The three-note-per-string pattern is one of the easiest ways of remembering scales on the guitar, and it’s a format that lends itself especially well to high-speed playing techniques like economy picking or legato, too. And they work equally well as a springboard for melodic ideas and as finger-warming exercises. Here are a few tricks that I’ve put to extensive use in my own playing.
While pretty much any scale can be configured into three-note-per-string patterns, the Major Scale is an ideal candidate. What I like most about the Major Scale when viewed as a three-note-per-string scale is that it’s made up of three sets of repeating patterns. Here we see the Major Scale in the key of A.
There are many ways you can play this as an exercise: strict alternate picking; picking the first note and hammering the rest; picking the first note, sliding to the second and hammering to the third; or economy picking, where you pick down/up/down, move to the next string and continue the down-up-down pattern. Another great thing about playing this scale this way is that the fourths and fifths – which are great for hard rock harmonies – are very easy to visualize on the fretboard, so composing and teaching harmonies in the intervals quickly is very easy.
The Minor Scale also can be turned into a three-note-per-string pattern, although be aware that you lose the nice “same pattern on two strings” layout out the Major Scale once you get to the final pair of strings. Still, if you remain mindful that the high and low E strings contain the same notes, you won’t get too lost when you reach the end of the pattern.
The Minor Scale works particularly well when performing string-skipping techniques. Play a three-note sequence on a string, skip over the next string and play the comparable sequence on the string after that. This is a good way of adding a slight Paul Gilbert vibe to your licks.
The Lydian Mode – known for its floating, dreamy feel, is very similar to the A Major scale and can be easily adapted to a three-note-per-string format, too. This one is especially satisfying when using legato techniques. Try lots of hammer-ons with some smooth overdrive and long delay for a Satriani feel.
But as with most other things of a musical nature, it’s when you start to mess with them and break out of the established boxes that you really start to get to the good stuff. For instance, the first six notes of the Minor Scale are particularly useful for a very neat trick often employed by Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. If you play a simple riff or lick using those notes on the lowest two strings then transpose them to the adjacent string pair in the next octave, and then again in the next octave, you can create sprawling multi-octave licks with a real sense of movement.
But you don’t need to think purely in terms of three-note-per-string patterns for this trick to work: any lick that runs over two strings can be easily shifted to the next pair of strings in a higher octave.
Finally, here’s a similar idea using the Major Scale in the key of E. I’ve selected this key because it will comfortably take you from near the very top of the guitar’s range to the very bottom. There’s only one pattern to remember, and each part of the lick is played with the same exact notes, so once you know where your octaves are you can really cut loose. This lick is also great for training your fretting hand to be comfortable moving across the length of the neck.
A final word for carrying these scales over to seven-string guitars: just remember that the low B string of a seven-string is just a lower octave version of the notes you’ll find on the “regular” B string. So any of these scales can be easily carried over to a seven-string guitar by simply playing the same three notes on the low B that you would play on the high B. After all, there’s no law which says that seven-string players must play the root note of every scale on the B string.