Scale Practice on the Classical Guitar

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Scale Practice on the Classical Guitar

In this article I am going to outline how you can benefit from scale practice without falling into the trap that so many guitarists make…

Scale practice is probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think of practice and technical development. The idea that practicing scales makes you a better musician seems to be universally accepted yet in the case of the classical guitar the concept of scale practice seems a little misunderstood.

before I get to the big mistake people make, let’s have a look at why scale practice is so useful.

 

 

Benefits of Practicing Scales

Scales on the classical guitar combine several elements of technique into one process.

Scale Practice on the Classical GuitarThey can incorporate:

  • Right hand alternation
  • Left hand shifting
  • Left hand independence
  • String crossing
  • Tone production
  • Rhythm
  • Speed
  • Dynamics
  • Articulations
  • Fingerboard knowledge

And the list goes on…

In fact, out of all the exercises you might use on the classical guitar, scales provide the most efficient synthesis of technique. It is that synthesis that is so special and it it something that we don’t always find in other exercises.

Scales can provide almost all of the technical challenges found in repertoire but they allow us to work on individual elements away from the music. In this process we can prevent ourselves from treating pieces of repertoire in a “technical” or “mechanical” manner.

The big mistake

Scales occur frequently in music written for violin, flute and piano but they rarely appear in the guitar repertoire.

A full octave scale is actually quite hard to come by in much of the literature and when there is a long scale passage in a piece of repertoire, it stands out partly because it is so rare. Examples include the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, Capricho Arabe by Tarrega, and Fantasia para un Gentilhombre again by Rodrigo.

Another famous example is the Bach Chaconne, however, this piece was originally written for the violin.

Chaconne Scales

Violin and piano repertoire is absolutely littered with virtuosic scale runs that span genres from the Baroque to the present day. So it makes sense for those instruments to incorporate scale practice into their routine for the sake of repertoire demands.

For us, though, it does not make a lot of sense to practice scales in preparation for the occasional scale run that pops up in a piece of repertoire.

So why do we practice scales ?

Scales are tools.

They are simple frameworks that we can use to hone in on specific technical elements. Once those elements have been worked on in isolation they can be incorporated into music making, which is the ultimate goal of any technical work.

Without a specific focus to practicing a scale then the time is wasted without any goals being reached. The scale itself may become familiar and fluid but seeing as there are few actual applications of a scale in a piece the process really is, pointless.

Be clear about what you are working on

Before you start practicing a scale you need to assign a goal and function for that particular scale.

One function might be to practice crescendo and diminuendo another could be to practice staccato articulations yet another is a variety of rhythms.

Here is an example of a scale incorporating dotted rhythms and crescendo/diminuendo:

Classical Guitar Practice

The ways to use a scale to work on technical aspects is almost as diverse as your imagination and to inspire you I have added some specific examples for you below:

Alternation with “p i”

One example of a specific way to use scale practice is to develop fluency in different right hand alternations. More often than not we us i and m in alternation and they have proven effective for many people. Other finger alternations can have specific sounds, speeds and articulations so it can be worth your time to investigate other options.

Left Hand Pressure

In a similar way of focusing on very specific aspect of technique we can work on left hand pressure through “buzzing” scales:

An extended list of practice goals for scale work

Here are some suggestions on how to apply goals your scales:
Dynamics

  • Crescendo / Diminuendo
  • Terraced Dynamics: pp,p,mp,mf,f,ff

Rhythms

  • Dotted Rhythms
  • Triplets with duplets
  • Groupings of 5,6,7

Tempo

  • Accellerando
  • Rallentando
  • Lento, Andante, Allegretto, Allegro, Presto etc.

Tone Control

  • Ponticello
  • Tasto

Extended Techniques

  • Pizzicato
  • Harmonics
  • Slurs

Articulations

  • Stacatto
  • Legato
  • Tenuto
  • Sforzando
  • Accents (place accents on different notes)

Right Hand Fingering

  • im, mi, ia, ai, ma, am, ami, mia, ima, pima, amip, pi, ip etc.

Left Hand Fingering

  • Shifts
  • Fixed fingers

In Summary

Scales are fantastic. They combine many elements of the left and right hand techniques and we can add infinite variations to cater scale practice to our specific needs. Just be mindful of the common pitfall; mindless practice of scales that go up and down without any thought or purpose.

Use them as tools to hone in on technical or musical issues.

Be very specific as to why you are practicing a scale. Speed, sound, accuracy, articulation, dynamics etc. these are all techniques that can be worked on with scales. As I said, the classical guitar repertoire doesn’t actually have that many large scale passages, so simply practicing a scale to be able to play that scale has little use in music making.

Your free scale book

In the scale book that I have written I aimed and providing sound fingering that will instill a logical manner to move around the fingerboard. In addition I took great care to structure the scales in a systematic way that would aid the student in acquiring fingerboard knowledge and also understand how scales relate to chord shapes.

If you would like to use the free scale book to accompany this lesson, please download a free book of scales to practice every day: 

2017-07-22T18:58:43+00:00 12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. lawrence hiun December 27, 2010 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Simon
    The scale practice is good only when a player wants to learn a new piece with a scale in it. Sometime, I found it is good for warm up purposes and technique practice.

  2. Tom February 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    I have been playing since 13 years of age. Every Saturday I trekked uptown with guitar in case (a Stella $12 guitar) spent 30 minutes with an instructor for $3.00. The man was a poor teacher as have been my encounter even to the University level. I cannot play worth a crap. Now I am 70 and still learning an playing like crap. My mind is going because I cannot seem to get a 2 page piece memorized, and I have never known what to do with scales because all my instructors have never explored the importance and value of scales. David Patterson arrangement of Czerney for Guitar, a 12 scale study for classical guitar has been wonderful. I am still struggling with understanding scales. This site has finally exposed what I need to work on. I also indulge myself with Francisco Tarrega’s complete technical studies, which has been interesting. I once had Bach’s Cello suite No. 3 memorized, now I cannot get past the first page of the Prelude.

    • Profile photo of Simon
      Simon February 17, 2015 at 2:58 am - Reply

      Hi Tom,

      I am so glad that I can offer at least one “penny drop” in your learning experience. I also struggled to find a good teacher for several years when I started the guitar, and I can understand your frustration.

      In regards to memorization, I think that is an option and some are more adept than others. For myself, I have decided to develop my reading skills and use scores in performance. It is a lot less stressful, and less time consuming!

      Simon

  3. Kyle February 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    I wouldn’t fret (ha) about memorization. You are internalizing the music with out you being aware. It is very similar to typing on a keyboard in that sense. I know what word I want to say, but what word and what letters I use to make those words can be interchangeable and there are a variety of equally correct solutions.

  4. Barry Pollack March 28, 2016 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    i/m alternation rhythmically accented in groups of 3: i m i, m i m, etc. Similarly with m/a and i/a. Also, i/m/a or a/m/i in rhythmic groups of 2 or 4. I love scales, they are like old friends.

  5. Michael Kozaczek December 13, 2016 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Consider hijacking a jazz approach to scale and arpeggio practice. “The Serious Jazz Practice Book”, by Barry Finnerty is at the top of the list. The author is a guitarist, but the book is not specific to guitar. This book demands much. It does not take the usual mindless approach of “monkey see, monkey do” to scale patterns.. Many of the starting exercises are in the key of C, but don’t let that fool you. You are supposed to transpose each to all keys and positions. You are also supposed to integrate ear training in each of the exercises. Now integrate solving the right and left hand issues as in this article’s excellent exposition. You will be a monster player. No kidding.

    • Profile photo of Dave Belcher
      Dave Belcher December 14, 2016 at 12:11 am - Reply

      Great suggestion, Michael! Thanks for the comment.

      Peace,

      Dave B (CGC team)

  6. Jakob Gerber June 20, 2017 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    I’ve said this a thousand times, if I’ve said it once. Before ALL else, rhythm is the most important aspect of music. It is the foundation of everything. Without timing, you have have nothing. Notes,intervals chord inversions etc. you can learn. Rhythym you have to feel. What good is knowing scales,chords etc. if you can’t play in time. Very little music is rubato. Be able to tap out rhythmic patterns on anything, while carrying on a conversation. Make it part of your DNA, everything else comes after.

  7. rick z July 1, 2017 at 5:29 am - Reply

    what is i m a m i a .?
    i’m self taught in alternative tunings. i took many lessons in standard tuning but found i couldn’t get close to any songs. so i ventured off into no mans land with alternative tunings and finger picking patterns i have come up with. pretty much i know zilch about music but enjoy transposing the voices in my head to my guitars.

  8. rick z July 1, 2017 at 5:42 am - Reply

    seems as though everyone who wants to teach me guitar is so far out of my league using terms that are greek to me and “now do this”. even when i tell them to start from the very beginning as if i was 5 year old,, no one explains how why or how come.

  9. Whitmore Robert July 2, 2017 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    Excellent lesson Simon
    Opens up the Scale World like no other presentation on this subject before.
    Many thanks
    Robt

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