Guide To Scale Fingerings
Jul 16 2013, 02:53 PM
Theory Instructor
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Scale Fingering Guide

Since there are a number of different ways that you can finger any scale on the guitar, I’ve written up a little primer on some of the more commonly used fingerings to act as a accompaniment to the scale articles published in the Theory Forum and throughout the site.

Below you will find pointers on how to address many of the finger combinations you will see throughout your study of scales on the fretboard. These fingerings are not going to cover every possible situation, and you might find you like a more unorthodox fingering better, but they will get you off on the right foot if you are looking to explore scale fingerings in the practice room.

In-Position Scale Fingerings

The first shapes we’ll look at are scales that don’t move out of a 4 or at most 5-fret position. When staying in position I find that you can use a few fingering guidelines to help you play any scale that stays within these frets.

When you have 2 notes on a string, you have two choices for the most part, to play them with the index and ring fingers, or to play them with the middle and pinky fingers, unless they are side by side which we will address later on in this article.

As you can see in the example below, when you have two fingers on one string and you need your index finger to reach back by a fret, you can use 2 and 4 on those notes, as in the first bar.

When you have two notes on one string but don’t need to reach back, such as the second bar, you can use 1 and 3 for those notes to keep things in place and quickly move to the notes on the next string.

You will also encounter notes that have a space between the second and third notes on any string, such as the second string in each bar in the example below. For these fingerings, it’s best to use 1-2-4 on those strings, which will allow you to reach for the last note on that string even if it is 2 frets or more higher, such as you would fine in many Harmonic Minor Scale fingerings.

The last in-position fingering we’ll look at is where you have a space between the first and second notes of the scale, which can be 1, 2 or more frets apart. For these fingerings, it’s best to use 1-3-4 on your fretting hand in order to allow you to reach for that second and third note with ease.

Now that we’ve taken a look at common in-position fingerings, let’s take a look at scales that shift up the neck.

Scale Moving Up the Neck

In the next set of scales, which move up the neck from the nut to the bridge in shape, you will encounter one set of fingerings that we didn’t see in the previous section.

This new fingering, which you can see on the first 2 strings of the example below, uses three notes per string but with a space between the first and second, as well as a space between the second and third notes on that string.

When playing this grouping of notes, the easiest way is to use 1-2-4 as you can see below, though some players do use 1-3-4 for these fingerings. My advice is to start with 1-2-4, then if you find that uncomfortable try 1-3-4 and see how that feels.

For most people, 1-2-4 will work just fine, but for others 1-3-4 will be the better option, so feel free to try both out in the practice room.

Now let’s move on to scale fingerings that move back down the neck, from the bridge to the nut on the fretboard.

Scales Moving Down the Neck

With these scales, that move back from the bridge to the nut on the fingerboard, you will encounter shifts and sometimes only one note on the neck.

While some people might find it more comfortable to play one note on the neck in these shapes their ring fingers, I have always found it easier to start with my pinky finger on these notes.

When you encounter a shift, such as the first C major scale below, try just moving back a fret and maintain the 1-2-4 or 1-3-4 position from there, approaching those notes as you would any other in-position scale that we looked at earlier.

Here are two examples of scales that move down the neck and how to finger them.

These three fingerings cover most of what you’ll see on a daily basis, but there are a few fingerings that still need addressing, mostly from the Harmonic Minor Scale.

Other Scale Fingerings

Though we have covered most common fingerings up to this point, you will sometimes encounter two notes on a string that don’t have a space between them, as in the Harmonic Minor Scale below.

In these instances, when you have two notes that are in the “middle” of your hand, that is your index finger is already behind the first of these two notes, you can use 2-3 to play these notes. When your index finger is on the same fret as the first note, you can use 1-2 for those two notes.

That just about covers all of the common fingerings that you would see when learning scales on the guitar. There is one more from the jazz world that we’re going to explore just to make sure you’re always prepared for any scale fingering that comes your way.

6-Fret System of Fingering Scales

This is a fretting system used by many jazz guitarists, but it can also be applied to any style of music when learning scales and other melodic devices on the guitar.

The basis of the system is that you cover 2 frets with your index finger, one each with middle and ring, and then two more with your pinky finger. This allows you to cover 6 frets worth of notes with four fingers at any given time.

Here is how that would look on the neck.

When applying this system to a scale on the neck, you simply cover any note in the first 2 frets of the 6-fret area with your index finger, the middle finger gets the 3rd fret notes, the ring finger gets the 4th-fret notes, and the pinky finger gets the 5th and 6th-fret notes on the neck.

Though this isn’t the be and end all of scale-fingering articles, it should give you a nice overview and introduction to the different common fingerings used when learning and playing scales on the fretboard.

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