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Classical Guitar Scale Patterns

Scales in Classical Guitar

Students and performers of classical guitar play various scale patterns as part of their daily practice routine. Compared to rock and jazz guitar, however, the scale types taught to classical guitar students in most schools are mostly major and minor. Not much importance is given to other scales such as modes, pentatonics, or whole tone scales, etc., as very little of the classical guitar repertoire is modal, pentatonic or whole-tone based. It makes sense to focus on scales that will provide the kinds of runs and note patterns that crop up all the time in classical guitar music. The main reason for scale practice in classical guitar is to improve finger dexterity and to develop a sense of tonality or key awareness in relation to the fretboard.

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Moveable Patterns and Position Playing

As a fretted instrument, the guitar has an advantage over most non-fretted instruments in that it allows us to move whole chord shapes and scale fingerings up and down the fretboard to any position we want. If you can play the scale in one position, you can play it jn any position, (provided you don't run out of reachable frets in either direction). Whichever fret position you move to will result in exactly the same type of scale and exactly the same fingerings but will be transposed up or down in pitch and based on a new key note, or tonic. Open strings are avoided in strict pattern practice as they would automatically change the pattern. The whole point is to keep the pattern intact.

The scales featured here are all movable major and minor scale patterns. The example scales are just that - examples. What's important is the pattern, not whether it's based on G or A or whatever. Once you know the pattern, you can start it from anywhere you like.

The fretboard positions for the particular examples are shown by Roman numerals as is common in classical guitar scores,These tell you on which fret to place your first finger. The next 3 frets above that will each have a dedicated finger of its own.

Fingering (Fretting Hand)
The small numbers next to some notes are fretting hand fingering instructions. They're only included where it might not be obvious which finger to use. If you follow the finger-per-fret principle, you'll always be able to work out the right finger to use in any given fretboard position.

Fingering (Picking Hand)
Classical guitar scale technique stresses the importance of fluid movement of your picking hand, obtained by strictly alternating your index (i) and middle (m) fingers or index, middle and ring finger (a) in these typical patterns. If you're a beginner, just stay with the first pattern until you get used to it.

  1. i m i m i m, etc.

  2. i m a i m a, etc.

  3. I m a m i m a m, etc.

Unlike arpeggio practice, your thumb isn't used in standard scale practice. It's fingers all the way.

The Major Scale

Here's an important two octave movable pattern. The scale shown is G major, but the pattern can be shifted up or down. It can only be shifted down one fret to F sharp major (or G flat major if you prefer). Any lower than that and you'd be dealing with some open strings, which you want to avoid in movable patterns. You can shift the whole pattern up as high as D#/Eb on a standard classical guitar, and much further with a steel string acoustic or electric guitar as they have longer necks and more frets.

Major Scale: Two-Octave Pattern

Single position moveable major scale pattern based on G major
Single position movable major scale pattern based on G major | Source

Missing Key Signatures

The key signatures shown at the start of each of the exercises are in effect throughout the whole exercise. They're missing from the lower staff in some of the examples below because the well-aged notation software, Guitar Pro, that produced them only displays the key signature at the start of each exercise. Just pretend they're still there, or else just follow the tab if you find it too off-putting.

Major scale: Three-Octave Pattern

G major scale over 3 octaves
G major scale over 3 octaves | Source

Minor Scales

In traditional classical guitar study, emphasis is given to the harmonic and melodic forms of the minor scale rather than the natural minor scale (the one that agrees with the key signature). The harmonic and melodic forms are really just modifications of the natural minor scale. They are referred to so often in classical music that they have become the standard forms.
The harmonic minor scale is the same as the natural minor scale except that the 7th scale note is raised by a semitone. The melodic minor scale is unique among scales in that it has the 6th and 7th notes raised when ascending, but those notes are reverted to the natural minor form when descending.

The Three Forms Compared

  • A natural minor - A B C D E F G A
  • A harmonic minor - A B C D E F G# A
  • A melodic minor - A B C D E F# G# A G F E D C B A

Harmonic Minor Scale: Two-Octave Pattern

Harmonic minor scale - two octave pattern - Example key C minor - Key Range Bb minor (pos I) to A minor (posXII)
Harmonic minor scale - two octave pattern - Example key C minor - Key Range Bb minor (pos I) to A minor (posXII) | Source

Melodic Minor Scale: Two-Octave Pattern

Melodic minor scale - two octave pattern. Example key C minor. Lowest possible key: Bb minor
Melodic minor scale - two octave pattern. Example key C minor. Lowest possible key: Bb minor | Source

Harmonic Minor Scale: Three-Octave Pattern

Harmonic minor scale - 3 octave pattern Example key: F minor
Harmonic minor scale - 3 octave pattern Example key: F minor | Source

Melodic Minor Scale: Three-Octave Pattern

Melodic minor scale - Three octave pattern - Example key F minor
Melodic minor scale - Three octave pattern - Example key F minor | Source

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