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Dec 13, 2009 - 1:37:37 PM
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17411 posts since 7/21/2005

I personally prefer to learn tunes instead of scales but there is always a value in knowing something - no matter what it is. For those into jazz or even pop scales are the bees kneeze, but running scales destroys the context of old time music, and there literally is no reason to do this beyond guitar 4 note bass runs.

Still, a certain amount of scale practice will add dexterity. I've put together a half chapter (there will be more after the holidays) on scales that accomplishes two things. It gives all the Major scales a clawhammer banjo player is likely to need and starts on the modal scales. Many of the scales are not for practice so much as to compare and contrast, to learn how the modes work. The second part of the chapter will go into more modes - especially multimode tunings like Double C, Double D and Old G.
At the moment you can only get the scale sheets by emailing me. I'm hoping to get feedback from early adaptors that I can use later for the full written chapter on my website.
Send for them by putting "Scales" in the subject line of an email to:

Dec 15, 2009 - 7:29:38 PM
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11 posts since 10/11/2009

billyshake: You know how to open a topic! I'm always amazed at the variety of members, from rank beginners to professionals on this site... LOVE IT! My 2 centavos: I have owned a banjo for 29 years. I got really good at learning songs and playing by TAB (put a quarter in my ear and I'll play a song; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, push D1, Pony Express, A3...). Then a buddy bought a guitar and we started jammin'. I realized what I had been missing: understanding of music. I bought the book by Fred Sokolow, "Fretboard Roadmaps, 5-String Banjo (with CD, 15$)". Incredible. This book was an epiphany for me! it shows how chords and scales are related, and gives tons of shortcuts to understanding the fretboard. Now, I use the knowledge he gave me to pick out the melody (scales) and associated chords to CREATE music, instead of only playing songs memorized from TAB. Knowing scales will help you improvise and alter songs, play backup, and create your own music. When you "know your scales", you quickly learn how to play what you want to... there are only 12 notes afterall, but knowing where they are on the neck opens up a new world!

Jan 17, 2010 - 4:18:23 AM

46 posts since 1/20/2009

I've been playing music a few years, and never developed a systematic approach to scales. Scales are important, learning them immediately isnt.
Chords and chord progressions should be learned first. The circle of fifths is the key to a lot of things, including chord progressions and scales. Learn the relationships between chords, and how the notes interact. This comes through learning songs.
For bluegrass picking, I use chords. Licks, chord changes, kickoffs, etc. come better once a scale is learned, for the notes of the scale form the basis for nearly every note used in "simple" bluegrass music. Start with roots, thirds, and fifths, the basics of any chord. The other notes of the scale are used to add "color" (i.e. agreeable variety) to what you are playing using the notes of the chord. Knowing scales helps one quickly find the color tones. Sevenths and flatted sevenths would be very important to learn soon.
When one gets a bit more advanced, i.e. complicated bluegrass tunes, classical or jazz music, then one must learn to unlearn all of the above, to develop one's individual style, solo, or meet the demands of written classical music.

Jan 17, 2010 - 4:13:55 PM
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3383 posts since 10/10/2008

I know I've probably said the same thing too many times, but ...

I nearly always practice scales in the context of a song/groove chord change.

for instance, I might play the chordal groove to Miles Davis' "All Blues" ... just the G7 part.

then practice several "colorings" of that G7 consecutively.

a G7 mix sound, down to F Lydian, then to Amin aeolian, which are all just Cmajor with different emphasis color tones.
Always playing a melodic idea ... and top to bottom, then bottom to top, then inside out, etc.

then switch to a different scalar sound like Ab asc melodic minor,
which can be "moded" out to G alt and F loc with a Nat9 ... this turns the G7 into a great G7#9 sound. I could jam on that sound for hours practicing scalar patterns, etc.

The possibilities are nearly endless ... and really fun ... like a never ending infinity level video game.

Jan 28, 2010 - 11:55:17 PM

906 posts since 10/7/2009

I first learned what little I know about music playing bass and simply learned major and minor scales and improvised bass lines from there depending on the key and chord progressions. I never played chords, only notes. As a result, simply learning the physical mechanics of chords is REALLY hard, and I also feel "trapped" when I do play them. I like to have my fingers free to move about the fret board. This is simply because they are new to me, and my brain and fingers are SLOW to make them work in anything but a machine-like fashion.

That said, I think learning scales is really, really liberating and can allow you to improvise all over the fretboard with confidence. Unfortunately, moving to an open G tuning has been a cerebral transition from a bass tuned in fourths. As a result, I can improvise to death on a G chord, but my brain is just now adjusting to adapting these "patterns" to other keys - especially considering the banjo sounds so nice with open strings (which transpose to different keys awkwardly with respect to left hand mechanics.)

May 23, 2010 - 2:08:36 PM

202 posts since 2/20/2010

i garenttee everything you already play is based out of a scale. think about that and keep working with it it will all come natuarlly

May 25, 2010 - 8:37:19 AM

149 posts since 5/20/2010

Yeah, if you're playing it and it's correct, then it's out of one scale or another. The scales are the same for all instruments. The instruments my change, but music rules and theory fit them all. Even if one is a great player and has never practiced a scale in his/her life, they are still playing them. Some folks have the patience to practice scales, some don't. For years I didn't realize that all of my guitar riffs were scales. I guess I thought I was some kind of guitar guru (hardly). Anyway, after years of simply playing and having it sound right-----now I finally understand why it sounds right.....and that does open-up other possibilities.......I'd say learn the scales. It will make you a better picker, even when you don't yet realize you are playing them.

Jun 21, 2010 - 9:34:50 PM

1487 posts since 3/23/2010

Fiddle tunes and simlar music pieces are the nonboring way to practice scales.

Jun 23, 2010 - 3:02:08 PM
Players Union Member

Dwayne Elix


186 posts since 6/1/2010

I like backing up a mandolin playing scales by playing the harmony notes on banjo. It has a sweet sound that makes a universal duet solo.

Jun 26, 2010 - 6:52:16 AM



677 posts since 2/26/2010

Originally posted by steve davis

The only things I use scales for is weighing my banjo bridges and lobsters.


Jul 8, 2010 - 8:15:58 PM



1131 posts since 4/17/2009

One of the first banjo books I bought was Hal Leonards Banjo Scale Finder, 13 scales all over the neck for each note. I've just started cracking it. For years I played guitar by learning the cords. Then I just started doing the C scale. Scales are pretty much what I've been doing when I'm not doing a tune. I don't know much of the theory, but with 3 basic cord forms, 3 different strings it's very easy to find them anywhere on the neck after doing scales. Doing scales makes it easy to get your fingers to where you want them quick, just good exercise. Doing scales generally brakes into a tune and, makes it easy to guess where to fret to get the next note.
I still don't know a tune all the way through, but I know a lot of bits.

Have you watched Jens Kruger videos? when He's not playing a tune he's generally running scales.

Sep 3, 2010 - 10:06:36 AM



155 posts since 9/3/2010

Any scale can be played on any chord, but to sound like you know what you are doing requires an understanding of the relationship between chords, keys, and scales. Note choices are either tense or resolved. Scales help with identifying or placing licks in a chord or key context.
The modes are a way to organize these relationships. Chords come from scales by stacking the thirds of these modes which are the resolved notes of the chord. Learn the Major, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, Melodic Major, Diminished, and Whole Tone Scales and their modes. These scales build the chords. Major scale harmony is important for bluegrass. Jazz uses chords from the other scales mostly Melodic Minor.

Sep 3, 2010 - 11:49:20 AM
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726 posts since 9/1/2008

Thank god for scales! I use them when I have no idea how to play a tune, esp. fiddle tunes.
I hear the chord changes and I go with the flow. Its funny when I get a " nice break" or "that was neat'. Little do they know I have no idea how to play the tune. But scales are great when you want to spice up your second break or stray from the melody a bit.

Sep 3, 2010 - 12:51:03 PM

7183 posts since 3/20/2008

"As a permanently novice player, how deep into scales should my knowledge go in order that I might play a little old time or bluegrass with other people someday?" -- billyshake

Lots of notes in the Western scale are within the range of hearing, about 120 notes are available to work with. My banjo goes from a low D to a high C, stretching almost 4 octaves. That's just a slice of what's available to a composer.

Lets take an octave of 12 notes and look at them. Going from the 4th string to the first string is an octave. Counting up the 4th string to the 12th fret is an octave, D to d both ways. The notes (110 notes) on a banjo neck are 'way too many for the average picker to get to know well. Lets look at the notes in the 4 banjo strings up to the 5th fret--that's 24 notes. Still too many even though there are 6 duplicates. Applying a scale template reduces your banjo notes to 7. Now anybody can handle 7 notes (in the banjo key of G) and most songs don't use that many notes.

The real practical value of scales for Scruggs picking is simplification. With melodic styles it's a different story.

Sep 22, 2010 - 9:10:20 PM



155 posts since 9/3/2010

A scale does not prescribe what to play but identifies what chord is built from it, and which notes are tense or resolved. Notes and scales that fall out side of the harmony are commonplace in bluegrass and most music. Any scale works on any chord. There are no wrong notes. Tension and release with conviction sounds right. Lack of tension and release, and conviction, make things sound tentative wrong or unsure. Playing all the "right" or resolved notes or chord tones sounds flat. Playing all "wrong" or tense notes sounds ignorant. Confusion over resolved with right and tense with wrong is very common. To use tension and release you have to know what notes are tense and what are resolved on the chords. The only way to figure it out is to practice scales over different chords. The scales are just a scafolding to place licks in a context. Also it's not what note is played that makes it sound tense or resolved but where. You must practice scales in a chord form and timing context. Lastly, beat one is a destination not a starting point. Think of starting anywhere and being able to land a resolved note on beat one. Control gives you confidence and that sound right.

Nov 24, 2010 - 1:22:59 PM

79434 posts since 5/9/2007

There is more than one way to figure that out
and that is by playing what sounds right.

Find the right chord and experiment with it along with knowing what's going to
sound good before you play it because you've played it before.

I don't have anything against scales,but I take exception with phrases like "The only
way to figure it out...".

Dec 9, 2010 - 6:29:51 AM



207 posts since 7/2/2010

you know what i think it's just important to know as much about everything that you possibly can, even if you are not using an aquired skill at the moment, the knowledge you have of it will be quite apparent in your playing and will offer a basis for everything you play.

Jan 15, 2011 - 7:27:58 AM
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139 posts since 12/8/2004

Something often left unsaid when talking about scales and all their incarnations: for a performer, their significance lies not in knowing what they are, but in having them under your fingers without having to think. The point of practicing scales, and especially in different formations, is that after practicing them endlessly, parts of those patterns jump right out of your hands.
Something else often left unsaid is that which scale you use at any moment is related to the music you're playing. So while it's necessary to learn them by themselves, just shredding the scales to reach that effortless point, it's also a great exercise to practice them with some kind of accompaniment: a friend on guitar, a sequencer playing some progression or even just one chord, your own voice, whatever. One way or another, to learn some kind of musical context for them.

Ever listen to classical Indian music? Quite often there is an instrument that has a sound not unlike a sitar, but just plays drones. I don't recall the name of it, maybe someone knows. But quite often this one note just rings out for an entire performance while the sitar shreds along to it. One can practice a similar concept with any electronic keyboard. Such a sound doesn't have to be your goal, but you can learn how various scales relate to various "melody" notes or chords that way.

Feb 4, 2011 - 7:42:20 AM



40893 posts since 5/2/2003

The Indian instrument is the tambura (there are variant spellings)
In order to maintain her first chair trombone status in the high school band, my daughter has to be able to play ALL scales, including all the minor variations.
I intend to do the same with my banjo.

Feb 4, 2011 - 8:14:14 AM
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9450 posts since 12/19/2008

The difference between a trombone and a banjo is that a trombone is a single-note instrument.
Therefore, it cannot play chords.

The -only- thing you can play on trombone are melodies or scales.

On a banjo, doing scales is useful, but if the music you generally do is chord based, then I think learning common chord progressions in all keys is more important than learning the scales. It should be done first.

I don't know what all the chord progressions are but no one knows what all the scales are either.
You have the 7 modes in 12 keys. You have a few different minor scales that are played differently ascending and descending.
You have the major, minor, and blues pentatonics.
You have the diminished and whole-tone scales.
That's to start.

It's the -only-starting point for generic practice for single-note instruments such as trombone.
For chorded instruments, it is one of the two possible starting points.

For my money, doing the ragtime progression C E A A7 D7 G7 C (G+) in all 12 keys is just as valid a learning technique as doing the major or minor scale in all 12 keys. The initial usefulness depends on whether you think in terms of playing melodies vs chord. (covering the same (descending) C scale with other chords such as C G F C F C G C is another progression to practice).

Learning both chord progressions and scales is the most advantageous but that option is only available to pianists, guitarists, banjoists and others who have chords available. Since those instruments came later in musical evolution, there is a great tradition of scalar learning that convinces many folks that not only historically do scales come before chords, that even theoretically they do now.

I'm not convinced. A careful reading of the preface and intro to most modern theory books written for pianists shows there are others too who aren't sure that chords and scales are essentially interchangeable. Of course, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.

Feb 15, 2011 - 2:12:42 AM
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78 posts since 7/8/2008

I would learn the circle of fifths and then every mode in every key

Feb 17, 2011 - 6:13:23 AM

69 posts since 10/15/2009

Originally posted by billyshake

This is a fantastically useful collection of answers. It should perhaps be a sticky somewhere; I know I'm going to refer to it often as I learn more and more about what the heck most of you are talking about.

Originally posted by pearcemusic
absolutely !! ... very good

yes .. I play in lots of situations every week that demand I be able to look at a piece of music ... or chart and "hear" it in my head before I ever touch the instrument. Sometimes the music is very complex ... and over my head/ears, but I find that the work I've done on scales/arpeggios really helps.

some people don't need it, for any number of reasons ... I do.

Well, Mr. Pearce, it was you that started me scaling up this mountain; if the climb drives me mad(der than I already am), it's on you! Kidding, but it was your blues scale chart and youtube video that got me all hip on learning how to use scales.

What Mike said about knowing the scales and converting from one key to another is very interesting to me; and useful, yes? I may need to pick up a book on music theory -- I can't believe I just wrote that. I'd like, however, that such a book would always use the banjo as the mode of instruction so I don't go too far off the farm. I've read a few mentioned here -- is there a beginner music theory banjo book you'd'all suggest?

Feb 17, 2011 - 6:16:44 AM

69 posts since 10/15/2009

Billy, thanks for bringing this subject up, and thanks to you who gave input its really shed light on a few things for me.

Jul 17, 2011 - 2:21:37 PM

4393 posts since 2/6/2003

Originally posted by minstrelmike

The reason the G B D things sound good together is related to what humans like.

The reason music is written the way it is nowadays where C is the scale without sharp and flats instead of A (which would make more sense) is because the Minor scale was the most popular in music. Thus, for a thousand years ago, you need a different 'rule' of physics to explain why we find the G, Bb, D chord so harmoniously pleasing that it was approved by God (according to the church at that time).

Physics does its thing regardless of humans.
What humans like is based mostly on what humans like and not so much on physics.

I realize I'm hijacking this thread but I've heard minstrelmike make this claim before and I'd like to put forth a different view. Rather than using a truly minor scale I believe church music of a thousand years ago used modal scales corresponding to Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian determined by their final or cofinal notes. Additionally Pythagoras is credited with the development of the diatonic or major scale almost 3,000 years ago. And a flute discovered in Germany made from mammoth bone over 35,000 years ago has a 4 note scale comparable to do - re - mi - fa, or the first four notes of the major scale.

And I think banjoak is right. Virtually anything that vibrates produces overtones in this order: octave, fifth, octave, third, octave, a major chord.



Jul 18, 2011 - 10:20:18 AM



677 posts since 2/26/2010

Wow... I was planning to get into doing scales one of these days but after reading all posts, I'm not so sure anymore. The reason I wanted to do scales was that I thought it would be of help left hand finger positions. That was after I bought Alan Munde's 'Bluegrass Banjo Workout', just so I could integrate scales with the finger exercises.

I'm still not sure if I should add it to my exercises. It seems an awful lot of practice other than learning the tunes I like.


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