One of the peculiar, particular things about the guitar is that it often forces us to play in certain ways. I’m sure part of the reason the Minor Pentatonic scale is so pervasive is that it’s easy to learn and easy to play. It doesn’t hurt that it sounds great too. And likewise, if you learn the Major scale in the popular three-note-per-string format you can find yourself gravitating towards many of the same phrases over and over again. And again, this is partially because these licks and patterns just sound so dang good. But if you’d like to spice things up within your favourite scales, string-skipping is a great way to unlock the inner ‘awesome’ of your scale or mode. The concept is really simple: because of the way the guitar strings are laid out, you can break out of the diatonic, up-and-down nature of scalar playing by leaping over a string altogether and taking advantage of the wider intervals that you get between notes when you do so. It can make the guitar sound less ‘guitaristic’ - maybe more like a keyboard, or a really angry yodeller. So here are a few of my favourite string-skipping licks.
This first one uses the Minor Pentatonic scale, and I find it to be a really good jumping-off point. It has a certain Eric Johnson-esque charm to it, and it helps to uncover some of the more ‘pretty-sounding’ aspects of the Minor Pentatonic, as opposed to the rough-and-ready blues-rock vibe we’re more accustomed to. This is a good one to start with because each pair of strings we’re playing maintains the same fingering and fretting due to the layout of the Minor Pentatonic scale.
In Figure 2, we continue the pattern down further into the scale, this time with a different pattern for each pair. For extra fun, string Figure 1 and Figure 2 together into one mighty mega-lick.
Of course, you can play this stuff as fast or as slow as you like, and you can repeat notes or phrases within the lick. In Figure 3 we see a few different ways to approach it: the first bar is a bunch of 16th notes repeating the first four notes of the pattern seen in Figure 1. The second bar doubles up on the first half of that phrase, which gives the lick a sort of Zakk Wylde-meets-Nuno Bettencourt feel.
You can also use string-skipping in combination with slides to get a little more of a liquid feel out of your lead work. Check out the lick in Figure 4, which still uses the Minor Pentatonic scale in E. But here you’ll be adding a third note to the patten, sliding down to the next lowest note on the second string of the pair. I’ve written it as two bars here which are identical until the last four notes, where they tie up the lick in a neat little bow. If you’re feeling particularly speedy, play this one as 32nd notes instead of 16th notes. It sounds great on the neck pickup with heavy distortion, but it also has a certain twangy charm if played with a clean tone.
You can also use string-skipping for much more of a Paul Gilbert feel by playing some pretty intricate-sounding stuff. Figure 5 sounds great when you pick every note, and it’ll give you an almost sequencer-like vibe. It also sounds great if you use a delay set to quarter notes or half notes.
If you’d like to further explore the capabilities of this technique, take some familiar scales and apply these patterns to them. These kind of ‘self-limiting systems’ can really be a great way of breaking out of a rut or imposing some kind of new personality on your music.