What are the best scales to learn on the fiddle?

The better you know your scales, the more quickly you can pick up tunes. Scales don’t have to be torture.  There’s an art to making them fun.

  • Practice them along with tunes that use that scale.
    • Simply alternate between a tune and it’s scale.
    • Then you’ll start to hear the scale in the tune.
    • And you’ll hear the tunefulness of the scale.
    • Play the The Dronopoly Game!
  • Add variation.
  • Think of scales as old friends.
    • You get to know them more deeply as time passes.
    • They can help you learn new things, just like friends teaching you something.

Have you ever tried to learn a tune from a recording and wondered what the scale is? There’s a practice method which will help you figure out what a tune’s scale is. Every time you play a tune, play its scale. If you do this for tunes you know (provided you also know the scales for those tunes), then you’ll eventually be able to figure out what the scale is for tunes you don’t know.

So you might be wondering “What are the best fiddle scales to learn?” As a fiddler you’ll want to master these scales:

The vast majority of Celtic and American fiddle music are in these keys.

But why?

Why are these the most popular scales? Well, just look at the open strings on the fiddle: G, D, A, E. One reason these scales are popular is that they have more open strings and so are easier to play. Related to that, when you have open strings there is more resonance, and so these scales tend to sound better. One more cool thing: it’s easy to remember which are the most important scales by thinking about the open strings.

If you truly master these scales, then you’ll have a much easier time learning new scales because you will have a solid foundation in the basic finger positions: 1st finger, second, third and lower second.

It’s similar to learning math in which you are building upon previous skills; if you don’t properly learn how to multiply numbers than you are going to have bigger difficulty learning to divide. Similarly, if you don’t properly learn first, second, low second and third positions, you’ll have much tougher time with fourth, raised third, low first and low fourth, not to mention higher positions.

The next most useful scales are:

There are not a lot of fiddle tunes in E major, but it is a useful scale because the E major chord is used a lot by guitarists. Why is E major a popular guitar chord? Because it has a lot of open strings and so it resonates well.

I recommend that for each key (each scale), you learn three different types of scales:

7-note scales (heptatonic)

D major (two bows): D0-1-2-3-A0-1-2-3

This might be the most common scale and so the most useful. Take a lesson on the D major scale.

5-note scales (pentatonic)

D major pentatonic: D0-1-2-A0-1

This is pretty much my favorite scale. It’s great for improvisation and it comes up in tunes a lot. It’s just very pleasing to play the pentatonic simply and listen to the sound. Take a lesson on the pentatonic scale.

3-note scales (triads)

D major triad: D0-2-A0

Triads are the building blocks of chords. They also can be found a lot in tunes like Swallowtail Jig. Take a lesson on triads.

As usual, I’ll tell you to start simply. Learn the D major scale as well as you can. How well in tune can you play each note? How good can you make each note sound? Every note matters, so I encourage you to stay on each note a long time. You can do that by playing what I call a slow scale.

D major “Slow Scale”

Keep practicing a scale, even if you think you got it

If you’re a beginner and you think you’ve mastered a certain scale, then you probably just need to find a new way to practice it. When practicing scales, think of the Karate Kid learning to fight by waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car. Wax on, wax off, wax on…

“But I don’t like scales! I’m learning the fiddle for fun, and scales are NOT fun”.  Well, good point! Maybe you just need to approach it differently. Instead of seeing scales as required torture, see them as little melodies, like predictable fiddle tunes. Being creative with them will make the practice fun and enjoyable.

You may be asking, “How do I make scales more enjoyable?”. I have a module of lessons on FiddleHed called How To Make Scales Fun. It will give you a toolkit of variations to add to scales. And that’s cool, because the practice of adding variation to scales is the same process you use to add variations to tunes.

A fun and useful exercise

  • Play a tune.
  • Do you know what it’s scale is?
    • If not, look it up and memorize it by saying the title and scale out loud. For example, “Arkansas Traveller in D major”.
    • Play the scale.
  • Play the tune again, and see if you can somehow hear the scale in the tune.
  • I call this practice Fingerprinting. It will also help you to remember the names of tunes.

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6 responses to “What are the best scales to learn on the fiddle?

  1. I do at least 15-20 min of scales each morning before practicing what ever tune I’m working on. It helps with intonation and is a great way to warm up. My next scale challenge is chordal scales. I’m weak on the double stops.

  2. Hey Jason,

    This lesson fits right into my practices now. I am playing with “making scales fun”, and chordal scales ( to make double stops easier). I would like to be able to pick out the key of music I am listening to at jams…..so this lesson is timely for me. After I practice tuning and scales, I pick out some tunes and work on timing and rhythm.

    Want you to know, Jason, that after caring for my wife (who had been diagnosed in 2010 with a rare spatial/visual dementia at age 52) for 7 yrs.; she passed to a better place July 18. The fiddle is much fun for me and somehow very necessary for my life on-going. y wife was a champion Equine rider (Reining) and always encouraged my playing. So thanks to . you for all you do. I will play in another jam on Sept. 8!