If you would like to improvise or solo on guitar, it helps to practice scales and sequences. So I thought I would share my method for memorizing, playing and understanding the Major scale using three notes per string patterns. This also applies to the 7 modes but I will save that for another article. These patterns can be used to play the Major scale in any key all across and up and down the neck. It is similar to the method I use for Pentatonic scales. You can also play the Major scale using the CAGED patterns but that is also another article.
So here is my method:
- Learn the intervals (distance between the notes) 6 notes at a time, on 2 strings.
- Learn the order of these shapes (there are 7 of them) so that you can chain them together and play the scale up and down the neck.
- Add these shapes together to form patterns (like words to make a sentence) so that you can play the scale across the neck.
- Build all 7 patterns so that you can play the scale anywhere on the guitar.
Got it? Let’s start with the three combinations of 3 notes per string I use with this method. They are:
- 2+2 – |-X-|—|-X-|—|-X-|
- 2+1 – |-X-|—|-X-|-X-|
- 1+2 – |-X-|-X-|—|-X-|
The numbers refer to the number of frets between notes. For example, if you played 2+1 starting on the 3rd fret, you would play 3-5-6. The 2+2 can be quite a stretch so take it slow. I suggest you play these with your first finger starting on the 1st fret and move them up to the 12th fret. Then play them in reverse from the 12th to the 1st. Repeat this on all 6 strings.
Now I will show you the 7 interval shapes I use but first, a bit of theory. There are 7 notes in a Major scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti). The distance between two notes is called an interval. This is how chords are built. Major chords have 1,3 and 5 (do, mi, sol). The distance from do to mi is a Major third. The distance from do to sol is a perfect fifth. When you play all three notes together, you get a Major chord. Okay enough school work.
What you need to understand for now is that we are going to have a shape starting on each note. Therefore we will have 7 shapes. The notes will appear in order. And when we get to 7, we will start at 1 again. Just to be extra clear, do=1, re=2, mi=3, etc. So we get this:
- Shape 1 – 1,2,3,4,5,6
- Shape 2 – 2,3,4,5,6,7
- Shape 3 – 3,4,5,6,7,1
- Shape 4 – 4,5,6,7,1,2
- Shape 5 – 5,6,7,1,2,3
- Shape 6 – 6,7,1,2,3,4
- Shape 7 – 7,1,2,3,4,5
For now, just memorize the visual part. Here we go with Steps 1 & 2.
I made this diagram using different colors so that when we put the shapes together to make patterns you will be able to follow the method I am using. Remember the bottom line of each shape is the lower (or thicker) string.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the shapes appear in a certain order:
- 2+2 and 2+2
- 2+1 and 2+2
- 1+2 and 2+1
- 2+2 and 1+2
- 2+2 and 2+2
- 2+1 and 2+1
- 1+2 and 1+2
They will always stay in this order. After #7 you would go back to #1 and it starts all over again. You may have noticed that Shape 1 and Shape 5 are the same. They are the same shape but they are not the same notes so keep them separate in your brain.
Keep in mind that at this point, you could play the Major scale up and down the neck on two strings. In fact you should practice them up and down the neck so that you get familiar with the order. Notice that the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of one shape are always the 1st, 2nd , 4th and 5th notes of the next shape.
This will also help you to harmonize diatonic lines easily. You simply play a melody in one pattern, then transpose it to the pattern of whatever harmony you want. For example, play a melody using Shape 1. Then play the notes in the same order using Shape 3. The fingering may change, but the order should stay the same. Since you moved up a third (Shape 1 to Shape 3), you just harmonized in 3rds. You could add an additional line in 5ths, by playing the notes in the same order in Shape 5. This is somewhat limiting with just two strings, but once I show you the 6 string patterns, the same thing applies.
You can also play any shape in octaves across 6 strings by shifting positions. This will not give you a full scale (only 6 notes) but it allows you to quickly ascend or descend the neck using the same picking pattern. Here is an example with Shape 6 starting at the 5th fret:
Okay. Moving right along to Steps 3 & 4.
After you get the shapes from Step 2 memorized, you will play one shape on the E & A strings (lowest), one on the D & G strings (middle) and one on the B & E strings (highest). You build the patterns by stacking the shapes in reverse order across all 6 strings. The reason for this is that they are octaves of the previous shapes.
Pattern 1 starts on the root (do), so whatever note you start on the low E string, that will be the key of the Major scale.
If we play Pattern 1 starting on the 3rd fret, we will get a G Major scale.
If we play Pattern 1 on the 7th fret, we will get a B Major scale.
And so on, and so on, and so on …
Here are the other 6 patterns:
If you combine the two ideas of playing shapes (up and down the neck, playing across in patterns), you can find notes of the scale in any direction no matter where you playing on the neck. I think of it as North, South, East and West. Let’s look at an example:
You are playing Shape 2 starting at the 5th fret on the middle strings. That would look like this:
Then you add Shape 1 above (North) and Shape 3 below (South). You know this because of the order of the shapes.
Notice you only get 4 more notes:
Now add Shape 1 on the high strings (East) and Shape 3 on the low strings (West). This is the same as building a pattern.
This time you get 12 more notes:
Did you see that the Shape 1 octave is there? It travels in a SE direction (or NW in reverse). Of course you can add octaves to the other shapes also. It just goes on and on as long as you know the order of things.
Does this make sense? Do ya get it? If you have any questions please send me a message so I can update the article.
Thanks for looking!