It really comes down to the type of music you want to play and how far you want to advance. There is certainly value to practicing something so cut-and-dried, that you can easily assess in terms of advancing your technique. Scales are either right or wrong, played well or played not so well. At a certain point there are gray areas in playing most music. Is that song you’re playing “right” or “wrong”? That depends upon your (and possibly your audience’s) expectations. Not so with scales. They are easily quantifiable.
Some players thrive in this type of situation. By using good technique and a metronome you can chart your progress. This can be very encouraging and gratifying. Here’s how I see the positives and negatives of spending time practicing scales.
For last four hundred years of so much of Western music has been based on the Major Diatonic scale. Modes are a discussion for another day, but the do-re-mi scale we’ve all heard since we first learned music in school has been ingrained on our musical consciousness for untold generations. Melodies in most popular music are almost always based on this scale. So practicing Major Diatonic scales in at least all the commonly used keys has value for both the fingers and the ears.
Natural and Harmonic minor scales along with Pentatonic scales are often used in improvising. Knowing them has great value if you intend to be a lead guitar player.
Making up a practice regimen of various scales is a great way to “warm up” before you dive into learning new material. And you’ll often find that pieces of scales are incorporated in both melodic and back-up guitar arrangements.
For many players, practicing scales is…. Boring. And often frustrating. Remember – I’m talking about recreational guitar players, ones who just want to have some fun when they play. I know some may disagree, but scale work doesn’t always lead to better playing. Forcing oneself to keep a steady beat and change chords quickly and accurately should be the primary focus and doing those things will lead to a more satisfying playing experience.
Practicing scales embeds the sounds of those intervals between notes on our brain. Now, this is an iffy thing. Yes, much of our music is based on the Major Diatonic scale but by forcing this sound into our musical consciousness we are in danger of EXPECTING those intervals to occur. The legendary, great jazz musician Sonny Rollins once said that people would be wise to show up at his concerts a half-hour late because during that first half-hour he would essentially “cleaning out” his musical mind, playing things that he’d played before (great though they are!) and it takes time to dismiss musical sameness and become more creative.
Time. None of us have enough of it. Assuming a player knows a few types of scales in a few different keys it’s easy to spend a lot of time in a given practice session on just them. Optimizing the time we can carve out to play is what it’s all about, folks. Play what you WANT to play, not what you thing you HAVE to play.
So, here’s what I do. I’ll usually spend a few short minutes doing a few Major Diatonic scales and a couple minor ones, just to warm up. If I’m working on a difficult piece that includes things like diminished scales in the melody or arpeggios, I’ll spend some time separating them out from the melody and practicing them but I force myself to return to the overall arrangement as soon as possible. In all, I would guess that pure scale work takes no more than 10% of my practice time. Would I be a better player if I devoted more time to scales? Maybe. Maybe not.
What I do spend more and more time on these days is melodies. And yes, they do include some of the intervals we find in various scales. But I keep reminding myself of my days playing lead guitar in various bands when my solos always seemed to slip back into riffing through scales. Boring.
I guess the bottom line is looking at scale practice like an athlete looks at warm-ups before a game. No matter how many leg lifts or push-ups you do, what really matters is how well you hit or kick the ball.
Peace & good music,