When it comes to playing guitar, one of the most daunting tasks is learning how to play scales and learning notes higher up the fretboard. Guitar strings are tuned and organized in such a way that it makes playing scales somewhat confusing and unintuitive compared to other instruments. However, dedicating a little bit of time every day to playing guitar scales and learning notes up the fretboard will help you become a better guitarist–regardless of which genre you like to play!
In this article, I’ll share 3 tips that can help you learn the fretboard and improve your tone using scales. You’ll also find a practice routine I recommend, along with useful resources to consider. Let’s begin!
3 Tips to Learn the Fretboard & Improve Your Tone
- Practice natural notes on individual strings
- Improve your tone with vibrato and rest stroke
- Learn multi-octave scales on all strings
1. Practice natural notes on individual strings
Before you drive yourself crazy trying to memorize scales across all six strings up and down the fretboard, start simpler by taking it one string at a time. To do this, I recommend you play natural notes from fret 0 to fret 12. What is a “natural” note? A natural note simply means a note that isn’t sharp or flat, so basically just the letters of the musical alphabet (A through G).
Left hand shifts
First, start by just playing the open string. I recommend starting on the A string (string 5) because it’s easier to remember the musical alphabet when you start with “A”.
Next, using your left hand index finger, press down on the next natural note and play (“B” on fret 2 if you’re on the A string). Continue to play natural notes on the individual string all the way up the neck still using the index finger only at first. For the right hand, I recommend trying this using the thumb first, and then move on to i-m (index and middle finger) alternation.
As you do this relatively simple routine, say each note aloud as you move up the neck. You’ll find that saying the notes as you go helps you memorize the positions faster! By the time you reach fret 12, you should be on the same note name as the open string you started with.
Once you get comfortable with the pattern and space between the notes, you can start adding other left hand fingers as you move. However, make sure to always keep finger one down as you move up the neck as it will be the primary finger used for shifting. Basically, you’ll want to play a note with the index finger, then you’ll play the next note with either your middle or ring finger depending on if the next note is one or two frets (half steps) away. You’ll then shift index finger up to the next position and do the same thing. Here’s an example for you to review on the A string:
Advancing your single string practice
The process of playing natural notes on a single string might seem overly simple. But in reality, there’s endless possibilities of patterns and exercises you can come up with to familiarize yourself with the fretboard and how to shift your fingers quickly, efficiently, and effectively.
Another advantage to starting with natural notes is that once you familiarize yourself with these positions, playing scales with sharps and flats will become much easier. You’ll have an immediate reference point on every string, and can therefore alter the natural notes with ease and confidence!
If you’re interested in more creative and challenging single string exercises, I strongly recommend you check out Charlie Byrd’s Melodic Method for Guitar.
Byrd is renowned for his genius ability to improvise and move swiftly all across the fretboard when playing melodies. Unsurprisingly, his method book is a wellspring of scale and melodic exercises that will vastly improve your guitar playing.
2. Improve your tone with vibrato and rest stroke
As you familiarize yourself with playing natural notes and scales on a single string, there’s a couple easy techniques you can use that will make your tone full, resonate, and loud: vibrato and rest stroke. Rest stroke is a right hand technique, and vibrato is a left hand technique.
Vibrato (Italian origin “vibrare meaning to vibrate) is a popular effect where players manipulate a musical pitch in such a way that it produces a consistent pulsation, or swelling effect. Many people learn about vibrato in a singing context, however musical instruments can produce vibrato as well. The wavering pitch range and speed of vibrato can vary depending on the individual’s preference.
On guitar, you can create vibrato by using a left hand finger to press a string very firmly onto the fretboard, then wiggling the finger slightly side to side. Note that it’s easier to play vibrato further up the neck, around fret 7 or 9. I recommend you try this technique out using your left hand index finger on the 9th fret, third string (E note).
When you play the string with your right hand and begin the slight shifting movement with your left index finger, you should hear the pitch pulsate, almost as though the note is breathing. Are you able to manipulate the speed and and range of pitch?
As you practice playing scales and natural notes on individual strings, try playing some of these notes with vibrato. The vibrato technique is most appropriate for special musical moments, or when holding notes for longer periods of time. Vibrato is perfect for making a melody really “sing”, and will definitely turn some heads when done properly!
We’ve covered how to play faster and more efficiently by familiarizing yourself with individuals strings, and how to create a sweet and resonant tone using vibrato. So that leaves volume. How can guitarists play individual notes louder so that melodies can be ring out more clearly? The right hand rest stroke technique is one of the best ways to do it!
Rest stroke (also known as apoyando) is a technique mostly used mostly by flamenco and classical guitarists as a way to play individual notes stronger and in some cases faster. Rest stroke is the opposite of ‘free stroke’ (also known as tirando), which is a standard fingerstyle playing method used when playing arpeggios or multiple notes at the same time.
Using the Thumb
The rest stroke is actually broken up into two separate techniques: you can do it with the right thumb, or using the other fingers. For the thumb style, simply allow your thumb to land on the string below whichever string you’ve just plucked. So if you’ve plucked string 6, the thumb should land directly onto string 5. Essentially, you’re letting the string catch the thumb as it moves down as seen in the image below:
Thumb rest stroke positions
Using Index, Middle, and Ring Fingers
For other right hand fingers, you’ll want to allow the tips of the finger to catch on the string above the one you’ve just plucked. So if you pluck string 1 with the index finger, the tip of your finger should catch on string 2. You can see the starting and ending positions for free stroke vs. rest stroke below:
Free stroke positions
Rest stroke positions
Can you hear the difference in tone and volume when playing rest stroke vs free stroke? When played properly, the rest stroke should produce a sound that’s much louder and stronger, allowing the string to vibrate and resonate longer. This technique, combined with vibrato, will really take your scales and individual note playing to the next level!
Rest stroke is a technique that can take guitarists a while to learn how to play proficiently, especially when alternating fingers and crossing various strings. If you’re new to this technique you’ll want to research additional method books such as The Parkening Method, The Shearer Method, and Juan Martín’s Essential Flamenco Guitar Volume 1, and watch videos online.
3. Learn multi-octave scales on all strings
When you’re comfortable playing scales on individual strings while incorporating vibrato and rest stroke, you can move on to playing scales across various strings up and down the fretboard.
You’ll notice right away that this is much more challenging than just playing notes on an individual string, especially if you’re maintaining the convention of alternating your right hand index and middle fingers.
If you find that playing descending scales is more difficult than ascending, rest assured that’s very normal! In fact, most people find playing the scales backwards more difficult. This is likely because left hand fingers other than the index have to land first when moving to a new string.
The Segovia Scales
So what’s the best resource for learning multi-octave scales on all strings up and down the neck? Andres Segovia’s Diatonic Major and Minor Scales is widely considered to be the all-time best scale book for guitar. This collection, also known as “The Segovia Scales”, is an incredible resource for teaching you how to shift your fingers up and down the fretboard in a way that is intuitive and smooth, yet also very intricate.
A word of warning: the Segovia scales are pretty challenging! If you’re new to reading guitar notation, these will prove to be especially difficult. At the very least, start with the C major and G major scales on the opening page.
Not only are the left hand shifts intelligent and versatile, but you’ll also notice that Segovia recommends practicing these scales using various right hand patterns. I recommend starting with i-m (index and middle finger) alternation first.
Guitar scales are an essential skill for guitarists of any level to know. If you find that scales are challenging to play on guitar, that’s because they are! But if you want to become more comfortable with the guitar and play more versatile music, practicing scales and notes on individual strings is a key way to get there.
Am I recommending you sit around all day playing guitar scales non-stop? Of course not! Rather, try including these scales in your warm up routine, even if it’s just 5-10 minutes per day. If you’re about to play a song or piece, you might want find it beneficial to play through the scale of whatever key that piece is in to prepare.
Furthermore, investing some time every day to focus on the tone quality of the individual notes you play will raise the overall impression your guitar tone leaves with an audience–something they’ll recognize and be thankful for!