I am a beginner in learning guitar, I'm struggling with the guitar theory. Some tell me one of the most important things is scale and its modes, degrees. It is admittable but I wonder if I have to memorize ALL the scales theoretically before applying them onto the guitar, I mean memorizing the position of each note on the guitar? If that's the case is there any tricks or tips to better memorize them?

  • Would you please tell us what music for?
    – Gra
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 17:04
  • @Gra - if you're a beginner trying to learn, music is first of all for playing and enjoying. If you've got talent and motivation, the rest will follow.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 7:08

5 Answers 5

  1. Patterns of scales (and chords) are movable up and down the neck. You don't have to know where every note is. But you do need to know how to find a note in a scale pattern, which in turn can be played in different parts of the neck, depending on the key of the scale. This is same for every chord pattern. The open chords are just barre chords with no barre (or capo).

  2. The guitar is a chordal instrument. So, instead of focusing primarily on scales at first, learn the common open chords. Get to know them enough to play different songs in the most common keys (G, D, C, A, Em, Am) and the most common key (or degree) patterns (I-IV-V; I-vi-IV-V, I-V-vi-IV, etc...).

  3. On guitar, the root note is generally the lowest, or bass note of the chord, and is generally what the chord is named. Once you feel comfortable with the open chords and common chord progressions, experiment with moving the same chord and key patterns up and down the neck, either with a capo, or their barre chord equivalent.

  4. The neck and fretboard has little dots that you can use as reference points. Use them. The most common guitar root notes fall on those dots (G, C, D, A). The two dots are the 12th fret, which is an octave up from the open, unfretted strings.

  • For the open chords, the nut is the barre. I would add though, that the CAGED system is, more or less, what you describe and the OP may find a ton of information by using that as a search term. The scales can be thought of as the overlapping images (schematics?) of the CAGED pattern, with their barre. There may be deviations, but it is a quick method when you are lost.
    – Yorik
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 20:40

Please leave the theory alone, and take no notice of those who say different! That's to the point, and no doubt others here may disagree.I am interested to hear their arguments!

You're a beginner who wants to play. Learn a few chords - guitars are one of very few instruments that chords can be played properly on.

Learn how to play a few scales, purely memorising which frets on which strings are in the sequence. Especially learn one major and one minor scale which has no open strings. You'll soon find out why that's a great thing to do!

Knowing the intervals and note names will not particularly help you get over the first few hurdles, even if you are the sort of person who needs to know why and how everything works. It will bog you down. Just play, and enjoy it. The whys and wherefores are for another day - much later won't matter.

  • I was suggested certain ways to master the guitar. One way is just to begin by setting aside the theory and learn some chords applied to certain songs as you recommended. The other way is to start by learning the musical theory specified for guitar first in order to understand all the whys then master it. My aim is not just to play and sing but to solo a song that I'm in favor of, that's my ultimate one. Can you tell me Which way better? Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 1:27
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    @GodgogArsenal - most people, I've found, see theory making more sense after the practical part - playing. Simple analogy: did you completely understand how a car gearbox works in order to drive?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 6:37
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    @GodgogArsenal - Tim is giving you great advice-first things first: play, and enjoy it. Enjoy it, and you'll want to get better and then you'll realize that theory is going to help you a great deal with that-so you'll want to learn and apply it. The other way is to start by learning ... theory... No. Abstract theory without playing is not interesting for most people - you're likely to lose your desire to stick with music by getting bogged down in theory. And mastering theory takes years-when is enough? When will you start playing? You want to be a musician, not a pedagogue.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 1:44

You don't have to necessarily memorize ALL the scales theoretically before applying them onto the guitar. Take a few scales (eg. A major) to practice with and work your way up. There are various scales exercises that may help improve your mental image of the scales, though it also depends on which learning style and exercise works for you. Here are a few that you can try out:

1. Ascending and descending This exercise is straightforward. You begin on the lowest root note, ascend the scale to the highest note you can reach, descend to the lowest note you can reach, and finally ascend back to the root note. This exercise helps your fingers remember where the notes of the scale are.

2. Random direction changes This second exercise is exactly the same as the first one, but instead of descending or ascending to the highest or lowest notes, you randomly change the direction. Avoid skipping notes when you change directions. For example, if you are going up and decide to change directions on the sixth scale degree, you will begin your descent from the fifth scale degree. Some people tend to skip notes especially when the following scale degree is on another string.

3. Sequences This exercise mixes things up and really tests your mental scale image. Begin by deciding the number of notes in your “sequence.” Let’s say you choose to have four notes. The way you’ll play your sequence is by starting on the root note and going up to the fourth scale degree. The next sequence will begin on the second scale degree and end on the fifth scale degree. The one after that will begin on the third and end on the sixth. You’re basically playing groups of four notes. Do this until you reach the highest note of the scale.

The sequences for groups of four look like this (the numbers represent scale degrees):

1 2 3 4

2 3 4 5

3 4 5 6

4 5 6 7

5 6 7 1

6 7 1 2

7 1 2 3

4. Intervals Begin this exercise by choosing an interval to work with. If you choose the interval of thirds, begin on the lowest root note and the third interval of that note, then move on to the second scale degree and the third interval of that note, and so on. Begin with smaller intervals, because the exercise gets trickier with bigger intervals.

5. Improvise The final musical exercise is simply improvising. You don’t have to turn on a backing track if you don’t want to; you can simply noodle along the notes of the scale. Spend a lot of time doing this and exploring the possibilities of the scale. When you feel comfortable, turn on a backing track in the same key and scale, and then try your hand at that. There is no better musical exercise for improvising than improvising itself.

I'm not saying that all of the above will work for you in memorising scales. You'll only know when you try them out. My biggest advice is to take your time when you're doing any of the following exercises. Be persistent and of course, have fun!


No need to memorize ALL scales before. Choose a piece of music or song to study and then study the relevant scales.

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    Trouble is, on guitar, there are lots of different places to play exactly the same scale notes. Not sure how what you suggest will help.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 18:01
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    Have a look at the CAGED system and start with the C and the E positions for the major scale and A and D positions for the minor scale.
    – Gra
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 5:40
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    Please incorporate the comment into your answer. I've never found CAGED particularly useful, except for chord shapes - and even then, 'D' is questionable. Perhaps a short explanation, in the answer, of what your comment means in actual notes will help make more sense.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 5:49

Music theory and guitar playing are obviously related, so there is certainly value in learning scales. But how you proceed may depend as much on your personal learning style as anything else.

For example, the position of notes on your fretboard is defined by scale intervals. On string 5, the open fret is A. The B note is at fret 2 because the interval (gap) between A and B is 2 semi tones. But the C note is only one fret higher at the third fret, because the interval between B and C is only one semi tone.

So how do you learn this? There are various ways.

  1. You can do it by studying general music theory.
  2. You can do it by memorizing a fretboard diagram.
  3. You can do it by learning specific pieces of music that are based on the areas of theory you wish to learn.

I would recommend that you use all of those ideas in harmony, plus any others that you are given. Don't try to memorise everything before you touch your guitar. But don't leave your theory aside until you are a virtuoso player either. Every part of your development will enhance other parts. In the above example, you can learn the position of the A, B, C notes simply by memorising them. But you can assist that memorisation process by learning a song that uses that three note pattern, and by learning from scale theory WHY those two intervals are different. It all helps.

There is a large amount of music based on scales, because of course they are the building blocks of music. Here are some simple examples from popular music:

  • Lean on me by Bill Withers (Most of the melody goes up and down the first half of a musical scale. Thus "Sometimes in our life" includes the series C-D-E-F, and "We all have pain" is F-E-D-C.)
  • Do-Re-Me ("Do, a deer") (In the story line of "The Sound of Music" this song is included to teach the children how to sing a musical scale. It has a great illustration of the ways these notes can be woven together to form different melodies, harmonies and chord patterns.)
  • Piano Man by Billy Joel (This song has a great descending bass line that follows a major scale pattern {C-2-3, B-2-3, A-2-3, G-2-3, F-2-3, E-2-3, D-2-3, G-A-B-C…})

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