Practice Guitar Scales: Introducing Variations

In other posts, I’ve talked about why you should practice guitar scales. I’ve also written about the five major scale shapes, and given a quick-start guide to practicing scales.

So let’s assume that you know at least one of the major scales shapes and are practicing it regularly. Now what?

I am frequently asked this question:

“How long should I be play in the scales?”

Or “How many times should I play this?”

The answer to how much you should practice scales, or any other technique work, such as arpeggios, slurs, exercises or anything else, is quite simple:

You should practice them as much as possible, so long as you remain actively focused and involved with every note.

Practice Guitar Scales: it’s all about Focus

What technique work sets out to do for us is to build the foundations of movement and execution. That way, when we set out to play music, we are able to maintain the skills we need to play beautifully, while dealing with all the distractions involved with playing (Distractions such as what the notes or fingerings are, or how we choose to interpret and phrase the music.)

If we allow our mind to wander while we are practicing scales (or any other technique work) we are actually undermining our future ability to play well.

If we can build habits of great focus and attention to details, everything we play will be more intentional, more beautiful, and we will enjoy it more.

One of the best ways to maintain focus is to create new challenges and goals within the existing structure. In this case, the existing structure is the major scale shape that we are practicing.

The video below suggests a handful of ways to challenge yourself and your scale practice. Even better, practicing these variations will increase your technical abilities more rapidly, and help you to play much more beautifully than if you simply play the scales up-and-down ad nauseum.

(You can print off a PDF list of the variations and practice ideas in this video later in this post.)

“Speed is not inherently musical.”

There’s more to scales than speed

Often times, we can slip into the habit of measuring our progress on scales only by the metronome marking. If we are getting faster, they are getting better.

However, this thinking is flawed. Speed is great. Speed is a necessary tool that we eventually need to develop.

However, speed is not inherently musical. What’s more, when the notes are going by faster, It’s easier to miss all the opportunities to create musical moments. YouTube is full of players who are lightning fast, but musically not compelling.

What matters more than speed is the basic connection of one note to the next. If you are able to control how each note ends, and how it connects to the next note, then you can create beautiful lines of music. And beautiful lines of music or what we connect to emotionally, as listeners.

Shiny Car Syndrome

Speed is flashy and impressive. But alone, without beautiful connected lines and demonstrated musical intentions, it remains short-lived and shallow.

It’s similar to meeting someone with a flashy car, or an impressive wardrobe. It may be initially impressive or intriguing, but pretty soon you start looking for something more meaningful and human. If you don’t find it, you quickly move on, because there’s nothing there to hold your attention.

Likewise, it’s great to be able to play fast. But it’s better to be able to offer a rich and personal musical experience, both to your listeners and yourself.

And the way to do this is to master the fundamentals of creating beautiful lines.

The Icing on the Cake

Another analogy for speed would be the icing on the cake.  Icing is wonderful!  Icing is delicious!  But if icing is all you’ve got, your cake will collapse (or at least be sort of gross).  The cake itself is the really important part.

This video addresses many of these fundamentals as you practice guitar scales.  As you master them in your guitar scale practice, you will be more able to create beautiful lines in the music that you play.

Practice methods covered in the video:

  • Quick-prepping (01:47)

  • Legato playing (04:36)

  • Speed bursts  (12:06)

  • Accents  (14:22)  (more on accents here)

  • Articulations  (17:00)

  • Dynamics (swells and fades)  (18:36)

  • Digital Patterns  (22:17)

Each of these ways of practicing could be an entire article in itself.  But this is more of an overview to get you thinking and changing things up in your practice.

Alternate between these to keep your practice challenging, fun and exciting (we could add “humbling” in there as well sometimes!).

The Ground Rules

“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

There are a few general rules that, if you follow them, will make every thing you do MUCH more productive, satisfying, and fun.

1.  Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.   Go for clarity, precision, beautiful tone, proper placement, and all other key ingredients before trying for speed.  (But then turn on the metronome and ramp up the tempo!)

2.  Use the metronome as much as possible when you practice guitar scales and arpeggios.  This trains your inner rhythm.  If you build solid sense of rhythm here, you won’t need the metronome as much on your pieces.

3.  Keep it interesting.  Focus is absolutely essential, so keep yourself interested and engaged.  The challenges you set for yourself should be hard, but not too hard.  Have options ready so that you can change gears if you start losing interest.  Boredom is for the birds.

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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