Scales are essential building blocks of music. The Preface of Aaron Shearer’s Scale Pattern Studies for the Guitar (1965) begins with:
“Comprehensive scale study is basic to the mastery of all instruments. There can be no question of its necessity for the guitar, simply as a means of acquiring an adequate knowledge of the fingerboard and a dependable technique.”
Before teaching comprehensive scales (up and down the neck), Shearer taught the five fixed-position scale forms. Each scale form is a fingering pattern that begins and ends on a “home note,” or tonic, which also names the key. The tonic is indicated in the diagrams below as a rectangled” fret on the circled-number string.
Five major Scale forms
For example, Scale form III in Position II has a tonic of D on ⑤ and, therefore, is in D major. Notice also that the form spans four frets. Other Scale forms span five frets using a technique called squeeze shift (indicated with arrows).
Examples of scale forms abound in music. Carcassi’s Op. 60, Study No. 9 in A major is a classic example, where segments of 5 scale forms occur within the first 8 measures.
Recognizing scale patterns greatly facilitates reading/learning. As Shearer explains in Scale Pattern Studies for Guitar:
Reading scale patterns fluently does not invlove attention to each individual note. Rather, it is more like reading words in a sentence. One does not perceive individual letters, but words or sentences at a glance.
Scale Forms for learning the Fingerboard
When learning the fingerboard, the scale form is a powerful tool for accurately guiding fingers to frets, especially when working in fixed, and harder-to-read positions. The first task is to memorize the five scale forms and their keys in Position II. The table to the right lists the major keys available in that position.
Once fingerings are visualized and learned, you can begin transposing them to higher positions to play in other keys. For example:
- Scale Form I Position II (C major) transposed ⇒ Position IV becomes D major
- Scale Form II Position II (G major) transposed ⇒ Position IV becomes A major
With each new transposition comes new reading challenges and a constant re-ordering of fingerboard notes, but the physical distraction is lessened with a familiar left-hand scale template.
A simple example of how scale forms aid in learning music, is shown in the holiday carol Joy to the World.
To decide where to play, first scan the melody. Note that the key of the piece is three sharps—A major—and that the highest and lowest notes are A, an octave apart.
Developing guitarists may be tempted to play the melody in open position, with a slight, awkward left-hand shift between A and G ♯ on ①. But a more refined solution would be playing in a position where the left hand remains steady, no shifting.
Observe the difference between Open Position and Position II fingerings
It’s clear that Joy to the World is steadier in Position II. Its note order is similar to open position, with just a few higher notes—B on ③ and E on ①—to learn.
Next, relate our melody to a Scale form in this position.
We can see it matches the upper register of Scale form IV.
Since the melody never descends to the G♯ on ③, the fingering here can be modified to 1 on A and 3 on B.
With the Scale form IV template in mind, you’ll be able to more accurately visualize and better memorize the melody.
Transposing Scale forms
In addition and if desired, Scale forms help when transposing the melody to other keys in other positions.
For example, to play Joy to the World in more difficult-to-read keys, such as B♭or B major, simply move Scale form IV to Positions III or IV as a “road map” for learning any new notes.
Joy to the World Transposition Duets
The featured duets are in three keys—A, B♭, and B major. The top melody part is played with Scale form IV and the lower accompaniment played in open or Position I.
For more on Scale forms to learn the fingerboard, see: