Scale Shapes and Flatpicking


I have got pretty good and noodling in G and C off the nut and some what passable in D E and A. Now I have this vision of going up the neck above fret five. It is a goal.

My guitar teacher has presented me with scale shapes to learn, starting with G or C. Yes I know they are movable and I can already do the G pentatonic shapes, 5 of them. When I say I can do them, I can quarter note finger them. Actual use is still pretty sketchy.

In my nosing around the internet I came across a blog article about building scales.

For a buck I bought the referenced Ebook. However this article offered an easier to follow presentation.

Has any one seen this and found it useful for flatpicking? Any other opinions about scale shape theory and bluegrass flatpicking? While this is all conceptually interesting I would feel better about putting the time into it if I knew it would help. I notice that Banjo Ben hasn’t really pushed this subject area. Is this because of lack of interest or lack of real usefulness?

Jim Jones


That might be a better question asked of Ben himself . I do know that a five note scale you are supposed to able to hit any of those in any progression in the key and it will sound ok. now making it sound musical and true to the tune would take some skill which I do not possess at the time. I don’t use scales but I do but am not aware of it while playing . I am sort of a sound player I try and get the sound of the tune down if nothing else . I have watched and heard people who stay in that five note scale and do a really good job but I have not progressed to that point.


Maybe I am wrong, but I would expect that Ben, as a professional performer, knows scales and shapes. I am at best a back porch picker and don’t anticipate going beyond that. My question is more to other jammers. Is there good investment in spending the time (a) to learn the shapes and (b) then to learn to use them. There isn’t a downside to learning them, but is there enough upside for causal bluegrass?

At the Monday night workshops I tell others about the usefulness of pentatonic scales at the nut, and show them how, to the ear, it works as they strum a key of G progression. But I can’t make much of an improvised break on even a common progression song if I don’t know the melody. It just feels “so what” and not complete when I do it. I hear others do it and it sounds great. But I can usually noodle a melodic break if I know the tune.

welder4, It is my understanding that in say the Key of G, The G pentatonic as well as the C and D pentatonic scales will sound right. Also the G major scale will work with the Key of G chords. But not the C and D major scale. I also have developed (meaning I copied what I heard someone else do) slipping in other off scale notes that still blend, giving a seventh or bluesy lilt to the break melody. And I have seen and talked to other seasoned pickers who do just that, but don’t have names for it.


I think the usefulness of scales will depend on the player and their ultimate goals. Ben seems to often favor teaching/learning a song as opposed to learning a scale. While working a song, you will pick up on what makes a song in a particular key work and you will gain muscle memory as well. For some people, working on scales, allows for “Ah ha!” moments. For others it just seems to be a dry exercise where the scale itself is the goal. As far as a scale to learn for bluegrass, the G-Lick has all the notes you need to get started in bluegrass. I guess working on that in various positions could be considered the G Lick scale.



— Begin quote from ____

I think the usefulness of scales will depend on the player and their ultimate goals.

— End quote

You have a good argument in that. I have seen a number of what I call good players who seem to care less about scales even though they are utilizing them. If ask, I may get answer of @#$% what. They aren’t cussing me out. They are just denying all or most knowledge about the subject. And in support of your statement, my guitar instructor says to take a loop and go up and done the scale until you get a feel for it in that loop. Start slow enough with 1/4ths then do 1/8ths and then 1/16ths and find your upper limit for accuracy. Then back off to where you can do it cleanly and build from there . That seems logical and will enforce muscle memory, so far as the scale goes. Next step is experiment and find a riff that fits and drill that (or those).

I have picked up a number of fingering sequences from Ben’s presentations, fiddle tunes and just working thru the melody on the staff line. I do adapt them to other songs when they seem to fit.

Look at the real pro’s and many of those slick riffs are a run up or down a scale, really fast and really clean. I am finding myself with a itch run a G scale down the E B G strings. I am sure you know the one I mean. I can do it in 16ths at 40bpm. not so clean at 120bpm but working on it. IE I can’t rip it.

On the feedback thus far, I think I am hearing: “If you want to go for it, but I don’t really use it.” Other opinions will still be appreciated.
Jim Jones


Don’t get me wrong, scales are powerful and useful… I just don’t think they are the magic bullet to being a great player. When I was younger I thought scales would make me a fast player, but that wasn’t really my experience (I’m sure for others it may well greatly help). Scales do seem to help make me a more knowledgeable player. Here’s a recent personal example. This week I had a friend call who wanted me to work up a mandolin part for “Mary did you know”. It is in Am. Mandolin is a second or third language for me. I have played it enough to be able to “see” and have my fingers want to follow some major scale shapes. As this was minor, it was a bit different. On guitar, I just think in the relative major if I need to (in this case it would be C). My brain didn’t want to work that way on mandolin, so played two octave Am scales for a while to get my fingers and brain used to where I could go. After that, I started noodling and some nice parts came out pretty easily. While going over the song for the first time with my friend, I could pretty well noodle around the melody in Am. I still hit the occasional F# (which hurts, I’ll try to avoid that when we perform), but with a little more practice, I should be pretty comfortable.


Scales and their usage is yet another tool for mastering the instrument (in this case, the guitar).

If you were a student studying classical guitar, you would most likely be required (by most classical guitar teachers) Segovia scales . The reason being that learning your major and minor scales with Andres Segovia fingerings will teach you about how to move up and down the fingerboard when playing classical music.

If you were a student learning jazz (bebop, swing, gypsy, fusion…etc), you would be expected to learn all of your diatonic modes and how they are used when improvising. In addition, you would need to learn how “blue notes” can be fit into each mode to change the color of the scale AND you would be expected to be able to add “altered” notes (#5, b9…etc) to each of these scales (especially the mixolydian scale used for dominant chord forms). This would be the bare minimum scale knowledge you would be expected to have under your fingers on a sideman gig.

However, if you are a classic rocker, or a folkie, or even just a really good ear player, scales become less important than the ability to know the fingerboard “by ear” and “by eye”. That is to say, anyone who is trying to be able to “take a solo” needs to have some sort of base of reference when dealing with this sort of situation, whether they have an amazing ear and can “hear” where the notes are on the fingerboard, and/or can see where the notes are on the fingerboard (block patterns, up and down strings…etc).

When it comes to bluegrass, different folks get to a high level of playing in different ways. Some folks have amazing ears and memory which allows them to replicate things they have heard or played previously at any given moment. Some folks have extensive libraries of riffs that they can play over any chord in any key without even thinking about it. Some folks (much more rare) mentally muscle their way through each chord progression and know what notes will work, over the current harmony (chord), in what order to create a bluegrassy sound. Since I come from a classical/jazz background, I tend to do the latter.

I am not a great player by any stretch of the imagination. So I am not going to tell you that you must learn scales to be a great bluegrass player (David Grier claims not to really know scales but I consider him one of the best , if not the best, bluegrass guitarist alive). Personally, I tend to want to know WHY something sounds the way it does. The reason for this is by knowing WHY, I then know HOW to recreate that sound and to even build on it, no matter the chord progression or the style of music. Knowing scales and how to alter them allows me to know WHY and HOW something sounds the way it does. So I am deeply involved in analyzing and learning about everything I enjoy listening to. And as far as I can tell, that is simply the slowest way to learn how to be a good guitarist. :wink:


I have a challenge trying to learn scales or naming notes on the fretboard. Not for lack of trying.

A system I've come upon which works well is the CAGED system. I am able to do hammer-ons, pulloffs and licks up and down the neck based on the key I'm playing in. My preferred keys to work in are D and G.  I'm comfortable in C and A, but basically never use The key of E. 

Will try to put together a video demonstrating some of my favorite tricks if you wish.

All the best,



I for one would love for you to make a video I seem to be lacking trying to get melody out of the pentatonic scale although I have heard some people who can do just that and never break a sweat . I may send a PM so you will see this .


Here is a first attempt at explaining the CAGED system.
I think the camera angle turned out well.

Feedback is welcome.

Watch “CAGED SYSTEM by Harvey McCluskey” on YouTube


Thanks for posting that Harvey. It is very helpful.


Thank you, Mike!!!

Am planning to do some more.

Have a great day,



Thanks for the feed back, everyone.
Looks like it is still purely what I want and want to try. Fair enough. I am working my way through learning the scale shapes and I feel that this is “a hard learn”. I will get there as far as knowing the shapes but using them may prove to be another hard learn. If I can stick with, it time will tell. I do have my own version of hard headedness.

I will say that simple (Mary had a little lamb, She’ll be coming around the mountain simple) register transpositions are becoming slightly easier as I am getting a better feel for where the notes are. I can even just pick a note and go from there.

Harv, I know about CAGED concepts. Enough to like your presentation video. Good job on that. I am sort of working on that also. I am under the impression that scale shapes will help make the scale under a chord more accessible. Don’t know if I can get that far, but I am trying.

I have attached a single verse of Wreck of The old 97 so anyone who is interested can hear about where I am at playing wise.

Jim Jones


Nice playing Jim.


Thanx Mike
The timing is a little off in places but there weren’t to many string stumbles.


I have discovered an approach to learning the scale shapes that is more effective for me. I printed a few sheets of fret board segments and started marking in the notes that make up the shape. Doing this for several sheets the shape finally seems to be sinking into the between the ears memory. Must be the forth grade experience of pages and pages of multiplication tables. :laughing: It is working for me. Probably not for everyone.

Maybe now running the shape move up a fret and run again etc. will get it into the finger memory. Time will tell.


DrGuitar (aka “doc” or “Mike”) made a post a while back with four block forms that connect and repeat up the fretboard. It’s a bit intimidating to look at it initially, but I think it is really a pretty streamlined (and good) way to approach mastering the major and minor scales (and a few more with fancy names). If you learn one block form, you have a two octave major scale. By changing the starting point, it is also the relative minor (ferinstance, playing a G scale and Em scale are the same notes… just different starting spots).

By playing the block forms, I don’t really think about the notes… it is more mechanical in in my brain. I could think about the notes, but I generally don’t unless I am forced to do so. So (for me) combining what you are doing with the block forms would likely give me a more rounded approach.

Here’s a link. His post is about halfway down the page:



I looked at and see a four form version of major scale shapes in Doc’s post. Thanx much for the link. I have not seen that one before. Doc also points out that memorizing the finger placements doesn’t mean you have learned them. I heartily agree. I feel it is a first step. I am now invested in the five forms (I think they are known as CAGED forms, but all these names are confusing to me since they don’t seem to be consistent) and since I have memorized them I will stick to them for the time being. The only reason I would change now would be if the four forms were better for bluegrass.

To correct a perception, when I draw notes or finger placements on a fret board segments, they are only finger placements not identified notes (except I am trying to learn the root positions for each of the shapes.) At some point soon I will work on memorizing the minor root positions as well. Probably as a next step.

Again, thanx for the input.

Jim Jones