If you going to be playing guitar for very long, you’re going to want to practice your scales. There are several different types of scales but the two main ones would be pentatonic and diatonic. Each of these have major and minor parts to them. Today I want to talk about some different options for playing diatonic scales. I first want to mention that it would be a good goal to be able to play all different ways to make yourself a well-rounded player. But if you are just starting out, you may want to focus on one version so that you can make some progress before you tackle everything.
So the first thing to consider is how are you going to group your notes together on the fretboard. I will explain two different options and a third option which combines those to create a hybrid pattern.
The first option would be to use caged patterns. I believe these are a more traditional way to map out the scales on the fretboard. They are popular with jazz players. The pentatonic scales overlap these so you can easily switch between the two. One thing about these scales is that you’re going to get 3 notes on some strings and two notes on others. These patterns mostly use four frets so there aren’t any huge stretches. Here is an example in G major:
The second option would be to arrange the notes so that you play 3 notes per string (3NPS). This is a very popular way to learn your diatonic scales. Click here to read more about 3 notes per string .The advantage is that you will get consistent picking because you have 3 notes on every string. You also get 2 more notes per pattern then you do with the cage scales. These patterns do feature some pretty wide stretches so it may be difficult for some players who are not use to this. Here is an example of 3 notes per string in G major:
The last option would be to combine these two and form a hybrid pattern. This will give you 3 notes for string but without the position shift. If you use this pattern, you are going to notice you will repeat some notes. That probably won’t be a problem with soloing or sequences but it may sound weird playing a straight scale. Here is the hybrid pattern in G major:
Next let’s talk about what fingers you going to use when you play these scales. What role will your pinky play? It sounds silly but it’s a good idea to come up with a plan for your pinky or you may end up not using it very much. There are plenty of accomplished players who do not use their pinkies very much so don’t feel like it’s an absolute necessity. But to quote Ritchie Blackmore, “It’s there, you might as well use it”. Once you get up past the 15th fret, it may be too crowded to use it anyway. Although again, there are players that can use their pinky all the way up to the 24th fret.
Another thing to consider is what picking technique you will use when practicing scales. There are several options but for this article I’m going to talk about two of them – alternate picking and economy picking.
Alternate picking is probably the most popular method for people who have been playing the guitar for some time or have a goal to develop at least a moderate level of technique. It has several advantages. One of them is it’s a little easier on your brain. No matter what you’re playing, you pick one direction and then you do the opposite for the next note – down up down up down up down up down up etc. When used with the 3 notes per string scale patterns, you get a very uniform system that is easy to remember. The only downside is when you have single notes on consecutive strings. This could prove difficult because of the extra motion.
Okay now let’s talk about economy picking. This is a train of thought that considers the actual physics of how far the pick travels. It is going to differ from alternate picking in that you will need to work out what is the shortest distance and adjust your down or up strokes accordingly. For instance, with a three note per string scale pattern, you would pick down up down on every string (going from low to high), because you will have two consecutive down strokes rather than jump over the adjacent string for an upstroke. When you play the scale from high to low, you would play up down up on every string with two consecutive upstrokes while switching strings. The same will be true for sequences. With alternate picking, you simply alternate strokes. But with the economy picking, you will have to work it out.
Even if you choose to use alternate picking while practicing your scales, I encourage you to at least learn the basics of economy picking because it may come in handy for certain riffs when you have single notes on consecutive strings.
Okay, how are you going to hold the pick? Will you use two fingers or three? How about a thumb pick? Will you pick from the wrist or use your forearm? How about just the fingers (scalpel). Will you anchor with your arm, wrist, pinky or float? Maybe you need a Stylus Pick to fix some bad habits as I did. I will try and cover all of these options in another article but you should probably analyze your playing style and see what category you are in.
The last thing I will address is how you hold a guitar when you practice. If you practice with the guitar on your lap, and your strap is too long, then your hands will be in different positions when you stand up and play. This may make it difficult for you to play what you have practiced sitting down. Some players put the guitar in between their two legs when they practice while sitting, other players rest it on their outside leg. This may also will change the angle of your wrist when you stand up. My suggestion is that you adjust your strap so that it fits whether you are sitting down or standing up. I know it’s a lot cooler to have the guitar slung low, but it may not be good for your technique. John Petrucci wears his guitar higher than most players and he has some the best chops out there.
This may seem like more of a scientific experiment than guitar talk but I believe it is worth it. The bottom line is the more consistent you are with details, the more improvement you going to see with your practice time. It’s not how much you practice but how you practice.
Thanks for looking!