Should I Learn Guitar Chords or Scales First?


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This question reminds me of Robert Frost’s Poem “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. Should you try learning guitar chords first or scales first? It’s a tough decision, because both options have their advantages. Is there even a right answer?

Learning guitar chords is easier for a beginner to create music rather than from learning guitar scales. With guitar chords you can play recognizable and enjoyable songs within a couple months, while playing scales prepares you for fingerpicking style songs and for playing solos, both of which take more time to excel at.

So, you’ll play songs you like to listen to faster if you play guitar chords instead of scales, does that mean case closed? We’re done? You might want to stick around because you probably want to know what you can accomplish depending on what road you choose.

Why You Should Learn Guitar Chords First

Obviously, you’re a free agent, and I can’t tell you what to do, but I hope you’ll consider my words for a second.

It’s Easier To Play Songs With Chords

It’s good to be real with yourself–are you planning on becoming good at the guitar, and being able to play solos and hammer-ons, and pull-offs, or a hundred other plucking techniques?

Or, do you just want to play some songs that you like with your friends?

If you want to play songs (especially for an acoustic guitar), then learning the basic open guitar chords is a fantastic start.

For example, in the song Little Wonders by Rob Thomas, the verse is made up of these chords:
A, E, Bm, D

Just 4 chords for the entire verse! All you have to do is strum those 4 chords to a workable rhythm in order to play that verse!

Learning to do this does take time and dexterity–it is not easy even to do this for even a month of practicing.

However, this way–learning chords– is the easiest way to learn how to play most songs you hear on the radio.

Learning Chords First = Burnout Protection

Part of learning an instrument is maintaining motivation.

It’s difficult to learn an instrument, and it’s especially difficult (for many people at least) to learn guitar–I even wrote why especially guitar is a difficult instrument here if you’re curious.

One of the most important things that a professional musician learns over time is discipline. Which basically means doing something that’s difficult and not necessarily super fun in order to make progress.

If you’re new to the guitar, then you are experiencing those tough times like when your fingertips are sore and perhaps even bruised, and when you don’t have the hand strength or flexibility to play, or when you are skipping the strings you want to play, etc. etc.

During tough drills or learning a new solo, sometimes it’s critical. And I mean critical to be able to retreat into something familiar and play something fun once in a while.

Play the song that you love–you probably shouldn’t do this every time you pick up a guitar, but being able to play a song that’d you listen to on the radio from start to finish is possible much more quickly if you learn how to play chords.

Chords Are Better For Social Situations

Being able to play guitar solos is cool, no doubt, but it definitely can alienate the people around you. If you play songs with chords, you are able to be much more inclusive, and who knows, you might invite a guest singer or two!

It’s always possible to overdo it, but if you’re at a party and there’s a guitar, it makes for a great way to ease social tension and create a great atmosphere by playing some songs on the guitar.

Why You Should Still Learn Guitar Scales (Why Not Learn Both?)

This is the difference from Robert Frost’s poem, because in this case, you can travel down both roads at the same time! 🙂 Take that, universe.

Now, I didn’t you shouldn’t learn scales, because you absolutely should. Let’s talk about why.

Do I Need To Learn Guitar Scales?

Learning guitar chords is important for getting started on the guitar, and it will definitely help you in your journey as a guitarist. Chords are fun, and easy to sing along to, but it’s only one small part of the guitar’s capabilities.

The guitar is a fantastically dynamic instrument, let’s talk about some reasons why learning guitar scales is in your best interest.

Classical Guitar

Classical guitar music is very often made up of plucking the instrument one note at a time. This is kind of intimidating since the guitar has a lot of notes to pick from, and being able to go from any note to any other note is kind of of overwhelming!

Fortunately, music follows patterns, and most of the time, a song is going to be in a certain key which means that an entire song is most often going to follow a particular scale!

Learning scales helps you see and feel those patterns that music follows, so as you learn songs, you’ll have the dexterity and mental capacity to play.

If you are interested in classical guitar music, then your scales will be a treasured friend.

Blues Guitar

I love me some John Mayer. He is a fantastically-skilled singer-songwriter and his music is heavily blues-influenced.

If you’ve ever tried to play his songs on guitar, you’ll know also that many of his songs are difficult and complex, as well. However, many of his melodies and solos are still built on patterns and forms that once you understand are much easier to understand.

And perhaps the best part, if you practice scales you can make your own blues solos, yourself.

How cool is that! You can make your own music and explore your own style just from knowing scales!

I want to caveat that it takes a while to get to this point. If you try to pick up the guitar and crank out a solo without some time investment, you’ll probably get frustrated.

But, if you are curious what you can accomplish, I really love this YouTube video that explains what can be done with the pentatonic scale:

That’s just one scale! (in multiple keys and locations) It’s incredible what a grouping of notes can do. Your potential as a guitarist is almost unlimited when you can figure out the fretboard.

Study Scales, Unlock The Guitar’s Melodic Potential

The guitar has the incredible potential to be a rhythm (chords) and melodic (scales) instrument all at once. It’s one of the reasons why it’s one of my favorite instruments.

I recommend to learn your chords to get your feet wet, but I can’t emphasize enough to make sure and get your feet wet with learning scales. Learning a single scale up and down isn’t going to inspire you and be very exciting. Make sure and spend some time learning the CAGED system (detailed in the video above) to better understand how you can use scales to build music.

If you’re wondering how much you should practice the guitar, I’ve given some example goals that might be helpful, make sure and check that out here.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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