Andrés Segovia blazed many trails for the modern classical guitarist, and one of them was a systematized approach to scale practice. We may take his scale set for granted today, but when he compiled and fingered his collection of scales, the young Segovia was demonstrating his visionary approach to the instrument along with an innovative courage that elevated our instrument to the concert stage.
In this article I want to answer the very practical questions I often receive from guitar students, which sound regularly like this:
- What are the Segovia Scales?
- Are the Segovia Scales better than other scales?
If you are interested in reading the historical context of these scales I highly recommend the article: Andrés Segovia’s Unfinished Method: Placing His “Scales” in Historical Context. by Andreas Stevens – featured in Soundboard Scholar No.3
What are the Segovia Scales?
A musical scale does not belong to anybody. The scales that are featured in the “Segovia Scales” have the same arrangement of notes as most any other scale book featuring major and minor scales.
There are three reasons, however, why the Segovia Scales stand out from the pack:
First and foremost, they were compiled, organized, and fingered by Andrés Segovia.
The Maestro’s name is synonymous with classical guitar and it was his pioneering work that paved the way for many of us to follow. It is understandable, then, that any educational material that was produced by Segovia would be highly sought after, potentially offering an insight into his methodology and approach to the classical guitar.
Secondly, they were first. Sort of.
In the preface to the 2011 edition of the scale book Thea Smith writes “What makes these scales unique is the fingering: it is organized systematically, something Segovia was the first to do.”
There are several method books for classical guitar predating the Segovia Scales that include scales and scale sets. J.K. Mertz, Carcassi, and Pratten to name just three. So, by no means was this the first set of scales to be published for the classical guitar. However, they are organized, systematic, and also focused (i.e. no arpeggios or other technical exercises). In this regard they were first, and they stood out.
With time and momentum to ingrain the scales into the modern classical guitar canon they developed a legendary status. They are not just scales but the Segovia scales!
Third, they are concise.
Scales and arpeggios can provide a very deep resource for any musician. So much so that they can easily become overwhelming. Having written my own scale book, I know first hand that it becomes more of a challenge to exclude ideas than to compile them. After all, what good is a book full of black dots if they are so numerous that they stun the reader into inaction.
The Segovia Scales cover seven pages. Just seven.
I can only imagine that the publishers must have been bemused at this little booklet as it rose to the ranks of “one of the best-selling guitar publications of all time.” Of all time!
The booklet is short enough that you can learn it like a piece of music. This in itself is powerful and makes it stand out from the more exhaustive compilations available today.
Are the Segovia Scales “Better” than other scale books?
The actual scales inside the booklet are no better, and no worse, than any other scales. They ascend and descend like countless other scales have done over the centuries.
Segovia uses a lot of shifting in his scales, which gives a workout to that aspect of your technique. This is great if you want to focus on improving your left hand shifts, or perhaps delve into the idiomatic fingering choices of Segovia, Tárrega, and Llobet which rely heavily on this kind of shifting, but as I have written about before, scales are tools to help us work on focused elements of our technique and shifting is just one of those elements.
There are pros and cons to all manner of scale forms. Some traverse the length of the fingerboard, some make use of extensions, some use efficient fingering, some challenge you with shifts. You could even argue that a scale played on one string with just one finger has some virtue to it!
Modern scale books are even more systematized that the Segovia Scales and include arpeggios, octave scales, scales in thirds, sixths, tenths. They can be graded for beginners through advanced, and they can also include harmonic cadences to delve into the key of each scale.
With Segovia’s lifelong efforts to elevate the classical guitar, I hope and believe he would be pleased to see such a flowering of pedagogical material in the last thirty years.
The Real Question
The REAL question is: are you going to practice the scales?
If Segovia’s name helps your diligence, then go for it! These kinds of books can make you feel good to purchase them. Just by having them in your possession makes you feel like you are moving in the right direction. 10,000 hours here I come!
The reality is that many of us will play a few scales here or there. Usually major scales. But I will make an educated guess that a just small percentage of guitarists that purchase the Segovia Scales actually practice the scales in the second half of the book! These scales have more than four sharps in the key signature, and then proceed to the dark side of the circle of fifths… the flat side.
“The practice of scales enables one to solve a greater number of technical problems in a shorter time than any other exercise.” – Andrés Segovia
More important than who’s scales you are playing is the consistency, mindfulness, and focus in which you work on your scales.
Your Challenge from Simon
To give you something concrete to work on right now here is a challenge for you, should you wish to accept it:
- Choose a scale that is within your technical ability
- Set a timer on your phone for 15 minutes
- Select an aspect of your technique you would like to work on (staccato, shifting, left hand position, speed etc.)
- Work on that one scale, and that one technical focus for the full 15 minutes
If you don’t have a scale book handy, here is one for free from me:
Daily Scales for Classical Guitar
Here are some further resources to help you with your scale practice: