I've been playing guitar for many years, yet I have made the huge mistake of never really learning scales. I want to catch up, but I'm a bit lost, since there are so many scales in so many different modes (Dorian, Lydian, Ionian...). I really don't know how to start practicing, except for the well known major and minor scale...

My goal is to master the guitar fretboard. I want to practice each scale and to know, which scale should be used in which situation.

How did you master the fretboard? Did you just sit down and practice every single scale one after another, or is there a strategy that could be applied, to make it more interesting and enjoyable?

I'd like to have some kind of "system" to practice scales and actually know what I'm doing, so I can keep track of my progress.

  • 2
    at the risk of being slammed for spam I made this web page when I wanted to learn my way around the fret board and understand different scales and modes. Hopefully you will find it useful. ---> fretlearner.com . Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 8:56
  • @NoelWalters That's a great site! Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 14:50

6 Answers 6


Conveniently, guitars are set up so major scales can be played using all four fingers on four consecutive frets, to play two octaves. Minor scales can be played similarly, with only one slip down a fret on the 3rd string. All this assumes you start on the bottom string, and work up to the same fret on the top.

The obvious (ubiquitous?) scales that work well on guitar are the pentatonics - maj. and min. Again, they can be played bottom to top and it soon becomes apparent that the notes of, say, C maj. are virtually those of A min.

All so far work wherever you start on the fretboard. Start on 5th fret and it'll be A, 7th, will be B, etc. Put in a couple of blues notes on the way with the pents, and you've got the two blues scales.

So far, no modes! One way to look at these is to think, for instance, that Dorian starts on the 2nd note of a major. So, you could play a major scale, omitting the 1st note, and putting an extra one 2 frets higher on the top. Similarly, for Locrian, start a fret low, and stop a fret low at the top.So, using C maj, but starting on 10th fret, there's D Dorian, or starting on 7th fret, there's B Locrian.

There are loads more ways /places to play scales, but it's a start! Since the patterns are the same, it only matters where you play when you need to be in a particular key.

As far as what scale notes for which song - blues or min.pent for blues, maj. pent. for country, full maj. for most pop songs are good starting places.

As far as knowing each note name on each string on each fret is concerned, I feel that the relative positions and sounds are more important. Others will disagree, but in one's playing, I think far more people play knowing that the next note is 'just there' rather than 'I'm in C#min., I've just played x, so I need to find y to play next'.


For me: I started with the good old pentatonic & got used to playing that, then quickly added notes 2 & 6 into my memorised "shape" on the fretboard to turn it into a fulsome minor scale.

Move the same fret pattern down 3 frets and it struck me that this is the same set of notes as a major scale in the original key. OR you can just sharpen the 3rds and get a major scale with dimished 7ths. Include a 4th, flattened 5th and 5th to make things sound bluesy.

Then if you start messing about with flattening the 6ths you get a weird scale which sometimes sounds a bit oriental. I found this was perfect for things like "Money" (pink floyd) or "Moondance" (van morrison) where the chord progression is a minor key and goes up a 4th interval, also minor. eg changing from Am to Dm.

After learning songs and figuring out melodies etc in this manner for many years, it's only recently that I found out that these 'scales' I'm talking about are actually modes and they all have names. It;s almost as though someone else discovered them before me .......

I haven't got to grips with what the names of the various modes are yet, but I know which one I need for certain tunes.

I think that's my point though: I know my way around the fretboard by finding it myself, which took years, and using various patterns (which I now know as modes) when the chord structure/progression demands it. the reason it 'crept up on me' like it has is because I was too busy enjoying playing to notice that there might be literature on the subject. That enjoyment - playing live gigs, mucking about in the studio, is what saved me having to practice. Practice happens anyway when you're finding your way about.

I therefore can't claim to know all modes/scales, but am very comfortable with the ones I do know.

It probably shows here that I've never had a lesson, so I can't claim this is the 'best' way, just the way that I have gone about it .. well you did ask ;-)

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    Very nice answer, which shows how to do it by yourself without a lot of theory. My goal was to get as many different approaches as possible and I like your approach as much as the other ones, thank you for your answer :-)
    – muffin
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 6:27
  • Aw good! I was expecting to get pilloried haha. There's one extra part about this which is that it allowed me to develop my own style, albeit an accident of how I've gone about it. I ''ve had a lot of compliments about that recently so I must be doing something right. It always disheartens me a bit when people say musical practice is hard work, hence my note about enjoying 'mucking about'. Hope you enjoy the learning journey as much as I have :-) good luck ! Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 9:09

What I did to get to know my instrument was to learn all the modes that start from the Ionian mode (Major scale).

Go to a simple tonality, like C or G (the low notes on guitar) and play the Ionian mode (In guitar you can play it for two octaves in one (or a bit more) position), ascending and then descending.

After you've played it, go to the next mode, Dorian. It will start from D or A respectively and repeat the same process. Then go to the next one, etc. When you reach the Locrian, go back to Ionian!

These basic 7 modes are easy to find online. It's also easy to remember the shape they are creating, so you won't have to remember the notes.

After you've played all the modes up and the down the neck of your guitar, you can go to a different tonality. Go to Db, E, F# or something. This way you'll see where your weaknesses lie.

This is how I learned where the notes in the neck are.

Another thing you can do it to play the scales/modes in one string.

Also, you can play a scale/mode for two octaves like so:

  • First octave in one string, second one normally.
  • First octave normally, second in one string.
  • First octave in two strings, second in one

etc. You yourself can find many variations of these.

Another thing you can do is to take a song you already know how to play in a certain position and play it in another one. For instance, do you have a song with the open chords D,C,A,E? Take it and play it without any open chords. Or you can play it an octave lower/higher.

Also, you can take a song you already know and transpose it in another tonality, like you did with the modes.


One thing that really locked everything in place for me was the idea that all the scales are essentially interleaved arpeggios (in the loosest sense of the terms) of a chord played at different positions on the fretboard.

For A, you have open A, then you have the "barred G pattern for A", where the open A is the barre for the G pattern. This G pattern is coincident with the "barred E pattern for A" then the D pattern, etc.

If you imagine playing arpeggios (or broken chords, or random walks) using the a barred pattern, the barre itself, and also oscillating between barre patterns, you'll quickly grasp the reasoning behind the named modes and scales, and you will probably begin to see the fretboard in a more "chunky" way that allows you to get around very quickly on the fretboard rather than simply trying to run scales.

As far as scale choice, if you are playing over A minor, then use the minors for the pattern. etc.

Beyond that the other answers are, of course all good advice.


imagine a guitar with lots of strings all tuned exactly a 4th apart. if we map the intervals of a major scale onto a portion of this imaginary guitar we get something like this - where the numbers represent degrees of an (unspecified) major scale.

| | | | | 7 3 6 2 5 1 4
7 3 6 2 5 1 4 | | | | |
1 4 | | | | | 7 3 6 2 5
| | 7 3 6 2 5 1 4 | | |
2 5 1 4 | | | | | 7 3 6
| | | | 7 3 6 2 5 1 4 |
3 6 2 5 1 4 | | | | | 7

As you can see the pattern is very regular and not that hard to learn.

It could go on to infinity in all directions.

All diatonic scale patterns that you might learn are basically subsets of this "super pattern" just remember that when mapping a six string subset of this onto a real guitar fret board you have to move up one fret when going from the 3rd to the 2nd string or down a fret if going in in the opposite direction - I find it helps to think of this as being like a fault line in the fretboard between the 2nd and 3rd strings.

Minor scales are exactly the same but start on 6 instead of 1.

Each of the other modes starts on a different number: 2 = dorian, 3 = Phrygian, 4 = lydian, 5 = myxolydian, 7 = locrian.


To learn the fretboard you do not have to learn any scales.

I'm Talking about 10min/day and in a learning curve of 1-3 weeks! Instead of years!

The very fast way to get the notes, to learn the intervals. You can master to things at the same time. if you do only one interval consecutively it is very easy and useful.

So: 1) learn surfing on your guitar with intervals. You should start with the Octave than, M2 M3 P4 P5 and the rest then.

2) Recognise that you can picture your neck that high e and e are half note down, so everything you play from 3-6 strings shifts UP half step. on 1-2 3) M2 is tricky. on 3-6 you just place your from pinky to first finger, )from 3-2 second finger), M3 us also from the first finger to pinky. most of the time you do not start with your pinky so a VERY vERY USEFUL PICTURE, TO IMAGINE WHERE YOUR YOU WOULD CONTINUE IF YOUR PINKY WAS THERE.

Have fun!

  • 1
    Sorry, I don't understand what this answer means.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 6:25
  • To simplify it: Try octaves first. Pick F on low E and find all of the F-s on your fretboard. It is very easy, you will see the pattern. Pick another note for example G and try with that. You can do it with the 5 note, so from F to C, its a different pattern but it is still easy. I hope this helped.
    – TwoFiveOne
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 15:07

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