What should I learn first — Chords or Scales?

May 23rd, 2011

If you are really serious about learning the guitar then you need to know that playing the instrument is much more than looking up guitar tabs on the Internet. Thus, it’s vital that beginner guitarists begin with the sheer basics of the instrument.

Learning chords and scales may sound boring, but it’s absolutely fundamental to mastering the guitar. Why? When you first start playing the instrument you may feel like you’re blind, mindlessly wandering around the neck fretting random places without any clue as to why. However, with a solid understanding of guitar scales and guitar chords, you can immediately understand not only what you’re doing but why.

If your goal, as the next great guitarist, is to learn to play and create music then you MUST learn about scales and chords.

…But what comes first?

Before we get too far, let’s examine each term.

Chord - a group of (typically three or more) notes sounded together, as a basis of harmony.

Scale - in music, a scale is a group of musical notes collected in ascending and descending order, that provides material for or is used to conveniently represent part or all of a musical work including melody and/or harmony.

In the event that you did not already notice from the definitions (above), chords and scales are essential to the harmony of creating and playing music. They allow us to easily organize individual notes into a formula that actually makes sense.

How many guitar chords exist?

It may sound like a logical question, but asking how many guitar chords exist is an awful lot like asking how many colors can be found in a rainbow. Theoretically, the color wheel has three primary colors, but with those primary colors an artist is basically able to create an infinite amount of variations.

Such is the case with guitar chords.

Consider this: There are 12 notes in an octave, most guitars have either three or four octaves, thus with standard tuning (or even non-standard tuning) there is anywhere between 40,000 and 450,000,000 chord possibilities.

Thankfully, you do not need to memorize every single chord available. In fact, if you can learn the standard barre chords and the Major/Minor/7th/Minor 7th/Major 7th — you will be well informed. The basics break down like this:

  • 12 major chords
  • 12 minor chords
  • 12 7th chords
  • 12 Minor 7th chords
  • 12 Major 7th chords

Pretty easy, right? Considering that if you can master the 60 chords above you should be well on your way to learning the guitar since most songs only require three to four chords.

Okay, so how do guitar scales come into the equation?

Just like guitar chords, there are several different scales available for the guitarist’s arsenal and just like guitar chords, you do not have to know every single scale to be a professional guitarist.

Rather, scales are an extremely useful tool for not only understanding how the guitar works but what makes good music. Again, in music, a scale is a group of musical notes collected in ascending and descending order, that provides material for or is used to conveniently represent part or all of a musical work including melody and/or harmony.

A lot of aspiring musicians are really put off by scales because A) they falsely believe learning scales limits their creativity or B) are only necessarily if you want to be good at solos.

Actually, those two misconceptions could not be further from the truth. Learning scales is extremely useful because if you only limit yourself to playing standard chords you will never break out of the ordinary. You MUST connect your chords with scales. If you need a literal example, most would agree that no one was better at mixing chords with scales than Jimi Hendrix.

Learning scales will only enhance your understanding of music theory, therefore making you a stronger musician. Scales are there to support your melodies, arrangements, harmonies, but by no means a substitution for inspiration.

Simply put, lack of understanding of scales will foolishly force to erratically wander around the fretboard for years until you unconsciously learn to find the strong notes. However, with scales you can discover the “strong notes” in weeks or months.

What should I learn first — Chords or Scales?

The traditional response is scales first, chords second. However, some innovative guitar teachers are actually preaching the exact opposite. The theory for the later is that scales actually complement chords. Because the scale is defined by its root note, the chords are hidden inside the scale and by learning chords first you will in turn know more about the scale.

Truthfully, learning chords or scales first might come down to personal preference (if you’re self-taught) or the decision of your private instructor. The order is important, but not nearly important as making sure that you learn both scales and chords efficiently. They both matter, so take the time to learn them!

One Response to “What should I learn first — Chords or Scales?”

  1. James says:

    best explanation I’ve read yet, thank you.

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