F, F, bB, bB, etc....?? or something else?
    – b3ko
    Jun 6, 2018 at 14:28
  • I mean, play one-octave scales, but on fewer than three strings, which you generally cannot do without shifting positions. Jun 7, 2018 at 4:33
  • Please see Allan Holdsworth videos, YouTube or other, where it touts learning to play four notes on one string. youtube.com/watch?v=2fL0ZsvYIp4 ... AND ... youtube.com/watch?v=NTnyGbLipbo Jun 8, 2018 at 1:50

This will be up to the player to a large extent. But I believe a common approach is what I've done, which is learning the shapes separately for major, minor, and the modes you are using. I find that in the "heat of the moment", transposing one scale to another (e.g. C major to A minor) adds an unnecessary step. But I think a lot of players use this method too.

Getting stuck in boxes/shapes is a clear risk for guitarists. In the book "The advancing guitarist" by Mick Goodrick, it is recommended to treat the guitar as a one stringed instrument and learn the scales on just one string as a complement to shapes. In that way you get a more piano like view of the scale, where intervals rather than fretboard shapes are emphasized. If you have access to a keyboard, it's a good exercise to play around with the scales there too.

So I guess a summary of my points would be learn the shapes, but think of each scale in intervals.

  • This is my approach as well. Know the boxes, know how to play scales up and down each string and then take scalar walks up and down the fretboard.
    – empty
    Dec 22, 2014 at 16:53

Patterns are very helpful for learning the scales and you can learn different modes simply by adjusting your root. Ultimately you want to know the fretboard from top to bottom and understand the relationship between the notes of the scale in any mode. Particularly in minor scales when you may use a sharp 7 ascending and a flat 7 descending.

One exercise I did often when I was first learning was to sing the note names as I practiced the scale in various positions. You can use this approach when learning scales in positions or on a single string. Ultimately you will see the fret board as the notes on the strings and the relationships between them which make moving through positions very easy.

When I was in school we had proficiency tests which included being able to play any scale from any starting note in any position. For example play a G lydian scale, beginning on the fifth, in fourth position. This really helps understand the scales.


You dont need boxes or shapes. Take any note on the guitar and simply play solfege (do re mi fa so la ti do). The note you started in is the tonic (or key) of the major scale. Do it by ear. For minor do a solfege minor. You could simply go along the length of one string, or you could use multiple strings. Possibilities are endless really.


I think you are asking several questions.

On all instruments, for example, the king of instruments cannot get away without memorising, minor, major scales, 7th arpeggios etc.

So in principle, you need all of those under your finger on guitar as well.

For playing blues it might be enough to memorise those 5 pentatonic boxes. But if you dig into it, it comes with a compromise if you play just Am pentatonic boxes over a standard A minor blues. For example, when playing E7 you ought to play something from E7 arpeggio and you will find that several notes are not in the "box" or many of them don't sound cool. So you might want to Switch to E7 scale or Em7.

As I mentioned, there is a clever way to get these under your finger, most importantly that you can learn only one octave at one position (for example in the box where you want to improvise). It's not a big deal but in sound, it's a big difference.

Finally, You need to train yourself to play any intervals. like M2 m3 M3 etc. There create your own exercises walking around the neck, in this way you connect what you hear inside and you can instantly reach that note. At least it works very well for me.

If you look at some big names in blues, they have a dedicated area of the neck they are playing, and a limited set of licks.

So there are levels of mastery, and as a first step you should learn the pentatonic boxes, do some interval training, and that can be far enough for blues and rock improvisation/playing for a life.

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