Complete confusion about scales, etc. Can someone please help!

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HansiRHansiR Frets: 5
Hi Guys... I desperately need some help. I have been playing guitar for many years, mainly fingerpicking just about any style of music that I like, blues, country, folk, jazz, etc. I have never played lead but sometimes throw in a short run between chords of my own invention, but very basic. I have never played lead because every time I start to look into what I should do first, I end up completely frustrated by the hundreds of tips or advice on offer, for example on YouTube. My basic knowledge of music theory is pretty basic but I can read music, I know what makes a chord, I know most of the notes along the fretboard, I know a lot of chords both bar and alternative fingerings, etc. etc. but I know nothing about scales, or playing a lead. I simply want to be able to play a lead in tune and accompany a friend no matter what key he plays in. When I try to find a good starting point I am told that pentatonic scales are the first thing I must learn, others say that I must learn major and minor scales first, others say don't bother with scales go for 3 notes on each string, others say forget that and learn boxes, cages, BB box, L shape, power chords, or... be able to play lead guitar in any key with just one scale... I usually give up after a few minutes because I really don't know where to start. My aim is to understand what notes I can play in any given key... if my friend is playing in G I want to be able to play notes that are in tune... so how and where do you think I should begin. I don't want to play professionally, I just want to be able to build on something and play nice accompanying runs... can anyone help me by telling me the very best place to start? Many thanks, Hansi
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  • JAYJOJAYJO Frets: 697
    IMO.  Start with the Pentatonic scale. Learn the 1st shape (the one evreyone learns first) this will get you jamming with your friend. Eventually learn All 5 shapes. They will help you further down the line with all your other scales. 
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  • SparkySparky Frets: 69
    Find a teacher and take a few lessons. That way you will be able to understand the practical application of what you are trying to learn. Pentatonic scales will certainly help.
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    Major/minor pentatonics is a good place to start. Match them with chords. Major/minor pentatonics incidentally have all the notes of the respective major/minor triad, so by learning these you're already a leg up over simply playing triad arpeggios.
    Once you have those down you can fill them with the missing notes: 4th and 7th for Major 2nd and 6th for minor.
    Since you mentioned you know the notes on the fretboard, here are the notes from above:
    C Major pentatonic
    CDEGA -> add F and B to get all the notes from C major
    C minor pentatonic
    CEbFGBb -> add D and Ab for all the notes from C minor
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  • LestratcasterLestratcaster Frets: 295
    Like the others have said, do minor and major pentatonic first as they're the easiest ones to learn and the notes sound good with most styles, also interchangeable too. Then add in the other notes to create whichever scale you want.
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  • HansiRHansiR Frets: 5
    Thanks very much guys for your answers and suggestions... I think I need to learn a bit more theory as I don't understand much apart from start with the pentatonic scales. I thought there was just one but it seems there are major and minor pentatonic scales and more than 1 shape in each! Thanks Carlos for your detailed and informative advice but, sadly, I don't understand any of it, way above what I know. Something that puzzles me is... I have just read that the e minor pentatonic is good for just about everything and is compatible in all keys, so why learn others? Even more puzzling is... say I learn a pentatonic scale, how does that actually help me play a lead? Does it mean that as long as I play those notes in the scale, in any formation, I can make a lead out of it?
    Sorry for being such a dimwit...! Cheers, Hansi

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  • JAYJOJAYJO Frets: 697
    The more you delve into the theory of the scales the more likely you are to get confused.
    Penta is 5 notes scale.
    easier to learn 5 than 7.
    for example. C Major pentatonic has the notes C D E G A.  As you say there is more than one shape pentatonic scale because there is more than one of these notes on the fretboard. 
    The first shape you should learn falls easier under the fingers (most comfortable) to play and so is the scale most players learn first. 
    Once you learn this shape you can then take it and line it up with the notes on your 6th (low E string). Using shape 1 If you play from the G note you will be playing G minor pentatonic.
    You can play the notes of that shape Randomly over a G minor chord progression or for blues Play it over G7 blues Progression. just use the notes of the shape you have learned and let your ears guide you. 

    With regards to the Major and Minor Pentatonic the good news is there is only 5 shapes to learn. Major and Minor have the same 5 scale shapes so once you learn the Minor then you also have the major. 

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  • RolandRoland Frets: 1600
    JAYJO said:
    The more you delve into the theory of the scales the more likely you are to get confused.
    This is worth remembering. Theory doesn’t make music, it tries to explain it.

    Bear with me, because I have a different way of looking at this. When we communicate, either in speech or in music, we use a sequence of sounds. In a sentence there are a mixture of important and less important words. As listeners we pick up on the key words, and the brain fills in the blanks between them. Imagine yourself listening to a friend in a noisy crowd. As long as you here a few words you can fill in the rest. If you are in a quiet place then you hear more, not just words but intonation, which adds detail to what your friend is saying.

    It’s the same in melody. There are important notes, and there are others which fill in the gaps to add interest. Luckily you already know the important notes in any melody. They are those you find in the chord which is being played. Particularly the ones called root, third and fifth. That’s C E and G in the chord of C. In A minor they are A, C and E.

    So if you use tones from the chord at critical points in the melody, particularly at the end of each phrase, then you can fill in the spaces between them - or even leave them empty. 

    There are lots of ways to identify the filler notes which work when soloing. The easiest three are scales, chord tones and (for guitarists) finger patterns. Which is “easiest” depends on you and which genre of music you play. That’s why you can find so many conflicting approaches. Different ones work for different people and different types of music.

    Since you already know a lot of chords I suggest that you start there. Look at a couple of basic chord shapes, and spend a few minutes experimenting with the notes which fit between the notes in the chord. This is what you actually need to know. When you’re playing there isn’t time to use theory to work out which note should come next.

    (If you want to read the theory behind this then look up CAGED.)
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  • carloscarlos Frets: 1246
    HansiR said:
    Thanks Carlos for your detailed and informative advice but, sadly, I don't understand any of it, way above what I know.
    You're welcome and I hope one day you can revisit the advice and it will make sense. You said in your original post that "I know what makes a chord, I know most of the notes along the fretboard" so I assumed that referencing chord tones and the notes that make a chord would make sense to you. Chords and scales all come from the same place. Even players who use an instrument which can only make one note at a time like horn players must know "chords". In many ways, chords are many scale notes at once, whereas lead playing is one scale note at a time. HansiR said:
    I have just read that the e minor pentatonic is good for just about everything and is compatible in all keys, so why learn others? 
    Whoever wrote that doesn't know what they're talking about. Try playing Em pentatonic over, say, an Ebm7 chord/tonality and let me know how it sounds. I have to agree that Em penta will cover a lot of popular music, but why limit yourself? If you can play Em all over the fretboard you can play Dm all over the fretboard. Or Am, or Abm, or anything really.
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  • dtrdtr Frets: 312
    edited March 6
    Apologies if this is really obvious, but it's something I remember being a bit revelatory when I learned it.  The reason why there are different chord shapes for E or A or whatever is all down to that weird 2nd (B) string in standard tuning.  If you play a typical open chord E shape (022100 <- frets from low E to high e) you know that you can move it up and down the fretboard making a barre, so 133211 would be an F.  Shapes can also move <-across-> the fretboard, but if you move a shape towards the high e string that weird 2nd string means you have to shift the 2nd string note up one fret...  move the open E chord shape 022100 across (x02210) and the 2nd string note must move up a fret giving x02220 which is an A chord.  If you move a shape towards the low E string you have to do the same in reverse - move the 2nd string note down a fret then move the shape across, so the D chord xx0232 would have the 2nd string note moved down (xx0222) before moving the shape across to x0222x, making an A chord again.

    The other thing to remember is that as notes are at the same frets on the high and low E strings, as shapes move across the frets you can fill in the string you're moving away from with the same notes as the string you're moving towards.  For chords you may change the note in the bass getting a slash chord (e.g. A/E or D/F#) though all the notes will be chord tones.  For example you can have the sequence 022100 (E) 002220 (A/E) 200232 (D/F#) 320033 (G) 332013 (C/G) That last one's not so easy to play but the notes are GCEGCG - the chord tones of C major - so you can play E instead of G on the 1st string - 332010 and if you drop the G in the bass you get x32010, the familiar C chord.  If you move the 332010 shape across you get 133211 (F) which is the same shape as the E we started with but every string having had it's turn being shifted up one fret.

    That was five different shapes of major chords before things started repeating with the same shapes shifted up a fret, and the same is true for whetever pattern of notes you choose, and it's why there are 5 shapes of the pentatonic or major or any other scales (some systems like 3 notes per string can have more patterns, but if you take a look at all the notes around them you'll see that all but 5 shapes are just repeating themselves).  

    The most important shapes are the root/octave shapes.  For the note C these would be x3xx1x, x3x5xx, 8xx5x8, 8x[10]xx8, xx[10]x[13]x (after that would be x[15]xx[13]x which is the same shape as x3xx1x repeated 12 frets higher).  The CAGED system gives these root shapes the name of the open chord you find them in, so: C = x3xx1x, A = x0x2xx, G = 3xx0x3, E = 0x2xx0, D = xx0x3x.  These shapes will be somewhere under your fingers wherever your fretting hand is.  Learn these root shapes and everything else kind of hangs off them.  Add in 3rds and 5ths and you have major arpeggios/chords, add in 2nds and 6ths to that and you have major pentatonic scales, add in 4ths and 7ths and you have major scales.

    It's absolutely key to know the root shapes.  Test yourself by putting your fretting hand wherever you like, call out the name of a random note and play the closest root shape for that note to where your hand is (if this is hard, 5 minutes a day will make it a lot easier in a month or so). Do the same with major and minor arpeggios.  If you can play all the chord tones for any major or minor chord wherever your hand is on the fretboard you've cracked the hardest part, and you'll always want to give a focus to these chord tones whatever else you play.

    This is all just repeating what folks like Roland have already said, but I find it useful to see how it all stems from how we have to deal with that 2nd string.  Understanding that cleared up a lot of the mystery for me and I could see how everything else just builds up from there.  Here's (someone else's) pretty graphics that illustrate it all nicely...

    Major arpeggio and scales:



    Minor arpeggio and scales:



    P.S.  Just a quick mention that the order C -> A -> G -> E -> D  -> C is useful when thinking about moving up the neck - if you look at the root shapes of the arpeggios you can see how one links to another in that order as you move higher up the fretboard.  If you want to look for how the shapes move across the fretboard - the stuff I was talking about re: the 2nd string, look at C -> E -> A -> D -> G -> C (when moving towards the high e string).
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  • BlueingreenBlueingreen Frets: 647
    HansiR said:
    Thanks very much guys for your answers and suggestions... I think I need to learn a bit more theory as I don't understand much apart from start with the pentatonic scales. I thought there was just one but it seems there are major and minor pentatonic scales and more than 1 shape in each! Thanks Carlos for your detailed and informative advice but, sadly, I don't understand any of it, way above what I know. Something that puzzles me is... I have just read that the e minor pentatonic is good for just about everything and is compatible in all keys, so why learn others? Even more puzzling is... say I learn a pentatonic scale, how does that actually help me play a lead? Does it mean that as long as I play those notes in the scale, in any formation, I can make a lead out of it?
    Sorry for being such a dimwit...! Cheers, Hansi

    I think at this point I'd play down theory for a bit.  Learn the pentatonic minor scale in A. Start with all strings in the position starting at fret five.  Get a blues backing track in A, and one in A minor, and play along using only those notes.  For many, many hours.  Experimenting with bends etc.  Trust your ear.  Once it starts sounding like music you will established the principle that you can use a specific scale in a specific harmonic situation and you can start refining things from there.  I'd avoid major pentatonic until you are reasonably comfortable with minor: it's almost impossible to make a mistake with minor, whereas with major you have to know how to make it work.
    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.” Bertrand Russell

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  • HansiRHansiR Frets: 5
    Thank you so much guys for all this amazing information, I really appreciate all the time and effort that you've gone to in answering my silly questions! As you all feel that minor pentatonic scales is the place to start, that's exactly what I have started doing. Starting with e minor pentatonic in the open position. Can I just ask you about the 5 positions... am I correct in presuming that each pentatonic scale has 5 positions? Another question is, if I place my finger on the low e string onto the 1st fret  F note as the root and play the same pattern as I did with the e minor pentatonic scale, is that then an  F minor pentatonic scale, then up one more fret is the F sharp pentatonic scale, etc. as long as I keep that same pattern? Presuming that this is correct, each of these with its root note being along the low e string would be the basic 1st position of each pentatonic scale?
    Cheers, Hansi
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  • vizviz Frets: 4620
  • bingefellerbingefeller Frets: 5390
    HansiR the best books on pentatonics I have ever read are Steve Khan's Pentatonic Khancepts and Jazz Pentatonics by Bruce Saunders.  Alex Machacek has a great Lick Library DVD about pentatonics, which was the first lesson I watched that really made everything click about pentatonics and modes. 
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  • HansiRHansiR Frets: 5
    edited March 10
    Thanks very much Viz & Bingefeller... I've just started practicing the E Minor Pentatonic and its 5 positions, as well as using a pick for the first time ever, and trying to play the 2 notes on each string with a downward and upward stroke! It's a whole new learning curve for me as I have always fingerpicked chords so I am back to being a total and clumsy beginner but, it's exciting to be learning all of this as it's something that I have always wanted to do but always postponed as I didn't understand it. Thanks to all of the advice on this great site I am just taking my first steps with a lot of enthusiasm... I'll probably check out that book a little later as I don't want to frighten myself when I see just how much there is ahead of me to learn...lol. Thanks again to everyone for your help...
    Cheers, Hansi
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  • EricTheWearyEricTheWeary Frets: 6678
    HansiR said:
    Thank you so much guys for all this amazing information, I really appreciate all the time and effort that you've gone to in answering my silly questions! As you all feel that minor pentatonic scales is the place to start, that's exactly what I have started doing. Starting with e minor pentatonic in the open position. Can I just ask you about the 5 positions... am I correct in presuming that each pentatonic scale has 5 positions? Another question is, if I place my finger on the low e string onto the 1st fret  F note as the root and play the same pattern as I did with the e minor pentatonic scale, is that then an  F minor pentatonic scale, then up one more fret is the F sharp pentatonic scale, etc. as long as I keep that same pattern? Presuming that this is correct, each of these with its root note being along the low e string would be the basic 1st position of each pentatonic scale?
    Cheers, Hansi
    viz said:
    ^ yes. 
    Your finger effectively replaces the nut; like playing barre chords rather than open ones, except its one note at a time. 
    I feel the warm, healing, liquid presence of God’s genuine cold-filtered grace. 
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  • HansiRHansiR Frets: 5
    Thanks Eric...!
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  • Axe_meisterAxe_meister Frets: 2062
    You say you can read music. Now because of that I'd actually take a different approach. Learn the standard Major scales with root on 6th 5th and 4th strings. (CAGED)
    You will quickly learn how they relate to your standard open chords which can be barred (C and G shapes being rather awkward).
    Because you can read music you will naturally think. "Ah the song is in Am therefore the 3rd is flat" 
    Now obviously there are lots of different Am type scales that fit over Am, some might have a dominant 7 some a M7. Which note you choose is up to you.
    The reason the standard minor pentatonic is often suggested is that over a standard rock/blues progression, I.e I IV V. The minor pentatonic just works, Even though you are playing a minor 3rd over a major third, this is what makes it sound bluesy, Even though music theory says it should be wrong. It also has the advantage that you can stick to the same scale in the same key over the changes.
    However over chord progressions outside of I IV V the pentatonic scale will sound wrong.
    Also once chords have more than 3 notes it becomes even worse. Say the song starts with AM7, A standard Am pentatonic will not work as the 7 and the M7 will clash.
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