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 physical moves?
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.