Major Scale Patterns

Major Scale Patterns

Mickey Abraham

Mickey Abraham

I’d like to show you some of the more creative ways to play major scale patterns. Every competent guitar player at some point learns scale patterns and uses them as building blocks for improvisation. There are literally countless scale patterns and countless ways to incorporate them into your playing. This lesson touches on playing all of the different interval possibilities that show up in a major scale. I chose to arrange these examples in open C position to relate them to bluegrass flatpicking. I find the guitar open position to be a worthwhile mystery to unpack. If you take the time to master scales, patterns, and licks in open position you will be able to incorporate the ideas into your existing bluegrass language. These ideas, for example, will remind you of C position fiddle tunes such as “Billy in the Lowground.”

 Many players will be familiar with Ex. 1 and Ex. 2. This classic pattern shows up in countless books and lessons. Now it’s time to look at the classic 3rd’s sequence with a new twist. You will notice how in Ex. 3 I am changing the direction of each 3rd. Imagine you are playing the classic 3rd’s sequence but when you get to the second group of two notes just play them in reverse. I love the way this variation sounds. Many great fiddle players utilize this type of sequence.

Ex. 1 C Major Scale Classic 3rds Sequence Ascending // Ex. 2 C Major Scale Classic 3rds Sequence Descending
Ex. 3 C Major 3rds (each 3rd changes direction)

 From here we go through 4th’s, 5th’s, 6th’s, and 7th’s (Ex. 4 – 9) doing the same thing as we did with the classic 3rd’s sequence. When playing 4th’s and 5th’s the result sounds modern. The interval of a 4th and the interval of a 5th produce harmonies that are neither major or minor which is why these patterns sound more ambiguous. Jazz players use 4th’s and 5th’s all the time to break away from predictable sounding lines. Note that when playing 4th’s through a major scale you will encounter a #4 on the 4th note (F to B in the key of C). You will also encounter a b5 on the 7th (B to F in the key of C).

Ex. 4 C Major Scale 4ths Sequence Ascending
Ex. 5 C Major Scale 4ths Sequence Descending
Ex. 6 C Major Scale 4ths Sequence (each 4th changes direction)
Ex. 7 C Major Scale 5ths Sequence Ascending
Ex. 8 C Major Scale 5ths Sequence Descending
Ex. 9 C Major Scale 5ths Sequence (each 5th changes direction)

 I really like the way the 6th’s sound in Ex. 10 – 12. Unlike the 4th’s and 5th’s, the 6th’s will produce major and minor harmonies. The large interval jumps create melodic interest while giving the ear a recognizable sound that is used in many bluegrass and country songs. While the 7th’s sequences might be tougher to use in a fiddle tune context the technique and knowledge gained is well worth it. You will find all of these examples are great technique builders. Even if you don’t use these lines in your solos you will improve your scale knowledge and picking technique.  

Ex. 10 C Major Scale 6ths Sequence Ascending
Ex. 11 C Major Scale 6ths Sequence Descending
Ex. 12 C Major Scale 6ths Sequence (each 6th changes direction)
Ex. 13 C Major Scale 7ths Sequence Ascending
Ex. 14 C Major Scale 7ths Squence Descending
Ex. 15 C Major Scale 7ths Sequence (each 7th changes direction)

 If you want to take this lesson to the next level you should work out all of these examples in every key, every octave, and using closed positions. This will no doubt take some time but you will emerge a true master of major scale intervallic playing.

 Every major scale produces seven distinct modes. While this lesson is not about the seven modes of the major scale I’d like to point out that if you learn these patterns for C major you are also learning D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian (A natural minor scale), and B Locrian. You may have to begin and end the patterns on a different note to take on the sound of the different modes but in theory they are exactly the same. Try the C major 6th’s sequence over a D Dorian groove for example (Dm7 to G7). The result is amazing. You can also play these ideas over a static G7 chord to bring out the sound of the Mixolydian mode. 

 Remember that these examples are just scale patterns. When using them in a tune you will be playing little pieces of these ideas to get from one place to another. No great soloist plays the same pattern for too long before going on to the next musical idea. The more ideas you learn the more you have in your bag to try at any given time over any given tune. I’m certain you will enjoy working through these major scale patterns.


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