Scales on Classical Guitar: Setting the Foundation

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By Chris Kilvington

Scale practice is commonly thought to have one essential function: the development of speed. It’s certainly a good idea to obtain as much speed as we each can, but there is so much more to be gained from work on scales.

By primarily considering musicianship through scales I am not simultaneously trying to offer a great deal of technical advice, although there will inevitably be some mention of technique.

By choosing the 2-octave C major scale in Position 7, I have avoided the possibility of stretch difficulties which can be encountered in the lower fingerboard. There are no sharps or flats to consider. There are no shifts up or down the fingerboard, only across it. I hope, therefore, that this technically easy scale will allow people relatively new to the guitar to become involved. Even if you have never played in the upper area of the fingerboard you can start right now.

C major scale on guitar, starting from position 7

Position 7: this means that left-hand finger 1 is only used at the seventh fret, 2 at the eighth fret, 3 at the ninth fret, and 4 at the tenth fret. You will see that each note has a finger number. The numbers in circles describe the strings of the guitar. If you are not familiar with this part of the fingerboard, then for now just accept that these notes are in the places as shown. For example, C on string 6 at fret 8 is the same as C on string 5 at fret 3. If you wish, “test” any of the notes in Position 7 by comparing them with notes familiar to you in different places.

Do ensure that you are playing with the left-hand fingertips. Don’t allow your fingers to “collapse” at the first knuckle so that you end up pressing on the string with the inside of the finger (opposite to the nail).

The barlines show that the time signature is 4/4, meaning four crotchet notes (also known as quarter notes) per bar. The last note, C, can become the first note again if you are playing the scale several times without stopping. At first, we will play the scale once through slowly and then stop. “Slowly” means playing in such a way that the sound of each note is heard clearly before moving on to the next, and that the rhythm is absolutely even. You should have time to make sure that your tone and volume are the same for each note—you are looking for consistency of sound. You can choose whichever alternating right-hand fingering you want, and you can decide whether to use apoyando (rest stroke) or tirando (free stroke). Avoid vibrato, just go for a plain unadorned sound. A metronome is very useful; I would suggest a low marking, perhaps set at 40 (this means you will be playing 40 crotchets per minute). If you find it easier, set the metronome at 80 and allow two ticks/bleeps per crotchet; you are still playing 40 crotchets per minute.

Once you have established a comfortable routine with the above work, it would be a good idea this month to gradually introduce other right-hand fingering combinations. In this way you will avoid dominant physical patterns; vary the fingerings to avoid over-use in in some cases and under-use in others. So, if you have, for example, started by alternating index and middle fingers (i/m) try middle and anular—or third—(m/a), and index and anular (i/a). You can move on to combinations involving all three fingers, and you can also try alternating the thumb—or pulgar—with a finger, perhaps particularly index (p/i).

I would now advocate plucking both apoyando and tirando; not everyone will agree, for some teachers prefer their students to concentrate on one or the other at the outset for different reasons. I like both to be developed simultaneously, with a student able to play either stroke from a right-hand position which remains more or less the same. So avoid pulling the hand backwards for the apoyando, and pushing the wrist severely away from you for tirando. At present, don’t attempt to alternate apoyando and tirando note by note, but rather stop at the completion of a scale and then change. Do make sure that it is the fingers doing the work—don’t bounce the whole hand up and down, with the forearm resting as a pivot on the guitar.

It would also be advisable to vary the speed a little. We shall certainly be seeking to develop this aspect more fully at a later stage, and even now it is wise to avoid getting into an inflexible routine of exactly the same tempo all the time. So, without rushing, allow yourself to push on just a little when you feel comfortable and ready to do so, always considering an even sound and rhythm. And it is important to also go slower still—take the metronome down from 80 to, say, 66, allowing two ticks/bleeps per crotchet. In this way, you are cultivating a certain range of tempos from the earliest stages. It is important to work in this way, both physically and mentally. Whatever the speed chosen, your playing must be absolutely metronomically steady—this is vital.

It is also a good idea to play the fingering pattern for this C major scale in other places. For example, if you move one fret down the fingerboard into Position 6, your 2nd finger will commence on B (string 6, fret 7). You will now be able to immediately play the B major scale; of course, its key signature is different from that of C major, but the relationship between the left-hand fingers is the same in B as it is in C. There are many scales one can play, with many varied fingering patterns; and I should mention now that it is advisable to gradually learn new ones, adding to a “scales repertoire.” You can easily purchase a book giving major and minor scales, and there are various other types. However, for the sake of simplicity, my article will just use this C major, and I’ll assume that you will work on other scales too.

A final reminder that what I’m hoping to achieve through scales is enhanced musicianship of a practical kind. If you can turn out to be something of a virtuoso as well, so much the better, and good luck—you will have achieved a standard of technique beyond most of us. But we can all improve the way we go about making music, and I intend my articles to show how we can use scales to develop a host of musical ingredients. If you practise patiently on the foundation suggested here you will have a relaxed C major (and others!) with an even sound and rhythm.

This article originally appeared in the September 1990 issue of Classical Guitar.