Keeping Scale Practice in Proper Perspective (Updated)
Perhaps it is inevitable that going through a phase of playing scales "too much" will be a part of most guitarist's learning and evolution process, but if this phase is overly long, scales can become a retrograde force that actually inhibits musical development. This is exactly what happened to me when I was at Berklee back in the early '80's. My goal was to be able to play single lines very fast, picking every note using alternate-picking plectrum technique. A few years earlier, Al Di Meola had come out with the Elegant Gypsy album, and it completely wiped me out how fast and clean his lines were. So, I spent hours and hours and hours, day after day after day, week after week after week, month after month after month, year after year after year... practicing scales and non-scalar finger independence exercises trying to achieve that kind of velocity. I got pretty close, too, but I continued in this scale addiction long after I had developed plenty good single-line technique, when my time would have been much better spent working on learning other aspects of music.
The bottom line with this is, by the way, genetic potential: You either have the genetic makeup to play blazingly fast, or you do not. I've studied quite a bit about this, but I don't want to get bogged down in an esoteric physiological discussion here, so let it suffice to say that there are many factors involved, including individual ratios of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fiber, how thick or thin the myelin sheaths around the nerves are, and how an individual's particular genetic expression has them handling neurotransmitters. It is exactly analogous to being a world class sprinter: No matter how hard most individuals train - they can follow an Olympian's regimen exactly - they simply lack the genetic potential to compete at that level. Same with playing scales fast; most guitarists simply lack the proper genetic expression to keep up with Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia, Pepe Romero or whomever. Through many years of over-practice, I was able to get close to Di Meola speed, but I could never get that last little bit of super-extraordinary velocity... because I don't have the proper genetic makeup.
Knowing this stark fact of reality can save a guitarist literally years of fruitless labor. If you have gone through an extended period of scale over-practice, have listened to your teacher's advice, have gleaned every last little tip you can from interviews of and articles by your favorite speed demons, and you still can't get to that level of velocity, don't sweat it. Far from being alone, you are in the vast majority. Stop wasting your time, stop beating your head against the genetic velocity wall, and get on with discovering what you can do better than anyone else, and become the musician you were meant to be.
My favorite quotation about this speed-obsession phenomenon comes from Winton Marsalis:
"The ultimate expression of technique is not velocity, it is nuance."
That's it exactly. What makes a virtuoso in his fifties or sixties - well past physiological prime - so vastly superior to a young prodigy is nuance.
As a direct result of that earlier series of changes I went through while at Berklee, when I switched to playing using classical right hand technique at age 29, my period of being addicted to scales was years behind me, I actually had a distaste for them, and I didn't want to repeat my previous scale-addicted phase at all. It is probably no surprise then, that my linear playing using classical right hand technique has always been pretty lame... OK, very lame.
When I decided to go the solo guitarist route again four years ago - instead of just composing - I even decided to not play scales at all, relying instead on a metronome slow-play regimen to get the music tight. And, that worked fantastically well... until I started playing pieces with extended single line passages and composing my series of twenty-four Lineal Studies.
The problem, then, is one of perspective: Achieving a balance that will allow one to maximize technical potential, while not getting obsessive to the point that other areas of one's musicianship suffer. I can't tell you what will work best for you, as that is something you'll just have to discover for yourself. But for me, just adding a hour of scale free-practice (no metronome) into my routine has worked quite well as a start.
What I do is, I play all seven of the in-position two-octave mode forms (versus position-shifting forms such as the Segovia scales) from the twelfth or thirteenth fret - depending upon whether the mode form spans four frets or five - down to open position and back up. I do this four times: Once with rest-stroke starting with the i finger, free-stroke starting with i, rest-stroke starting with m, and finally free-stroke starting with m.
Instead of calculating the form's name by the position of the index finger (1) - where the form spans two octaves and a third - as is the usual practice, I calculate it from where the pinky (4) is, which gives an even two octaves. I do this so that there is only one note played on the low E string, which can't be a rest-stroke (Segovia created his position-shifting forms to deal with this issue, but in-position forms are better for improvisation, obviously).
Going through all seven of the mode forms - Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian - in this way takes about an hour, and I just treat that as one of my two or three daily practice sessions. This means that as I cycle through the 64 pieces currently in my set, I end up doing scales every other day. This is plenty often for my regular set-maintenance practice routine.
UPDATE 09/21/08: Since I originally posted this, I have reversed the order of the mode forms, starting out in open position and playing them to the very top of the fingerboard. Since I play only cutaway guitars now, and the Godin has 19 frets, the Reynolds fretted Glissentar has 22, and the RMC Parker Nylon Fly has 24, this makes the sessions 1.5 to 2 hours each, which is in keeping with the time range of my repertoire maintenance practice sessions. The original idea was to gently stretch the hand out while warming up, but that meant I only played the open position forms once each pass. This way, I begin and end with the open forms, and I'm getting comfortable in every position on my three guitars. I figured that since I had done a lot of scale practice when I was young, the left hand would outpace the right in development speed, and this has been the case. However, since I have four years of practicing and performing under my belt this time, the right hand is progressing quite quickly too. I'm actually looking forward to my wintertime metronome practice regimen, when I can play these super-slow and really tighten them up. Yeah, yeah; I should have done this earlier. Live and learn, live and learn.
When I get into my winter metronome slow-play regimen, I'll add one of the mode forms at the beginning, and each of the others successively in between the categories of pieces as I go, which means I'll hit them all several times from the beginning of December to the end of February. By that time, my linear playing ought to be tight and smooth, if not particularly fast, and as the Lineal Studies start to come together for me - it was problems with those that lead to my deciding to add scales back into my regular routine - I ought to be achieving some decent velocity again.
So, I hope my experiences here are helpful: You don't want to go overboard with scales, but you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water either. LOL!