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.
Would you like a free scale book to go with this lesson? Download it here
Benefits of Practicing Scales
Scales on the classical guitar combine several elements of technique into one process.
- Right hand alternation
- Left hand shifting
- Left hand independence
- String crossing
- Tone production
- 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.
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:
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:
- Crescendo / Diminuendo
- Terraced Dynamics: pp,p,mp,mf,f,ff
- Dotted Rhythms
- Triplets with duplets
- Groupings of 5,6,7
- Lento, Andante, Allegretto, Allegro, Presto etc.
- 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
- Fixed fingers
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:
i and m are a great team, and they provide the basic right hand alternation for many people. Nothing, however, is perfect and one size does not always fit all. So let’s have a look at one alternative.
I and m can sometimes make a scratchy sound when playing the basses, especially if they are new. The thumb strikes the basses at a different angle and doesn’t make the same scratchy sounds. When combined with the index finger, we get an interesting and useful combination. One that gives a very clean attack on the basses.
If you would like to use the free scale book to accompany this lesson, please feel free to Download Your Daily Scales Now The pi combination is very clear and articulated but it can also sound a little staccato on the treble strings due to the opposing direction of the thumb and finger. One solution to this is to use a combination of p i and i m. P i for the basses, and i m for the trebles. Personally I find this combination of fingers incredibly useful. It balances the hand, it is accurate, and fast. One issue that might arise is the natural tendency of the thumb to be louder than the finger, giving the notes played with the thumb a bit of an accent. To combat this, try practicing some scales with accents on the index finger, with goal of obtaining an equal volume and sound quality for each digit and a smooth transition between i m and p i. Accenting individual digits will also help you practice any sting crossing issues that come up. Of course, if p i isn’t your cup of tea you can try p m, or p a. It really depends on what works best for you, because in the end, we are all individuals. (If you are up for a challenge try p i m.) If you have your own combination that you would like to share please leave a comment and let us know!
Here are some slur scales that I came up with that really give a good work out to the left hand and also are quite fun to play!
You will notice that the scale takes on a pattern (except in first position) that can be repeated. Once you have completed one slur scale, shift the pattern up one fret and repeat the process. Be careful not to wear your hand out because slurs can be very tiring on those weenie left hand muscles and tendons. If you only want to do a few light repetitions you can start the patterns higher up the fretboard, around the seventh fret, as it will be easier than playing down in first position.
Focus on making a clean, crisp slur with a consistent snapping motion. After a while you will find that these scales start to flow nicely, at that point go and impress your girlfriend/boyfriend/attentive pet with your snappy slurry scales.
If you have some scales or exercises you like to do, let me know and we can share it with everyone.
Click on the image to see a larger copy.
an extension of the first shape…
a new pattern, you may recognize me from such books as “every scale book ever written“
These scales and many many more can be found in The Classical Guitar Scale Book
Scales are 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 ‘mythology’ of scale practice seems a little over-rated. Scales occur frequently in music written for violins, flutes and piano however, they come up rarely 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 work it stands out partly because it is so rare. Violin and piano repertoire on the other hand is absolutely littered with virtuosic scale runs that span genres from the Baroque to the present day. It stands to reason, then, that we do not practice scales to be prepared for the occasional scale run in a piece.
The process of running up and down a scale, which is a very common way of practicing scales, is pointless.
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.
Scales are incredibly useful, however, if assigned a goal and function. One function might be to practice crescendo and diminuendo another could be to practice staccato articulations yet another is a variety of rhythms. As you may start to realize, the ways to use a scale to work on technical aspects is almost as diverse as your imagination. A more complete list of scale suggestions is written below and I encourage you to come up with your own uses for scale practice.
It could be argued that scales are useful for becoming acquainted with the fingerboard and learning key centers. This could be absolutely true although the common tendency to memorize scale ‘patterns’ on the guitar prevents any real development of these skills. If you doubt this, ask the next scale wiz that you come across to sight read some Bach ;)