Suggestions on exercises for learning scales?

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    I think that the answer to this is just “review and practice,” but any suggestions on learning scales and scale patterns? I know the the concept of WWHWWWH, and I can figure out any scale by doing this, but I have a hard time remembering a particular scale (other than C and F) after coming back to it the next practice session. So in order to figure out whatever scale I’m looking for, I find the starting note and then figure out WWHWWWH again. Again, I think that the answer is just, “Practice,” but I was just curious if there were any tricks or printed exercises that you felt were helpful.

    P.S., I played clarinet and bassoon throughout junior high, high school, and college and I always hated learning scales. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the need for them, but since all of my music was printed, I just thought, “Why learn scales when all I have to do is play what is printed on the sheet?” Now that I am playing a stringed instrument, I wish that I would have learned more music theory all of those years ago.



    Hey Mike,

    that’s a great question, and we’ll definitely try to answer it on the upcoming Live Lesson. For now, I thought I could give you some tips. I think you might be thinking that to play the scales you need to learn the name of the scales, what notes you’re playing, and where your fingers go. The truth is that most successful ukulele players don’t do this. If you ask me or Aldrine what the notes to C, F, G and some of the other Major scales, we could probably tell you them no problem. If you ask for the notes to a Major scale not used as much like Ab, Aldrine might be able to tell you, but I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, and I think most players wouldn’t be able to either. Instead we remember the scale shape, and apply it to the corresponding note. So we don’t really remember what particular note to play, but we use muscle memory to know what should be the next note in the scale. Since you played Clarinet and Bassoon, you’re probably familiar with this idea. It’s like how you’ll stop thinking of the notes on the sheet music, and your brain will just know how to blow and what key/hole to press.

    It sounds like you pretty much have the same general idea where you find the root note (C string 8th fret for Ab) then you plug in WWHWWWH. What you can do to make it quicker and easier to learn is instead of thinking about whole and half steps, try thinking about the general shape your fingers make when playing the scale. These are called Scale Shapes or we like calling them boxes. You probably already know the Major scale shape, but just in case, here’s a rundown:

    C Major Scale
    C string – open (0) fret, 2 fret
    E string – 0 fret, 1 fret, 3 fret
    A string – 0 fret, 2 fret, 3 fret

    If you can read tabs, it will look like this:


    If you stack all the notes together, you can see why we call it the box:


    Most people who first learn the C Scale play it with their middle finger holding the C string second fret, pointer holding the E string 1st, Ring finger holding the E string 3rd, Pointer finger on the A string 2nd, then middle finger on the A string 3rd. This is right, but it also confuses some people when they try to move the whole scale shape up. For example, if you were trying to play the D Major scale, you would move everything up two frets:
    C string – 2, 4
    E string – 2, 3, 5
    A string – 2, 4, 5


    The D note is the C string 2nd fret, so you have to hold it down with a finger, but if you’re used to the C Major scale, you might think you should hold it using your middle finger. Instead you should hold every note using the 2nd fret with your pointer finger. Every note using the 3rd fret you should use your middle finger; the 4th fret with your ring, and the 5th fret with your pinky. Using one finger per fret is the most efficient way to play scales, and it’s also the way your hand naturally wants to lay on the fret board. It also helps with remembering the scale shape. Aldrine likes to say the shape as 0, 2, 0, 1, 3, 0, 2, 3 in reference to the C Major scale. I like to think of it as pointer, ring; pointer, middle, pinky; pointer, ring, pinky. That’s the order that my fingers will hold down notes for any Major Scales.

    pointer ring pointer middle pinky pointer ring pinky

    This is where you do have to practice to build your muscle memory, but it’s not too hard. You can even do it without your Ukulele just by tapping your fingers to your thumb in that order. It’s kind of like if you were practicing fingerings for clarinet or bassoon. From there, you can take that shape and apply it to any fret of the Fretboard to play any Major Scales. For example, that Ab Major Scale I mentioned before. Ab on the C string is the 8th fret, so put your pointer on the 8th, middle on the 9th, ring on the 10th, and pinky on the 11th. If you do that, and play the finger pattern, you should play
    C string – 8, 10
    E string – 8, 9, 10
    A string – 8, 10, 11

    This is how players can play scales without really remembering the actual name of the notes in the scale. It helps if you know the notes on the C string for the root notes, but even then it’s not completely necessary. You can walk up the C string until you find the root note you were looking for. If you want help with knowing the notes on all the strings, check out Mastering Your Fretboard:

    Mastering Your Fretboard

    Like I said earlier, knowing the exact notes isn’t necessary for playing the scales, but if you do want to know them, you can use this diagram that list all the Major Scales:

    I hope this helps, and didn’t make it more confusing. I’ll try to bring your question up on the next Live Lesson, so hopefully Aldrine explaining and demonstrating on video will help.

    -Kahai (UU Staff)


    Thanks for your answer. I’d love to hear you guys discuss it further on the podcast, but last night after posting my question, I began noodling around with various scales and I had that, “Aha,” moment where I realized that it’s the same scale pattern no matter where I start – just as you described above. I felt kinda stupid to realize that after posting the question. 🙂 That being said, I do need to memorize my fretboard and I also need to learn that if a scale starts higher on the fretboard, which notes correspond to that lower on the fretboard as well so that I can use the full range of the fretboard.

    Thanks again!



    Thanks Kahai. This is incredibly helpful!

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