AH, THE SCALE TRAP ... WE’RE
told learning scales will make us better
musicians, so we dutifully memorize
multiple scale types in many positions.
The more scales we memorize, the better
we feel: “Whoo, I’m making progress.
I know seven ways to play Eb Dorian!”
Excellent—by mastering scales, you gain
dexterity and improve your fretboard
knowledge. But here’s the caveat: Do you
really know a given scale? Or have you
simply memorized a specific series of
Here’s a quick way to answer that
question. Can you play a basic scale—
let’s say, A major—in any position you
choose, ascending or descending, starting
from any note other than the root until
you run out of strings? Without mistakes?
Try it. If the answer is yes, then you know
the scale and the tones it comprises. But
if you must start with the root to navigate
the scale error-free, then you only
know an inflexible fingering pattern, not
the actual notes in the scale. The problem
with “root-bound” scale playing is
that it makes your improvisations predictable.
The moment do-re-mi creeps into
your solos, listeners can anticipate what’s
coming next and you lose the potential
to surprise them.
Scales themselves are not to blame.
The problem is we’re rarely taught to go
beyond the first stage of learning scales
(root-to-root playing) to master the next
level, which is the ability to launch a
melody from any point within the scale.
The latter opens the door to exploring
tonality, which is crucial to adventurous
soloing. If you feel trapped by root-bound
scales, no worries. There are fun and creative
mind games you can play to break
free of this fingering tyranny.
Ex. 1 illustrates one diabolical possibility,
which is to choose a scale and simultaneously
ascend and descend through
it, starting from the lowest and highest
notes available in the given position. In this
case, we’re playing a fourth-position Amajor
scale, ascending from the lowest note (G#),
while descending from the highest note
(B). You can apply this ascending-whiledescending
game to any scale, in any
position. Not all patterns end conveniently
in the middle like this one, but that’s okay.
Just keep the two lines going until you reach
the limits of the pattern. And then reverse
direction. Better yet, say the note names out loud as you go.
Ex. 2 puts a spin on the game. In this case,
we’re working through the E major scale,
simultaneously descending and ascending
on strings one and three, respectively. We
start and end on E, but not by way of do-remi.
Go slowly, and for extra points, explore
other scales and other string pairs.
In Ex. 3, we ascend on the first string
through a D major scale, starting from the
lowest available scale tone (E), while alternating
a pedal-tone root provided by the
open fourth string. Once you’ve nailed this,
try different scales and pedal tones. Perhaps
A major ascending on the second string over
a fifth-string pedal tone? Or you can stay
with the D major scale and fourth string
pedal, but simultaneously ascend on two
strings, as in Ex. 4.
If you replace standard do-re-mi scale
playing with these games (and others like
them you invent for yourself), your ears and
hands will be forced to grapple with new and
unfamiliar sounds and fingerings. That’s
great for your music.