Why did I do this? A few years ago I started giving some of my students single note exercises using a first position diatonic scale in G Major, beginning on the low E string (open) and ending on the G at the third fret on the first string, 2+ octaves. This utilized all six open strings, with strict 1st position fingering. In conjunction with this exercise I also used one-octave chromatic scales in 1st position, beginning on the (open) low E, A, D and G strings. These used all four fingers of the fretting hand. The whole idea with these scales was to play them rhythmically, very slowly at first, lowest note to the highest and then in reverse, gradually increasing the speed – but only to the point that they could be played cleanly and with no hesitation or stopping between notes or strings.
Exciting? Hell, no. Borderline annoying to spouses who were forced to listen to them according to a few students. But valuable in many ways, as long as they were played correctly and with good technique. Some students did quite well with them and I’m sure their single note playing improved because of these exercises.
However, it became apparent after some time that in spite of my encouragement that they use these scales for warm-up whenever they sat down to play, very few were doing that. Why? That was the question.
Scales are not exciting for most people, myself included. They can also be somewhat detrimental to the creative process if one is trying to learn to improvise: it’s way too easy to slip into scale-wise movement when trying to create an improvised solo and then they sound like what they are – scales! – even when each note is technically correct, in terms of the key the song is in. But ultimately there must be a reason that many, many fine musicians spend a lot of time on scales at some point in their learning of their instrument.
In one of those light-bulb-goes-on-over-my-head moments, it came to me that I was most likely leaving the practice of those scales way too open-ended with my students. Just advising them to start slow and gradually increase the speed was much to nebulous. What they needed was a set goal that was well-defined. That’s when I asked myself a simple question. What is the most commonly used beats-per-minute designation? Is there one? And if not, could I come up with a way to define a starting point that could be expanded upon to cover most of the commonly used speeds used by guitarists playing single-note passages or phrases?
It turns out the magic number is 80 beats per minute and I base this statement on listening to many guitarists playing a wide range of single-note phrases, from folk and country to blues and jazz.
My new exercises for students still involve staying in 1st position but instead of using G Major, I now use C Major, beginning again on the open 6th string (low E) and the highest note is the G on the 3rd fret of the 1st string. This way the scale is a bit easier than the one I used to use in G Major because there is no need to use the little (4th) finger on the 4th fret of the 4th string to get the F# that resides there; F Natural on the 3rd fret of that 4th string is easier for most people to play when trying to attain a smooth sequence of notes through the scale.
First, I have them set a metronome for the 80 beats per minute speed. If they do not own a metronome I have them download one of the many free metronome apps to their phone that are available for both IPhone and Android formats.
I give them a diagram of the neck in first position showing the location of the natural notes (Key of C Major) that includes both open strings and fretted notes to the 3rd fret on all six strings. I explain that any note on the first fret, regardless of the string, should be played with the 1st finger, 2nd finger on any note on the 2nd fret; 3rd finger on any note on the third fret. Then we play the sequence a few times, lowest sounding note (low E) to highest (G, 3rd fret, 1st string) and then in reverse. Interestingly, often times students with skip the open strings by mistake the first couple of times they try the exercise. They immediately know something is wrong however, because the oh-so-familiar sound of the Major diatonic scale will not be right. I always tell students to think of the nut on their guitar as their “sixth finger” – it is playing those notes (the open strings) for you! But instead of you pressing down to divide a string and generate a tone, your ”sixth finger” is pressing UP! This seems to help in most cases.
The hard part for most students once the location of each note on each string is located is the other hand. I know some experienced guitarists would vehemently disagree with what I’m about to say, but I feel very strongly that alternating the pick is vital to playing in a smooth and steady manner and especially if one is hoping to build up speed. Strictly alternating with this scale means that sometimes a player will move from one string to the next with a downstroke and sometimes with an upstroke. I’m not going to get into the debate about this, I just know it works for me and for many great players I’ve observed.
After the student can play this scale from lowest to highest to lowest, one note per beat, three times without stopping and without mistakes, at 80 BPM, we go to the next step: TWO notes per beat. If you read music, this means the entire sequence in 8th notes (assuming 4/4 time). When that can be done through the sequence FIVE times without stopping and with good, clean tonality we move on to the final step: FOUR notes per beat (16th notes in 4/4/ time).
This final step is intimidating to a student the first time he hears me play at that speed. But in actuality it is not really as fast as one might think. How do I know this? When the student is ready to attempt this speed, I demonstrate it both with the metronome on – and, with it off. With the metronome on it sounds very fast indeed but when I turn it off, that speed suddenly becomes a bit more reasonable. If you’ve stuck with me this far, try it and you’ll see what I mean.
After conquering all this to a decent degree, we move on to one-octave pieces of the scale and work on those so the student has a sense of shortened phrases. So far, with a number of my intermediate and advance level students this scale work has shown great results when we work on specific single-note phrases between chords, melodies, and improvising in songs.
The take-away here is that instead of practicing scales aimlessly it makes more sense to have a reference point and for me, 80 beats per minute seems to be just about perfect.
Peace & good music,