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I am a guitar player of about 15 years and am very familiar with a variety of guitar scale patterns. The major scale being generally played three notes on the first string, 3 on the 2nd and 2 on the 3rd. Or 2 on the starting string and then 3 and 3. This works very well with the tuning of the guitar on perfect fourths.

I recently purchased a cello which is tuned on 5ths, and I'm trying to learn the common major scale patterns on the cello. The patterns for the guitar don't really work with the tuning of the 5ths. Are the cello scales played across the neck like the guitar? Or are the major scale patterns played on only 2 strings with 4 notes per string? Or are they played only on 1 string up and down the neck?

  • Guitars are tuned (mostly) in fourths while, as you've already said, cellos are tuned in fifths. Since fourths and fifths are inversions of each other, you can literally invert the guitar patterns (ignoring the B and high E strings) and you'll find the patterns have the same shapes. – trw Jan 11 '16 at 16:29
  • By the way, I'm not advocating that you jump in this way all on your own—competent instruction is always preferred—but it may help to orient yourself. – trw Jan 11 '16 at 17:05
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Are you planning on strumming your cello? If not, i.e. you want to learn the bowed playing patterns, I can assure you there are a number of patterns, depending on the actual progression of notes and the tone/timbre desired.

The simplest scales go: open, 1,2or3,4, then open on the next string, etc. Obviously once you get above certain pitches, you need to work up the string into what are referred to as "positions." Again, the basic single-string pattern is 3 on the tonic, then 1-2,1-2,1-2-3 .

But there are multiple options even high up the fingerboard for playing across 2 or three strings to avoid shifting the left hand.

TL;DR: you need to take a lot of lessons to learn how and when to choose a particular fingering pattern.

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Indeed the standard positions do not really allow finger patterns for diatonic scales like you have on guitar, but require a position shift once every three or so notes, unless you use empty strings to fill some gaps. While this may seem, in a practical sense, a bit annoying, cellists tend to make a virtue of it by using the shifts as an expressive feature of their playing. Also, it certainly keeps you well-practiced for when you need to switch positions for other reasons!

But as a cello beginner, you'll have enough to worry about – even without position shifts. (I'd strongly recommend you take at least some proper lessons!) As far a scales are concerned, it's for the beginning best to stay in first position and make use of empty strings. The C-major scale works this way over the entire range, without any stretching needed.

-------------------------0-1-2-
-----------------0-1-2-4-------
---------0-1-3-4---------------
-0-1-3-4-----------------------

(Those are finger numbers, not “frets”!)

G-major and D-major work of course exactly the same way, if you start on the third/second string instead of the low C.

I suppose you won't be very happy with this advice, but it's little use to try and immediately play in any key, if it distracts you from getting the basic technique right. For instance it's vital to get used to proper loose hands and arms, if you ever wish to be able to execute position shifts precise- and smoothly.

Once you're acquainted with the first position, the next thing to learn are occasional shifts to fourth position to extend the range. Then you can start with other positions, which then also opens up other keys.

At some point you may also learn the thumb positions: high up on the neck, you suddenly have enough fingers to play full scale patterns!

  • BTW, I too started cello late (at 16) and after years of (classical) guitar. One year I tried it autodidactically, but then fortunately though better of it and started taking proper cello lessons. Without these, I'd never have gotten very far on the instrument. – leftaroundabout Jan 11 '16 at 20:04
  • Well-- when you use thumb positions, you don't use your pinky, so either way you have four fingers available at any given time. – Carl Witthoft Jan 11 '16 at 20:23
  • @CarlWitthoft: right (though I do occasionally use the pinky for trills in thumb position), but the difference is that, in thumb position, the fingers are assigned to diatonic scale degrees, e.g. f and f♯ are both played with 2 in 7th position, and the g is played with 3, so you don't need 4 like you would in 1st position. – leftaroundabout Jan 11 '16 at 20:29

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