Classical Guitar Scales: Shapes Explained

Many people I have met have strong emotional responses, one way or the other when they think about practicing classical guitar scales.

Perhaps some anti-scale types have been “damaged” by some militant childhood piano teacher.  Thwacked knuckles and forced regimes can turn one off of scales work and not want to play scales ever again.

On the other hand, some people, like myself, really enjoy practicing scales.  For me, I appreciate a clearly defined goal that is primarily physical in nature.  I can just turn on my metronome, fine-tune my hearing, and get lost in the challenges I set for myself.

These challenges could be

Scales: as the “re-set” button

Scales are also a great way to change gears in the middle of practice. Playing major scales can refocus your attention on details and sharpen your hearing.  Especially if you approach them with specific goals or desires.

The Five Major Scale Shapes for Guitar

What’s interesting about these five major scale shapes is that they form the structure for most other scales in western music. What that means is that minor scales, modes, altered scales, and others are mostly based on these five basic shapes. Some of the scales you may commonly hear about are the major pentatonic scale, g major scale, the natural minor scale, minor pentatonic scale, c major scale, and e minor scale for example.

In many instances, the scale shape is unchanged. They simply get started with a different root note within the shape! We also see in the video that we can have a scale shape starting on different strings, from the low e string (6th string) all the way up to the high e string (1st string). Most of the shapes we look at here are in the first position ( the first four frets of the guitar) and cover what we call two octaves or three octaves. We simply adjust the scale by a whole step or half step (a whole step is 2 frets on the guitar and a half step is 1 fret).

Knowing all this information is what we call theoretical knowledge (or music theory). Theoretical knowledge will help you understand such things as key signatures ( you might have heard of the key of C major, or key of G major for instance), their relationship with scales (both major scales and minor scales), chord progressions, whole steps, half steps, and much more.  It’s all great to know, but the way we are using scales here is mainly as a technical exercise (getting your fingers to work better).

I encourage you to study music theory, as it is an essential element to mature musicianship. (You can find the basics here.)

Yes, you should memorize them.

learning classical guitar scales

To memorize these five major scale shapes, you can go about it in a variety of ways. Some learn well through visual means, while others commit to developing muscle memory using the major scale formula (or any scale formula) over time. The key is being able to play every note in the scale well, and sound good.

People who learn well visually may simply memorize what the grids ( you might know this as the caged system or other scale diagrams) look like and work from that. This is typical of lead guitar players in other styles outside of the classical guitar. Pentatonic scales, the blues scale, and the harmonic minor scale are just a few examples of typical scales memorized by guitarists in other styles.

What helped me with learning scales initially was to memorize the numerical patterns of these shapes.

For instance, using the E shape as an example, the major scale pattern would be 24 124 134 134 24 12.

If you take five minutes and write it out as many times as you can, you will have it pretty close to memorized.

Take one of the five major scale patterns per week, and you can have them all memorized in about a month. Make sure you can play every single note beautifully!

Classical Guitar Scales on Your Air Guitar

(There is a demo video of this in the Site Resources (see the form below, or go to the Member’s Area), along with the scale shape pdf, so be sure and watch that.)

You can also practice these major scale shapes away from the guitar. Simply in the air, or on the arm of your chair, or the tabletop in front of you, you can go through the order of fingers with your left hand. This sort of exercise gives us further confidence in the scale patterns that we are working on or already familiar with.

If you are a dominantly kinesthetic learner (about 25% of the population) then this could be a great way to help you quickly memorize the shapes.

If you want to go for extra points, you can go ascending or descending through the major scale patterns. You could even try starting from a different root note.

3-2-1 GO!

Regardless of how you choose to memorize them, I highly recommend you do so. Adding scale practice into your daily routine will help everything you do. Keep in mind, that scales are also a great way to learn your way around the guitar fretboard. You’ll need to know at least a few in order to go up and down the guitar fretboard comfortably.

A great place to start is to download the free PDF of the shapes and print it.  Put it on your music stand and commit to memorizing the first of these scales this week.

The best way is baby-step through them, and in no time you will be a completely different musician than you are now. If you don’t want to learn scales you are missing out on one of the most crucial parts of musical development.

Why are the Shapes Named as They Are?

As you explore the five major scale shapes, you may wonder why they are named as they are.  After all the “E shape” may not even have the lowest root note as “E”.

The scales are actually related to the common chords (aka “cowboy chords”).  In the video below, you’ll see how scales and chords are related.  And you’ll discover why the scales are named as they are.

Why Practice Scales?

We’re often asked to take scales on faith.  The idea is that if we drill these scale patterns, good things will happen.  But what are the actual payoffs of practicing scales?

There are many benefits of practicing scales.  Here are a few of these benefits:

  • Trains muscle memory in both hands.
  • Increase dexterity and agility in both hands.
  • Helps us learn practical music theory.
  • Scale patterns help us memorize music.
  • Helps us learn to visualize scale patterns on the guitar neck.
  • Develops string-crossing technique in the right hand.
  • Improves right- and left-hand synchronization.
  • Provides a trackable goal we can work towards.
  • and more

Other Resources for Practicing Scales

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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