Let’s be clear, when I say “practice scales” I am not talking about learning a couple of half-baked shapes. I am talking about fully mapping out a single key and committing to memory all five standard (2-note-per-string) pentatonic patterns. That needs to be your bare minimum. Why should you do this?
We practice scales foremost to keep our hands on that guitar.
The best advice I can ever give you is to have the guitar in your hand as often as possible and always have an achievable goal in your mind. Mapping out the five standard patterns in a single key is an achievable goal and for the rest of your guitar playing life you will evolve with this knowledge.
We practice scales to get used to hitting one string at a time.
Most beginners have a hard time hitting the note that they want without brushing the other strings by accident. Playing though the patterns will build that much-needed muscle memory.
We practice scales to utilize all five fingers.
As a guitar teacher, I have met way too many students who decided that they didn’t need to use their pinky. With our thumb usually holding the neck, we have four fingers left. Why in the world would you ever punish yourself by neglecting 25% of your available resources?
We practice scales to get used to how the guitar changes shape.
Mapping out your guitar is going to equally familiarize you with the bass strings, the treble strings, the big frets, and the thinner frets. A well-rounded player knows how to use every inch of the fretboard.
We practice scales to coordinate our fretting and picking hands.
Playing the patterns is great mechanical practice. You are forced to use both hands simultaneously and before you know it, you will no longer even think about hitting the right note and the right string at the same time.
We practice scales to build callouses.
Hitting those notes over and over again will scar your fingertips and they will grow back tougher. Over time you will find yourself doing things that you couldn’t do before simply because your fingers have physically gotten harder.
We practice scales as a mental exercise.
First you memorize the patterns up and down. Later, you memorize horizontally. You memorize on one string. You memorize the note names. Then the intervals. The memorization games never end as a matter of fact. Memorizing anything is good for your brain, period.
We practice scales to learn picking techniques.
Once you get used to patterns themselves you will begin to focus on things like alternate picking. So now you are reinforcing your scale knowledge and practicing a technique at the same time. Otherwise known as working smart over working hard.
We practice scales to get faster.
When running through the shapes, you will naturally get faster over time. Speed bursts are something that should be part of every practice session just to keep raising the bar of your own ability. Alternately:
We practice scales to slow down.
Pay attention to where your fingers are: how close to the fret do they need to be to produce the sound you want? How hard do you need to press? How soft can you press and still produce the sound you want? Work smart.
We learn scales for improvisation.
Emulating the guitar legends is great practice but so is learning to find your own voice and before you can be good at anything you need to suck at it first. Scales contain your alphabet, start playing with them and make some words. Eventually this will lead to full sentences and whole paragraphs.
We learn scales to help build our ears.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, playing through different patterns on different areas of the fretboard is leaving a mark on your mind that is directly connected with what you are hearing. That being said, here is another way it helps ear training:
We learn scales to make transcribing easier.
When you are transcribing a solo or trying to figure out a melody by listening alone, the best possible tool in your kit is your knowledge of scales and the corresponding patterns. It narrows down your choices significantly and gives you a nice idea of where your next intervals/notes could be, as opposed to trying to find them in complete darkness.
We learn scales to build double-stops and chords.
One note in the scale is just that. Put any two notes together and now you have a double-stop. Put three of more notes together and you are now playing chords. Even just with the pentatonic, there are so many combinations to try out. You will like some combinations more than others and this will help define your playing style.
We practice scales to supplement learning our intervals.
This point is a bit more advanced but true nonetheless. Once those patterns are burned into your memory and you can see them upside-down and backwards, you will begin to notice repeating patterns within the patterns. The thinking guitarist will connect these meta-patterns with their knowledge of intervals. Never content yourself with only understanding one way when you can understand multiple ways.
Oh yeah, did I mention that they build a musical foundation that will last for the rest of your life!?
Learning scales aka “mapping your guitar” is the best possible thing that any guitarist, of any style, could learn. Patterns are only going to make you stuck and predictable if you use them as an end point instead of a jumping off point. Learn your entire fretboard in at least one key and the rest will follow.
You cannot learn 75% of basic math and then expect to move onto algebra. Learning your scale patterns and emulating the solos of your favorite musicians is a winning combination. Neglecting either is a very bad idea if you want to be a serious guitar player. If you feel yourself getting predictable then it is up to you to try something new, which is also sound advice in your career, in your relationships, and life.
So what are you waiting for!?