Visual patterns are a great way of learning scales. Most of us are very familiar with the minor pentatonic pattern, which looks like a slightly squashed box when laid out on the fretboard. And three-note-per-string patters are a great way of adding some Holdsworthian angularity to your soloing. And we recently looked at symmetrical scales as a way of adding some spice to a fast lead guitar lick. But there’s another visual trick I like to employ from time to time to come up with new riffs and licks. And it’s so ridiculously simple that you can even use it when you’re nowhere near a guitar, or if you have no working knowledge of music theory at all. There’s no particular name for this technique, so let’s just call it the visual pattern method.
A lot of us have used visual patterns without even knowing it, in the form of a famous fretboard warm-up exercise. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this one:
The idea is simple: play four consecutive notes, move down one string and along one fret, and continue. It’s a great pattern to warm up each of your fingers individually because it forces you to move from string to string as well as eventually along the whole fretboard. And if you play it fast enough, it’s an almost-chromatic, slightly seasick-sounding lick that you can use to connect one section of a solo to another. But there are other patterns you can try out. Play the following notes and notice the inverted triangle shape they make on the fretboard. I’ve laid the pattern out in four different locations on the neck, one for each bar, and when played consecutively they make for a pretty nice harmonic contour.
The great thing about using a method like this to find a neat-sounding note combination is that you can then go back to your theory books and find a scale that contains those notes. For instance, the notes in the first bar (A, C#, D#, E and G#) are contained within the many keys including A Lydian (A, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#), G# Phrygian (G#, A, B, C#, D#, E, F#) and F# Dorian (F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E). The most obvious of these is A Lydian because the lick starts on an A and you can use a ringing open A string as a drone to play over, but some really unusual and interesting textures present themselves when you try playing over the other notes, too.
Of course, you can use any shape or pattern you like in your search for ideas. Circles, ovals, squares, zig zags… I like to use an X pattern as a high-speed sweet picking/hammer-on lick. Play it over an F#5 power chord for the first bar and E5 for the second. I’ve included the pick sweeping directions, but feel free to slow this lick down and play it as an alternate picked exercise.
Another interesting pattern (which works best across the bottom four strings) is actually related to an established scale that is popular in avant-garde and modern classical music: the Whole Tone Scale. This is a particularly weird sounding scale because it doesn’t resolve the way typical scales do. And Frank Zappa uses it to great effect on the solo to “Outside Now” on his Broadway the Hard Way album from 1988. Every note of this scale is a whole tone away from the last, and all you need to do is play it through in ascending order a couple of times and you’ve played all 12 notes, so it can be played in any key. From a visual perspective, the Whole Tone Scale is easy to remember because it looks like parallel diagonal lines. In the example below I’ve presented it as a three-note-per-string scale as well as a four-note-per-string scale. What I really like about this scale is that you can create some really out-there melodies out of its constituent notes, or you can simply play it linearly and exploit the “forever climbing” nature of the scale’s lack of resolution.
I’ll leave you with this fun little way of employing patterns to extremely dramatic effect: letters. Try spelling words on the fretboard. You could space these all out over the fretboard in a row, but for some real atonal fun, stack them all on top of each other. See if you can identify the word in the example below, which spells out the word “Gibson.” I’ve used a few different approaches here: tracing the letters in a line for the G and I, then outlining the shape of the B, then tracing the S, outlining the O and approaching the N with some very unorthodox chords (just barring across each string to represent the sides of the letter). I’ve presented this in 4/4 with very even rhythms so you can easily get from one pattern to another. The result is a harmonically and rhythmically interesting jazz-fusion sound, especially thanks to those dense chords at the end.