In this article I will give you advice which will help you memorize scales with ease. The tips shared here have helped myself and countless students get over the mental hurdles that slow down our learning.
Memorizing scales can seem daunting, especially when there are many octaves of notes on our instruments. If you don’t know all the notes on your instrument or you don’t have a good method for quickly identifying notes, you will struggle to learn and memorize scales. Luckily, there are some simple techniques for overcoming these hurdles that I’ll show you in this article!
There is a bonus tip towards the end of this article for learning notes all over the fretboard!
I still distinctly remember my early days of learning my first guitar scale; G major. I spent so many hours in my bedroom going over every box position for this scale all over the fretboard. Because I spent so much time doing this, I memorized all the notes in this scale from the first fret on the low E string to the highest fret on the high E string.
But, if I had some methods for learning and memorizing scales then I would have learnt my first scale much quicker than I did. Also, had I read an article like this and seen the relationships between notes, intervals, octaves and repeating patterns I could’ve saved many, many hours of figuring this out for myself!
If you are new to learning guitar scales then check out my 2 Part Series On Lead Guitar Scales!
Are Scales Easy To Memorize?
Scales usually have 5 or 7 notes in them. Therefore, they are not that difficult to memorize. The challenge is learning them all over the fretboard!
Take the E minor scale for example; There are 4 octaves we can play of this scale on guitar. That means memorizing this one scale in 4 different octaves. But it doesn’t end there; there are 12 E notes on a regular guitar, so that means 12 different positions for the E minor scale. Not only that, but we can play the E minor scale in different ways, meaning that there are literally dozens of different ways to play the same 7 notes of the E minor scale all over the fretboard!
Many Ways To Play An E Minor Scale
Maybe you can start to spot some patterns in the images above? If not don’t worry, I’ll outline the patterns shortly!
Now, I understand that the amount of positions above might looks daunting, it can be if you are new to guitar scales. But don’t worry, I will give you tips and methods for demystifying this information and make it a lot easier for you to learn and remember scales all over the fretboard.
Repeating Patterns Within Scales
Scales are a collection of notes that are arranged in a specific order. Because of this we learn to recognise repeating scale patterns. Also, because scales generally have five or seven notes in them, the patterns aren’t that long and therefore easy to learn!
I’ll show you a few different ways we can look at scales and see the patterns!
Whole Steps And Half Steps
One way we can define scales is by writing down their intervals. We define the intervals as either being wholes steps or half steps. A whole step is a second interval;
A half step is a flat second;
Now we have this knowledge we can write out the formula for any scale. This is what a G major scale looks like;
The formula is above the guitar tab, and it is the same for every major scale;
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
A minor scale has a different formula;
W – H – W – W – H – W – W
If we tried to work out the B minor scale, for example, using the formula above; From our root note of B we have to go a whole step (W) to the next note, C#. We then do a half step (H) to D. Then a whole step to E, a whole step to F#, half step to G, whole step to A, then a whole step back to the root, B.
Does this help me memorize scales though?
Yes, it can help! If you know where the most important intervals are within a scale, i.e the root, third, fourth and fifth, then by knowing the scale formula you will know where the other notes around are. You will know, for example, that the second note in a major scale is a whole step away from the root. So, whenever you play the root note of any major scale you will know what the next note is, and you’ll know the note after the second is a whole step away from that!
This works well if you play a scale on a single string, like the G major scale example above. It also works well if you play scales in a box position. Either way, with both methods you need to know where your scale intervals are in relation to the root notes, and you need to know where the most important intervals are too. This opens up the fretboard for us. For example, lets take what we’ve learnt so far and apply it to the G major scale!
Here’s one octave of the G major scale in a box shape;
The last note in this sequence, 5th fret on the D string, is an octave of our root note, G. And we’ve learnt that the second note is always a whole step away from the root, and maybe we know where the fourth and fifth intervals of G are? If so, we now have;
How about if you know where the root is after the 5th;
Once you start knowing where the intervals are from the root note, and know the whole step half step approach, you can start to figure out where notes are without having to memorize every scale position in every key!
I understand this still may not fully help you memorize scales. There are other things we will learn to strengthen our ability to memory and recall.
Recognize Scale Finger Patterns
Another way to help memorize scales on guitar is by noticing the common finger patterns for each string. On guitar we usually have two or three notes per string patterns. Therefore, If we know these common patterns, and then know these patterns based around the root note we can quickly learn and memorize guitar scales in many different positions.
Here are the common two and three note per string patterns;
You will notice that all the tabs we’ve looked at so far contain these shapes on every string. Again, if we know what these shapes look like around the root note we can quickly learn these shapes all over the body. For example, lets take the G major scale again and look at what the shape is for the root note and then the note pattern on the next string;
We already know that the second note is a whole step away. The fourth and fifth notes are the fourth and fifth intervals, respectively, which we should know. But more importantly we know that on the string below the root note we have this pattern of notes. This means that every time we find ourselves on a root note we know we have these notes available to us in the major scale;
We can also learn what notes would be on the string above;
So now if we combine that with what we’ve already learn we can quickly open up even more notes on the freboard!
Lets Try find the C major scale
OK, lets take the root note on C on the low E string;
Now lets add in the finger patterns we’ve learn from the major scale and see how much of the fretboard we can use!
Hopefully you can spot the patterns and understand how the major scale can be extended. This same patterns happens for every major scale and once you know one octave of it you can then see where the next octave starts and thereby extend the notes as far as you need.
Memorizing Other Scales
In this article I have mainly concentrated on the major scale, but the power in the information I share with you is that you can apply these techniques to any scale you learn. Whether you are learning the minor scale, pentatonics or some obscure Arabic scale, you can use the tips given in this article to accelerate your learning!
Learn octave patterns so that you can easily find where notes are! Once you learn these you will quickly start to become very familiar with where notes are. Lets take the A note and learn how to quickly find it all over the neck;
And remember, when we get to the twelfth fret the notes all repeat. The twelfth fret is equivalent to the open strings! So instead of having to learn new notes and scale patterns after the twelfth fret, we can just repeat the patterns!
With these octave shapes you can quickly find notes, and then you can quickly know where the notes around it are!
Learn the notes of one string, from the open note to the octave on the twelfth fret. Use the octave shapes above to the find notes all over the fretboard starting from this one string. Over time you will start to learn all the notes all over the fretboard, and this is very liberating!
3 Tips For Memorizing Scales
- Remember that the fourth and fifth intervals are always in the same place for almost all scales. Therefore, you don’t have to remember these notes once you’ve memorized where they are in relation to the root note.
- Learn part of a scale and get comfortable with it in many different positions on the fretboard. Take the first four notes of a scale and play around with them. Try coming up with you own licks and patterns!
- listen to music that is using the scale you are learning. This will train your ear to recognize the sound of the scale, and you will start to develop a skill and understanding for the scale you are learning.
The idea of memorizing many different scales in every key is a daunting prospect. I doubt there are many musicians that can do this. Therefore, by using the methods outlined in this article, such as knowing the scale formula or recognizing repeating patterns, we can start to see the scale around any root note we come across. Also, by knowing where the intervals are we can quickly locate the root note from any position and know where the scale is.
Some people learn better by writing things down. Try writing out the tabs for scales as you learn them. Learn a new scale in many different keys and write the guitar tab down, you will quickly start to see the reoccurring patterns that will enable you to memorize scales.
It takes a little time to learn scales, especially when you are new to music, but it becomes very easy once you’ve spent enough time with your instrument. Let your mind rest in between practicing. The brain digests information when away from an activity, meaning you come back stronger, providing you play regularly!