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Learning Guitar Scales: 4 Steps to Effective Practice

Learning scales is quite a task and how you go about practicing guitar scales makes all the difference. No doubt it’s challenging, but learning to play them fluidly up and down the fretboard is so rewarding. While it takes time and effort to achieve, it can be simplified with a four step process that can make your practice much more effective.

What’s the goal of practicing scales?

Before we dive into the process, let’s stop for a second and consider the point of scale practice. Personally, I practice scales because I want to be better at playing freely. For this to be the case, I need to know the scales so well I can just play up and down the fretboard without thinking about where the notes are and just instead going to the notes I want to hear. I don’t want to be locked in to a single box shape, I don’t want to feel confined. I want to be free to move up, down, and across the fretboard at will. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the process of getting to that point.

4 Steps to Practice Scales Effectively

If you take a step back and view the fretboard as a whole, you can see there are three ways you can navigate the guitar:

  • Vertically
  • Horizontally
  • Diagonally

To thoroughly learn guitar scales and be able to visualize and use them all over the fretboard, they should be applied to all three movements. So this is where we start.

Step 1: Vertical Scale Practice

This is no doubt the most common place to start when it comes to practicing scales. Vertical scale shapes are those that move across the fretboard between string 6 and string 1. The CAGED system scale shapes are vertical scale patterns.

A major scale first position horizontal diagram
Position 1 of the A Major Scale Vertically Across the Fretboard

For all of the desire to not be locked in a box, it’s necessary to learn them this way. For one, you won’t have a complete picture of the fretboard without them. Two, they’re so commonplace in music you’re going to be playing them this way anyhow.

Learn all five scale positions for the scale you’re learning (major scale, minor scale, pentatonic scale, etc). Start with the root note and ascend/descend the scale until all the notes in a given position are played and you end on the root note. For example, playing the first position of the A major scale above would look like the following:

Guitar tab for position 1 of the A major scale

Step 2: Horizontal Scale Practice

Once you have learned the five positions of the scale, apply the scale horizontally up and down the neck.

Fretboard diagram for the A major scale horizontally up the neck
A Major Scale Horizontally Up the Fretboard

Start by working up a single string going from root to root and back. This would look like the following:

Guitar tab for A major scale played horizontally up the fretboard

As you work your way up the horizontal scale, visualize the vertical shapes as you move from position to position. This will help reinforce the relationship between the vertical and horizontal patterns.

Apply this horizontal scale pattern on each string, again visualizing the vertical patterns as you move between positions.

Step 3: Diagonal Scale Practice

Once you have the vertical and horizontal patterns down, the last piece of the puzzle is the diagonal movements.

Fretboard diagram for the A major diagonal scale pattern
A Major Scale Diagonally Up the Fretboard

Again, with this pattern you’re going to play from root to root and back, ascending and descending horizontally on the fretboard.

Guitar tab for A major scale diagonally up the fretboard

Similar to the horizontal scale patterns, you’ll want to visualize both the vertical and horizontal scale shapes as you move between positions.

The diagram above gives you one option for playing diagonally, but it can be modified to form several different variations. You can even combine scales (diatonic and pentatonic, for instance) for more variation and start from string 5, string 4, or string 3.

The diagonal scale patterns are the most useful for seamless transitions between positions or extended runs up/down the fretboard. Combined with the vertical/horizontal fluency, it truly opens up the fretboard.

Step 4: Applying Exercise Patterns to Directional Movements

With each of the scale movements above, you can make them more musical and improve technique by utilizing structured exercise patterns across each. For instance, we can take the vertical scale shape above and play it in thirds we get the following:

Guitar tab for ascending the A major scale in thirds
Ascending the A Major Scale in 3rds
Guitar tab for descending the A major scale in thirds
Descending the A Major Scale in 3rds

Exercises like this can be applied across vertical, horizontal, and diagonal scale patterns. For more exercise patterns, check out Guitar Scale Exercises to Improve Picking and Fretting Hand Technique. Once you get these patterns ingrained into your muscle memory you’ll find that you can integrate them into your playing seamlessly. Combined with triads and arpeggios, your playing will reach a whole new level.

If you need a more guided routine, check out my ebook The Pentatonic Fretboard. It utilizes a similar approach and includes tabs for all the exercises necessary to map the pentatonic scale to the guitar fretboard.

Wrap up

Practicing scales in this manner is extremely effective for learning them across the fretboard. It gives you a complete roadmap of the fretboard and allows you to navigate the fretboard freely in any direction. That said, it still takes time to get the scale patterns into your muscle memory so be persistent with your practice until you’re able to play them fluidly.

The Pentatonic Fretboard


Master the pentatonic scale all over the fretboard!

While most players learn the main pentatonic box, we’re selling ourselves short if we stop there. The Pentatonic Fretboard will help you go beyond the box and create a full visualization of the pentatonic scale all over the fretboard.

The pentatonic fretboard mock thumbnail

Learn More

AGT book of scales cover

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