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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.

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

  • speed
  • clarity
  • finger placement (either hand)
  • connecting notes (legato)
  • evenness of tempo
  • evenness of tone
  • dynamics (volume)
  • or a thousand others


Scales: as the “re-set” button

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

Other Resources for Practicing Scales

I have written on scales before, and those posts are nice companion to this one.  I suggest you at least skim them.

The Five Major Scale Shapes for Guitar

This video demonstrates the five major scale shapes on the guitar.

What’s interesting about these five 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.

In many instances, they are unchanged. They simply start with a different note within the shape!

Knowing about all these other scales is what we call theoretical knowledge (or music theory). 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 scalesTo memorize these five shapes, you can go about it in a variety of ways.

People who learn well visually may simply memorize what the grids look like and work from that.

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

For instance, using the E shape as an example, the 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 shapes per week, and you can have them all memorized in about a month.

Classical Guitar Scales on your Air Guitar

(There is a demo video of this in the Bonus 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 shapes away from the guitar. Simply in the air, or on the arm of your chair, or on the table top in front of you, you can go through the order of fingers with your left hand.

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 forward and backward through the patterns.

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. My recommendation: Download the free PDF of the shapes and print it.  Put it on your music stand and commit to memorizing the first of these classical guitar scales this week.

Baby-step through them, and in no time you will be a completely different musician than you are now.

Do you have a special way that you like practicing scales, or do you have any special love or resistance towards them? Please share it in the comments.

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14 Responses to Classical Guitar Scales: Shapes Explained

  1. maestro July 20, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Allen,

    I’ve been playing classical guitar randomly for many years, but never realized how crucial scales are to my progress – until now. Thanks so much for highlighting their importance, and I shall commit to incorporating them into my daily routine. You’re an inspiration. Keep up the great work.

    • Allen July 21, 2018 at 2:27 pm #

      Thanks so much, Maestro! I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  2. Jens Kokfelt April 12, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    All great, but what about the right hand what does that 🙂


  3. James April 3, 2016 at 10:05 pm #

    Why is the shape named after a letter? I noticed that even though you called it an e or c shape you would be playing a different root note than e or c. Thanks.

    • Allen April 4, 2016 at 7:41 am #

      Hi James,
      That’s a tricky one to explain. In short, each scale shape is associated with a basic chord shape of the same name. So the “E shape” scale is associated with an E chord (and the chord is derived from notes in that scale shape). This becomes more relevant when working with bar and movable chords, which assume the root note of the actual position, while resembling the “shape” of an E chord or scale. I hope that made a little sense. For classical guitar technique work, it’s the playing of them, connecting notes, I and M alternation, etc that is more directly the point. The “why” gets into the music theory behind it.
      Thanks for the question,

  4. Martin February 29, 2016 at 8:16 pm #


    My first lessons – 3 or 4 of them – were provided by a friend more than
    50 years ago. I have practised and played intermittently since then,
    stopping for a year or two, then starting up again. Now I’m retired and
    able to take as much time as I am able each day, still learning, still
    improving. I am delighted to have come across your Web site and
    to receive your emails. They have given me a new desire to improve
    my technique and to broaden my knowledge of both the guitar and
    music generally.

    You are a fine teacher! If I had a wish, it would be to have had available
    all your aids and insights 50 years ago. I’m sure I would be far advanced
    right now. Even so, I have hopes of continued improvement in the years
    I have left!



    • Allen March 1, 2016 at 7:49 am #

      Thanks Martin!

  5. cinde January 2, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    Sorry Allen, the ? In my post is supposed to be happy face … I’m happy to be enlightened by the comet 🙂

  6. cinde January 2, 2016 at 7:22 am #

    Hello allen
    I so appreciate your explanation of the scale shapes. Since I’m a beginner to the guitar , I read and study as much as I can via the internet ( I had a teacher for a few months to get me started)
    I noticed while watching the video on scales the CAGED flashed. My teacher did show me how to find octaves using this system along with its pattern, however I’m wondering how I blend these two systems together. The scale shapes are part of this I’m sure, but can you explain. Also, how does segovia scales differ from this system. Which is better to learn when in the beginner level in your opinion.

    • Allen January 2, 2016 at 8:47 am #

      Hi Cinde,
      Yes, these shapes are also part of the CAGED system, and the “Segovia scales” are made up of them as well.
      These are the basic shapes. You can use them for technique work, and to be able to know which notes “go together” in a given position.

      The CAGED system looks at connecting these shapes to cover the fretboard, so you can know all the notes on the guitar in a given key. This is often used for improvising.

      The Segovia Scales are a sequence of scales that move through all the keys and their “relative minors” (minor scales that share the same number of sharps or flats as the major). Segovia used these shapes, and the CAGED system (though he probably didn’t call it that) to comprise scale shapes that cover the guitar. There are other, equally valid, scale sequences that move up and down the fretboard. The Segovia Scales are simply better known.

      For a beginner, I think that starting with these 5 basic shapes is the way to go. These shapes are the building blocks you’ll use to learn the CAGED system and the Segovia Scales.
      Also, the more complexity you create (by using multiple positions with the CAGED, or moving through 24 key centers with the Segovia scales) the less attention you have for your actual technique, which is the point of practicing scales on the classical guitar. If your main goal is improvisation, practice that. But if CG technique is your goal, simple is generally better. Start with the basic shapes, paying close attention to legato, even tempo, consistent tone, organized movement, and all the rest. The Segovia scales are great for practicing clean shifts as well.

      I generally suggest mastering the basic shapes, then, if you want to, add other elements in as an add-on to your practice (as opposed to learning the Segovia scales in lieu of practicing the shapes). In other words, don’t let learning new scales get in the way of your technique practice!

      All the best,

      • cinde January 2, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

        Thank you so much for such an excellent explanation. I printed the pic in color, and the “root” in red stood out like a comet in the sky? I now see those shapes my teacher showed me starting with the C shape ( spelling out caged) and going up the fret board. Brilliant . I didn’t get to practice today, but tomorrow I will have fun playing scales with a new understanding. Of course, my new mantra is ……. technique…. technique…..technique….ooommmmm?

        • Allen January 2, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

          Great! My pleasure. So glad to help!

  7. mark June 21, 2015 at 4:28 am #

    Thanks Maestro Matthews for this very enlightening lesson! Learning my scales, and practicing them as a physical exercise every day (multiple times per day) IS helping me get my left hand back into shape! I cannot thank you enough for all the help you’ve given me thus far.

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