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Guitar Scale Patterns

This lesson will show you the various types of scale patterns you'll be using when learning individual scales. The scales section on this site provides you with all the tools to learn scales across the entire fretboard, but you need to be able to break these down for more economical fingerings.

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A good guitarist will make sure they not only learn guitar scale patterns but also understand the positioning of certain tones within the scale (e.g. the root, 3rd and 5th for major scales). This ensures you have a safe reference point wherever you are on the fretboard, allowing you to move fluidly and musically through your solo.

Video lesson

Box guitar scale patterns

When first getting to know a scale, you just need a pattern that will let you explore the tones of that scale. Box scale patterns typically span 4 or 5 frets wide, providing you with an economical arrangement of the scale's tones in one convenient place.

For example, here's a natural minor scale box pattern...

box natural minor scale pattern

And here's a box pattern for the Lydian mode...

lydian mode box scale pattern

As you can see, these types of box scale pattern are conveniently accessible and memorable for those initial stages. I encourage my students to use these box guitar scale patterns to get to know the core intervals of the scale they're learning. So don't worry in those early stages about being able to play right across the fretboard, because you want to first focus on tonality and the kind of flavour the scale offers your music.

The lowest root note for these box patterns are on the low E string. However, I also encourage students to learn the basic box pattern rooted on the A string, like below for the natural minor scale...

natural minor scale pattern on the A string

Learning both the E string and A string box patterns provides you with a reference point around the two most common chord positions - E and A form chords, which use the same low root note strings - E and A. This is why I provide both these guitar scale patterns in my scales lessons. It allows you to conveniently play the scales around the same chord positions, or vice versa.

Once you're confident with the basics of the scale, and only then, it's time to break out of the boxes.

Using scale positions to form larger scale patterns

Scale positions are about building patterns on each degree of a scale.

For example, if we were learning the major scale, we'd know it has 7 tones. These become degrees on which we can build a pattern before connecting them all together to form one large major scale pattern.

To do this, we need to first lay out the intervals of the scale in question along the low E string. I'll stick with the major scale as an example, but this process applies to any scale you might learn. Change the interval pattern accordingly...

major scale degrees across the low E string

This particular example is in the key of G, because that's the note on which the root note lies. However, you need to keep in mind all the guitar scale patterns we build are movable, and key independent. So if you want to play the scale in a different key, you just need to reposition the pattern relative to the new root note.

Once we have our base intervals, we build a new 4-5 fret wide boxed pattern on each degree. I go through this process with you for each scale in their related lessons.

Once we have built patterns on all 7 degrees, we're left with a large scale pattern divided into 7 positions as follows...

large major scale pattern built from scale degree boxed patterns

Now, what you'll find is that, within this larger pattern, you can locate the root note positions for both the E and A form box patterns you learned initially. If you've spent time learning each degree's pattern, you'll know how the tones of the scale are laid out in each one.

A good test of how well you've learned these positions is to try and identify specific interval relationships, such as root-3rd...

root - 3rd interval pattern

Again, I help you out with this in the individual scale lessons.

The benefit of this process is that you don't have to repeat it for every scale, because scales share certain intervals (known as common intervals/tones). For example, all major scales share that root-3rd interval. All minor scales share the root-minor 3rd interval. Most major and minor scales share the root-5th interval.

Master this concept and you'll be in a very advantageous position as far as being able to identify key interval relationships in any given scale and move fluidly between them over the entire fretboard.

Open scale patterns

Sometimes, you'll be down at those first few frets, for a lower register of the scale you're playing. In this position, you'll need to know how the open strings work as part of the scale. These can be referred to as open position scale patterns.

Each open (unfretted) string provides a note. In standard tuning, that's E A D G B and a higher E. If any of these notes are part of your scale, you can use the open strings in your solo.

For example, if we're playing the E phrygian dominant scale (also known as the Phrygian Dominant scale), we could use the following pattern...

phrygian dominant scale pattern in open position

The open low and high E strings provide the root.

The open A string provides the 4.

The open D string provides the b7.

The open G string is not used because the note G is not part of the E phrygian scale.

The open B string provides the 5 of the scale.

So make sure you spend time learning scales in different keys so you can make use of open strings confidently. Remember that the notes provided on the open strings are the same as the 12th fret notes, so if you learn the pattern across the entire fretboard, you should be able to see how the pattern continues from the open strings in the same way it does from the 12th fret.

This is all about freeing up your movement across the fretboard so you can navigate unrestricted through your solo.

Creating your own guitar scale patterns

Learning scales across the entire fretboard is a large (but very rewarding) task, but it's also important to be able to isolate particular patterns within this larger pattern to give you a good framework for techniques such as scale runs.

For example, using our knowledge of the large major scale pattern from above, and merging together a couple of positions, we could create an extended version of the boxed pattern we learned in the initial stages...

major scale 3 notes per string

Patterns such as the above can be referred to as 3 notes per string.

This will allow you to improve your confidence with wider fingerings. It's also a useful technique for when you're further up the fretboard and the fret spacings are narrower, allowing you to play across wider intervals on each string.

So while it's important to learn a scale across the entire fretboard for fluid and unrestricted soloing, it's also beneficial to be able to pull out sections within this large pattern for more enclosed runs and more economical movements.

The idea is to ensure you have all the options you need to keep your soloing free flowing and intuitive.

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