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Guitar - General/Playing solos improvising shapes vs individual notes


QUESTION: Hi Dave. I've come across various ideas to learn to solo lead guitar. Mostly they say to build muscle memory remember shapes across the fretboard. IE major scale and then change based on the scale one wants. In jamming environments though I've found one can pick up on a few notes and often doesn't know a scale. Would not knowing shapes just get in the way? Might not a better way be to know the individual notes on the fretboard kind of like a visualisation. That way just by knowing  the root one can improvise in any scale based on the known notes? I'm also learning to sight read hopefully so I thought it might also help in that.

Thanks so much

Thanks for your question.
A lot of people get locked into just learning one shape for a scale, say where the root is the lowest note in the scale box on the bottom string.  However the notes form the scale occur all over the fingerboard, so you should know multiple different shapes for the scale in different places on the neck.  Take a look at this video which talks about this idea in relation to the minor pentatonic scale, although the principle discussed here could be applied to any scale...
There is more to learning scales than just the muscle memory of being able to find notes from a scle on the fingerboard.  You need to understand how the note that you're playing relates to the chord that you're playing over...understand the types of intervals involved and how they sound.
I hope that helps.

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Thanks for the link and noted re. Intervals. However I'm even more confused. Since there are so many scales and like you say so many shapes for each scale can make it more difficult than need be. I'm thinking of simplifying this exactly and logically then if I just know the individual notes by memory across the fretboard and intervals then knowing the shapes becomes more or less unnecessary. Am i going in the wrong direction with this logic?

ANSWER: Actually, learning a shape can be seen as a more efficient way of learning scales.  Think about it this way - there are 14 different major scales (C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb and F) and you could learn all the notes from all of these scales, and then go looking for where those notes fall on the fingerboard.  However, if you think about a scale in terms of intervals then one shape can be moved anywhere on the neck to give you a different scale.  For example, learn a scale box with the root note on the 8th fret on th eE string and that's C major.  Move the shape up a couple of frets, you have D major and so on.  So one shape, depending on where you play it on the neck, has many uses.

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QUESTION: Hi again Dave,

When you write about the shapes is the actual physical shape that the eyes see and the fingers stretch to more important or the interval? The same interval might be on a different string and seems more complicated. If keeping the physical shape in mind is your answer then practicing is the only way to separate these so they don't mix up with other learned scale shapes?

To be a complete guitarist/musician you need to be able to see both.

When you're thinking harmonically, i.e. how the notes you're playing relate to the underlying chords, you need to be able to think of the notes in terms of degrees of the scale.  When you're thinking melodically, i.e. how the notes of the lead line that you're playing relate to each other, then you need to be able to think in terms of the intervals between the notes.

It all takes time and practice.  No short-cuts  ;-)


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Dave Dixon


Guitar player since 1987. Studied at Musicians` Institute. Worked as guitar/music teacher since 1991.


Since joining AllExperts I have been getting rated with 9's and 10's from most of the people I've answered questions from, so I guess that I must be doing something right. Not all that many people can be wrong. Questions about theory, technique, equipment, players, history, etc. welcome - just about anything in fact. The only things I prefer not to answer are requests for transcriptions, or equipment assessments/valuations.

Studied at Musicians` Institute.

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