It’s no secret that to become really proficient in any instrument, scales are one of the most efficient ways to do so. This is something I went over in one my earliest blogs - The Importance of Learning Scales.
But are you getting the most out of your scales? Or could you be practicing them in a better way to master multiple skills at once.
In this blog I will give a few guidelines and ideas to ensure you aren’t just pointlessly running up and down scales without getting the full potential benefits.
1. Finger technique
This really is the most important with scale practice as this is what you are going to be engraining over and over again when you practice scales. So firstly, make sure you have good technique:
- Keep your thumb on the back so you can maintain the same hand position whether you’re playing on the 1st or 6th string.
- Keep your thumb somewhere between your 2nd and 3rd finger so that your fingers can be stretched out as much as possible.
- Keep your fingers stretched out and all of them as close to the strings as possible the whole time
- Play legato - minimise any pause between each note by working at getting your right and left hand to play at the exact same time.
2. Learning notes
When we practice scales, we want to ensure that we are recognising the actual notes we are playing. If all we do is keep repeating the major scales in G, we become much more reliant on just knowing those patterns in only one key.
The first step is learning where the roots are in each pattern, particularly those on E, A and D strings.
We want to be practicing in all different keys, starting on different patterns - to do this, start with the lowest possible pattern in any given key without playing and open strings. For example, if I was to play Db major, I would start with pattern 4 on the first fret (I work this out by knowing where Db is on the fretboard and then knowing where the roots land in each pattern). Then I’d continue through all 7 patterns up and back, linking the patterns on the e strings.
Once you have this somewhat mastered, you want to be able to pull different notes/scale degrees out of the scale. This is really where we start making use of the scales as a compositional tool as this allows us to be intentional about what notes we draw out. For example, as you go through the pattern, choose a scale degree , e.g. the 2nd, then each time you land on that note, say “2” out loud. In this way you can really familiarise yourself with the different degrees of the scale, where they land in the patterns and the flavours they have to offer.
3. Rhythm and timing
I’ve said a few times before, but timing is absolutely one of the most important aspects of music, so we want to be honing this in our scale practice. Playing in time is actually much harder at a slow tempo than a fast tempo, so be sure to start your scale practice at a slow speed, increasing the speed each time you play it really well.
But more than that, this is a great time to nail our subdivisions, to get better at hearing semiquavers/16ths, triplets, dotted rhythms, check the diagram below for some examples.
Also use this to try and capture different feels, such as swing - accenting the off beats, or shuffle - accenting the on beats.
This is an obvious one and ties in well to the section above. As we work on scales, we want to increase our speed. So to go on from the previous point. As you increase the metronome, go to the point where you can’t go any faster, then bring it back 10bpm and try again there before you stop, this will make that speed which was fast when you initially tried to feel just that bit slower and easier. Be sure to do this with multiple different techniques or rhythms - hammer ons, no hammer ons, triplets, dotted rhythms etc.
Also, be sure to practice these high speeds over long times (i.e. all of the patterns linked together), AS WELL AS short bursts, such as just one pattern or even half of a pattern, that way you are building the stamina in speed as well as maximum speed capabilities.
Use alternate picking primarily, but also try some other styles which are useful to be able to do - for example down up down on each string which can be very helpful for triplet runs.
6. Extra dexterity and melodic ideas - 2nds and 3rds
To take your scales to the next level, try moving through them in 2nds and 3rds (then 4ths, 5ths etc.). As an example for how to do this with 2nds, as you ascend the scale, you’ll need to start on the 2nd note of the pattern, then play that note’s accompanying 2nd BELOW itself, like in the diagram below. For descending patterns, you will need to go to the 2nd ABOVE the note. This helps to build great dexterity as well as providing some pretty cool riff and lick ideas along the way.