I’d like for you to picture an imaginary scenario for a couple of minutes. You’ve got a friend who has recently started learning a new language. They’ve decided that, since they’ve just had their 40th birthday, they need to shake things up a bit and learn to speak Spanish. (Just quietly, between you and me, they’re going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. They can’t afford to buy a red sports car, so decided that learning Spanish would be a cheaper option).

What your friend has been doing each day is memorising at least ten new Spanish words and phrases. They’ve been very diligent with their memorisation for the last few weeks, but they haven’t spent any time trying to converse with Spanish speaking people.

Now, here’s a question for you. How successful will they be with learning to speak Spanish fluently?

I’m certainly no linguist. In fact, I only speak one language (pitiful I know!). But I’d (almost) be willing to bet my left testicle that they wouldn’t learn to speak fluent Spanish anytime soon. The main reason I believe this is that they aren’t applying what they are learning. Without trying to converse using the words and phrases they learn, they just won’t learn how to use them in a practical way.

How This Relates To Guitar

Many guitarists use the same approach as your friend when learning guitar. They’ll often keep on memorising new scales, chords, arpeggios, music theory and other things without taking the time to apply them. This often means that they might know a lot of stuff, but they still can’t actually use it to make music. And if they can’t make music with what they learn, then what’s the point? The goal isn’t to learn new things just for the sake of it. The goal is to learn new things to make you better at playing the music you love!

An Example – Guitar Scales

Learning guitar scales can be a great thing to do if it relates to your specific musical goals. But many times guitarists will keep on learning new scales without actually applying the ones that they already know. This means that they never learn to make music with the scales that they learn.

Exactly how you apply the scales that you learn will depend on your goals, and a good guitar teacher can definitely help point you in the right direction. With that said, here are a few questions that you might want to ask yourself for each new scale that you learn…

What Chords Can The Scale Be Used Over?

It is very important to understand what different chords and chord progressions that a particular scale works over. If you don’t know this then you won’t understand what musical contexts you can use the scale when composing or improvising. [Side Note: If you’re thinking “Hey…I don’t understand this!”, then what you need to do is start studying harmony. Buy some books, go to some teachers and make it a priority to learn it. It’s not hard to learn and it’s definitely time well spent].

Once you know what chords the scale can be used over, then the next step is to record those chord progressions and improvise over them using the scale. It’s a fun thing to do, and it helps you start to learn how to use the scale in a musical way. It’s also great ear training because you’ll learn how the scale sounds in different musical contexts.

What Vocabulary Have I Developed Using The Scale?

If one of your goals is to learn to improvise your own guitar solos, then it’s critical to start building a vocabulary of ideas using the scales that you learn. This will help you learn to use the scale in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re just running up-and-down scale fingerings.

For each new scale that you learn, I recommend doing at least some of the following…

  • Compose licks that use the notes of that scale.
  • Take guitar licks from books and other resources and adapt them to the scale.
  • Learn to play the scale using different melodic patterns.
  • Learn solos from your favourite guitarists that use the scale.
  • Compose entire guitar solos using the scale.
  • Transcribe licks from players that you like, and adapt them to the scale.
[Side Note: I should also mention here that once you learn a lick comprised from notes of the scale, then you need to practice using that lick over the chord progressions that you record].

How Do I Play This Scale In Different Keys?

It’s vital to understand how to play each scale you learn in different keys. This is because having to apply the scale to new keys will help you to understand it on a much deeper level.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to memorise and practice the scale in all 12-keys—especially if your goals don’t require it. But you should at least understand how to move the scale to all 12-keys. You should also memorise the scale in the keys most common to the style of music that you play. (Analysing transcriptions of solos that you like is a great way of finding this out).

A Few Last Words

Hopefully, I’ve given you some food for thought. I definitely recommend applying everything that you learn as soon as you learn it. Don’t wait until you have mastered it. For Example: As soon as you learn a few new chords, try to write a song with them. As soon as you learn a new scale, start using it in a real-life musical context. Getting into the habit of regular application of what you learn will allow you to progress faster, and have more fun doing it!

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