Forum - Banjo Ben Clark


Ok, I know this was discussed on the old site, but my memory is not the best.

It seems like there are a lot of different scales. Is it neccesary to know all of them? If not, what are the ones used the most? Or I guess I should ask which ones should I learn and practice?

That’s good stuff, Ben! That’s exactly how I think about scales, but I never could have explained it so well. If the song is in a major key, I always feel like I’m playing in the major scale and just slipping out of it at opportune times, usually for the flatted 3rd or 7th. I don’t know the names for the scales, but I really don’t need to.

Rather than focusing on learning a bunch of modes, I’ve been trying to figure out different ways to incorporate open strings into the major scale as I work up the neck.

That is awesome! And I think it helps me a lot… maybe. The reason I ask this question is I am wanting to step out and find my own style. I want to be able to come up with a (guitar) break for a song myself. Ben, I absolutely love your stuff, but my main objective is to be able to play… not copy.

I have watched the Red Haired Boy video, but it is still a struggle for me to try to do it myself. I just can’t get everything to come together. Maybe with time and a lot more practice ? I was told by somebody that plays bluegrass very well that everything revolves around scales. Your method is working for me in all other aspects, so I will stick to it.

You said it is common to break the 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of the major scale. Does that pattern hold true no matter what key you are in?

I am glad that I don’t have to know the names of all the scales and be able to play them. Whew, that is just too much for my simple little brain.

Scales are an interesting subject.

Years ago, I was teaching a violinist (fiddler :smiley: ) from the Philly orchestra how to improvise. She knew every scale in every key, but was clueless how and when to use them. And even when she memorized how they should be used, she still could not put together a decent improvised melody (for fear of being wrong or sounding silly). :blush:

I guess the point is that knowing which scales sound like what and when to use them is only part of the battle. You still have to formulate/feel a melody comprised of those notes and be confident when you do so. Otherwise all the knowledge in the world cannot make you a great improvisor just as having the best ear in the world will not make you a great concert guitarist.

Joe Pass once said, you can practice all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything till you get out and play. Or maybe John Coltrane’s quote is even better, “Learn all you can, then forget it all and play”.

One last thing. Scales and improvisation are my specialty. As Ben stated above, once you learn a major scale, you also learn what is not a major scale. With 7 different notes in the scale, each note can be the root of a different scale (seven altogether). And that is just the beginning of learning scales. But it is unlikely that you will ever need to play a Phrygian scale when playing bluegrass and as Ben stated, adding blue notes (b3, b5, b7) to a major scale will take you a long way toward a strong bluegrassy sound. Play what you like and you will develop your own sound (the most important thing you can do).

take care,


Thank’s guys. All that scale stuff is a little overwhelming to me right now anyhow. I will work on my major scales though and I will call on you guys some more as I go along. Thanks again.

— Begin quote from "Banjo Ben"

All you need is PRACTICE and REPETITION

but it gets easier the MORE YOU DO IT :slight_smile:

— End quote

Ok, ok I get it! :laughing: :laughing:

Doug, if you’re mainly playing bluegrass, start with the G and C scales, since that will probably cover a good 75% of the situations, including having to capo up to play against a fiddle or mandolin. This way you won’t overload your brain with a ton of scales in the beginning. There is probably no one who could use scale practice more than me, and I’ve pretty much found the notes of those 2 scales, more by default than anything else. But it does help out when you’re trying to play a lead and perhaps you need an improvisational note to fall back on when you lose track of where you are…like this never happens to me! :unamused: At least you’ll be hitting a note in the proper scale, and you’re buddies will think, “Hey he knows his stuff, listen to him improvise!” Little do they know that you just winged it.

Max in AZ

very interesting and informative thread …thanks Ben and everyone for all your knowledge on this …
as an old rock/bluesy type player i know some scales but incorporating them in this bluegrass style is something i need to really practice …im hooked though and gonna keep learning …thanks again all

Great topic. Thanks for all the posts! I think I need to get back to thinking about notes a bit more. I started out playing music on other instruments by reading music. On the guitar I have gotten off to more of an interval way of thinking. I could tell you any given note, but I’d have to think about it a second. I think getting more cognizant of what notes I am playing would help me a bunch. In another post Ben talked about seeing the fretboard almost as a piano keyboard. For lack of a better term, I see the fretboard as a series of geometric patterns. That’s part of what I liked about guitar… it’s simplicity, just give me a key and away we go. But I think it’s time to merge my dusty theory knowledge with the chunk of wood I play daily. I suspect this will take some serious work, but I think it will do far more for me than adding more beats per minute to my speed.

— Begin quote from "mreisz"

I think getting more cognizant of what notes I am playing would help me a bunch.

— End quote

I don’t see how I could ever do that while playing up to speed. I just try to recognize the relative scale position of each note in a particular pattern.

I know what you are saying Larry. I won’t ever be able to think notes at warp speed, but I don’t even typically think notes when I am working things out. I have gotten so far away from theory in melody lines on a guitar, I just kind of hear something and go right to finding a fret without stopping to think about what I am playing. I think part of that stems from reading tab. It’s been forever since I had a thought like, “Ok, we’re in A flat, so that’s B, E, A D are flat.” I just don’t even give it a thought on guitar because it’s just a different string/fret combination. My goal isn’t to spend my day looking at the circle of fifths that I have conveniently tattooed on my left thigh (just kidding on the tatoo, I stupidly put it on my back). On the other hand, I think I need to to think about what I am doing more. I got a great deal out of reading Ben’s post and others. I just realized applied theory on guitar is a weak point for me, and there is no reason for me to let it stay that way.

Post edit: after writing the above, I grabbed my guitar and went back to learning Foggy Mountain Breakdown from Ben’s tab :open_mouth: For the moment, I guess that’s more fun than theory

To be clear, learning how to use scales in a way that benefits your playing is a good thing. Even playing scales every day just to keep your hands fit/quick and your mind sharp is not a bad idea.

There are some great guitarists who had no music theory knowledge but were incredible players; Wes Montgomery comes to mind. And to be honest, many guitarists learn their craft from just playing everyday with an open mind and clear focus. And doing it this way can take many, many years of daily work. But learning how to properly use scales and music theory to your advantage can speed up the learning process immeasurably. That is the advantage of learning scales and the proper music theory; cause not all of us have Wes Montgomery’s ears. :wink:

I know the scales in C and G and know where their at , but as for the others I* could stumble through them I guess but I play mostly out of C and G . do I understand the other scales, to a point. I know the pentatonic you can do a lot with five notes and still slide out side of that a bit and make some good sounds . Is it needful yes it is but there are many who could not tell you what notes are in a scale and play so good it makes you want to puke (not really) . For starting out yes I would learn the scales as much as you can stand and then apply them to the finger board . This is a late entry here so you will most likely miss it, so not to miss this much is not bad . Learn them air scales brother.