Scale Runs for Guitar

Written by Rob in 'Lead Guitar Lessons'

One of the very first answers to the question “How can I improve my soloing?” would be “Learn your scales“. While this probably isn’t amazingly helpful advice in itself, scale knowledge can really help when it comes to playing better solos.

It’s not amazingly helpful because a scale- by itself- wont make a great solo. Nope. To do that, you’ll need to understand the sound of a scale- to be able to hear it with your internal ear. Only then can you start to play back what you’re hearing.

However, there is one thing you can do with just a scale: the scale run. It’s a quick way to get the sound of a certain scale into your music, and it’s also a great way to play fast. If you can play a scale at a decent speed from top to bottom, then you can play a scale run.

I even use one in the intro to my videos.

Starting a Solo

There are many different ways to use scale runs to liven up your soloing. The first, and possibly the easiest to start using, is to use a scale run to start off a solo. This is used to great effect by guys like Zakk Wylde, Kerry King or Kirk Hammett.

The great thing about this technique, is that you just pick a scale that fits your chords (or riff) and run up it to lead into your solo. It then sets you up to start the solo proper with something more melodic- as a contrast.

Here is an example based on a run by Kirk Hammett; it works well over the key of E minor.

a heavy metal scale run in the key of E minor

Travelling Across the Neck

Another great way to use the scale run, is to use it to get from one part of the neck to another. Usually, this is done in the middle of a solo, to increase the intensity, but you can also use it at the end of a solo to go out on a high.

The following example is a run using the E natural minor scale to quickly get from the F# on the low E string, to the 12th fret on the high E. You can also play this idea starting from the open E string.

a lead guitar scale run using the E natural minor scale

Of course, you could use the scale straight from the lowest note, to the highest. However, it’s much more interesting if you use a sequence, or pattern. In the next example, we’re using a sequence of three notes at a time to create a more interesting run.

a solo scale run for guitar that uses a sequence or pattern

Failing that- or if patterns are too predictable for you- you could also try something a bit more free, as in this example (inspired by David Gilmour).

descending pentatonic scale run inspired by pink floyd

How to Play a Scale Run

If you know your theory- which scale goes with which key or chords etc- this should be pretty easy. However, there are some ground rules that you should follow if you want to play a good scale run.

The rules are:

  • Select your target note (where will you end up?)
  • Know your scale (ideally, all over the guitar neck)
  • Stay in time (this isn’t just about rushing through some notes!)

The first one is probably the most overlooked of the three. I mean, it’s all great being able to play up and down a scale, but if you end on a horrible note, you’ve ruined it. I don’t care how well you played the previous notes, a bum note here will kill it. So know where you’re headed, and what the chord will be when you get there.

Secondly, you need to know your scale in as many different positions as possible- preferably all over the neck. This is to give you more room to run around, so to speak. You don’t have to always be running from one end of the neck to the other, but it’s nice to have that freedom.

The third rule is a bit different- and less obvious. Have you ever done that thing as a child, where you run so fast that your legs get tangled up and you fall over? Somehow, you just lose the rhythm of ‘left foot, right foot’ and end up with your legs trying to do circles around each other (or something). Meanwhile, you fall helplessly onto your face.

Well, basically, don’t let your scale run fall on it’s face. Always be aware of the timing of what you’re playing, and don’t let it run away from you!

Remember: if it feels very fast when you’re playing it, it’s probably too fast. Real speed involves real control, not flappy fingers.

Scale Run Examples

Here are some more examples of scale runs that I play in the video. First, ascending through a single shape:

ascending through a single shape to form a run

a scale run using a single scale shape on the guitar fretboard

Then, here are some using various patterns though the shapes. The first uses a four note pattern over a sextuplet rhythm.

a four note pattern over a sextuplet rhythm scale run

…and here’s an idea using the pentatonic scale, descending in triplets:

If you get bored of using just one scale shape, here is an idea using many shapes on two strings:

a two string lead guitar pattern played through many shapes

You could also try this with a pattern that only covers one string:

a single string lead guitar pattern that uses many scale shapes across the neck

This last one is a bit more tricky, as it’s a four note pattern along one string. The first three notes of the pattern are pull offs, and the last one is a slide. Be careful that this one doesn’t just end up as one long blur!

Kirk Hammett style descending single string scale run

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