Playing the guitar is the best. The. Best. I have played guitar for 22 years and every single day I feel the same excitement about picking it up as the first day. Playing music is pretty much always fun, regardless of whether or not you’re any good at it – but the better you are, and the more knowledge you have, the more fun it gets. Discovery is half the fun.
So I’m gonna help you to have more fun on the guitar, because although overcoming the instrument’s challenges is the other half of the fun, there’s no point in struggling needlessly without understanding. If you’ve never played a scale in your life, don’t stress, and don’t tune me out til you’ve at least tried my way. The premise of my RelationShapes scale system is just to give you a roadmap for different sounds on the guitar. All you’re gonna learn today is a real basic major scale – but I’m gonna get you there in the fewest number of moves possible, and on top of that, you’re then going to know ALL the major scales on the guitar neck. Sound good? Then read on.
Before we start, it’s important to know that every major scale on the guitar looks the same when you start on the same string. The absolute simplest and most consistent way to play a scale on the guitar is to play 3 notes of the scale on each string. You’re going to use your first finger (pointer) and fourth finger (pinky) every time, and then vary whether you use your second (middle) or third (ring) finger in between.
All we have to learn to be able to play every major scale and every mode on the guitar is the following:
- The 3 Mini-Shapes
- The Sequence
- The 2 Rules
And that’s it! Sure, I could just show you a tab for the major scale and pretend like I taught you something – but then you’d have to have pages and pages of tabs for learning all the other scales and modes, and the only thing you’d learn is how to read tabs. This is a comprehensive, simple formula for knowing where you are and where you can go next, at any time, from anywhere.
A mini-shape is just the shape of the notes on one string within a scale. We’re gonna use 3 different single-string mini-shapes – 1, 2, and 3. Here’s what they look like:
Then, we’re going to learn The Sequence – 1 1 1 2 2 3 3. This is the sequence of mini-shapes going across the neck, from low to high, no matter what major scale or mode of the major scale you’re playing. The mini-shapes always occur in this order, no matter where in the sequence you start. You’ll get different modes by starting in a different place in the sequence, but for right now, we’re going to start on the second 1 shape. Then we’ll go across the neck thusly – 1 1 2 2 3 3 – once we learn the Two Rules. The sequence also repeats once you get to the end – 111223311122331112233 – so if you get to the end but there’s still more strings, just go back to the beginning of the sequence and go from there.
The Two Rules
The Two Rules are real simple –
- We’re going to start each mini-shape one fret higher when going from a 1 mini-shape to a 2 mini-shape
- We’re going to start each mini-shape one fret higher when going from the G string to the B string (the 3rd to the 2nd string)
So, if you just got finished playing a 1 mini-shape starting on the 3rd fret of the A string, and the next mini-shape is a 2, you’re going to put your first finger on the 4th fret of the D string to start that 2 shape and go from there.
Also important to note – sometimes Rule 1 and Rule 2 happen at the same time when going from a 1 to a 2 from the G to the B string, and then they compound and you have to start the 2 mini-shape 2 frets higher.
So now we’ll put it all together – start on any fret on your low E string (it works on any string, too, but let’s start here). Play a 1 shape, then another 1 on the A string starting on the same fret, then a 2 starting one fret higher on the D string (Rule 1), then go across to the G string on the same fret and play a 2, then go up one fret from there (Rule 2) and play a 3 shape on the B string, then go straight across and play a 3 shape on the high E string.
You just played a major scale. Whatever note you started on is the name of that scale – if you started on the 3rd fret of the low E string, you just played a G major scale. You can apply this exact same sequence of events to any note on the low E string to play the notes of that major scale. Try it and see if I’m messing with you.
If you follow The Sequence and The Two Rules, you can play a major scale starting from any note, anywhere on the guitar. I’m not kidding – try it. Start on any note, on any string, follow the sequence, obey the two rules, and you’ll be playing the notes of that major scale.
Even crazier than that, if you start in a different place in the sequence, you’ll be playing a mode of the major scale. For example, if you start on the second 2 in the sequence and play 2331112, you just played the Phrygian mode. Once again, starting anywhere, any fret, any string, following the sequence and the rules. It’s exactly that simple.
Scales aren’t music. Just because you can play a scale, even crazy fast, doesn’t mean you will be good at making music. But freedom is the first step to making good music, and knowing the pathways to certain sounds on the fretboard will give you some freedom to express yourself – and that’s what scales are. Once you know what sounds you can get from certain collections of notes, you’ll be able to reproduce them whenever you want, in whatever arrangement makes you happy and sounds good.
This is the foundation of RelationShapes, my system for learning and mastering scales on the guitar. It takes this idea of breaking scales down to the simplest possible pieces and applying consistent rules and puts it in a format you can take all around the fretboard through every scale and mode, with video, audio, tabs, and sheet music. If you want to learn more scales than just about every guitarist you’ll ever meet, here’s a coupon for 50% off RelationShapes – the course is about an hour long, and you can watch each of the lessons as many times as you want, forever. It’s a little bit of work up front, but the guitar is about to get a whole lot more fun for you, and a lot less work.
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