For today’s lesson, I’d like to explore a very guitar-centric approach to playing modal and scaler patterns. This lesson is geared towards intermediate and advanced players.
As you work through these exercises, pay attention to the pattern of your picking hand. It is the common denominator for all these patterns. That is to say, you will pick the strings exactly the same way for every exercise.
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Exercise 1a: Pentatonic Scales
Let’s start with an A minor pentatonic scale in 5th position. The trick with this pattern is using the same finger on two adjacent strings smoothly. Start with your 4th finger (pinky) for the first two notes, then use your 1st finger (pointer) for the next two. Moving down you’ll start using your 3rd finger in place of your 4th.
To play the first two 16th notes of each beat, simply flatten your 3rd or 4th finger to bar the next string. To play the last two 16th notes of each beat, you have to begin by barring two strings with your 1st finger. For cleaner articulation, don’t allow more than one note to sound at a time. To do this, roll your finger through the barring motion so it only really presses one string at a time. It’s a little tricky, but once you get the hang of the pattern the motion will become fluid, especially as you speed it up.
Exercise 1b: Displacement / Sweep Picking Pattern
Staying with the same pentatonic scale, let’s play the first note as a 16th note pickup. This gives the pattern a very different vibe, placing the accent on the highest pitch of every four notes. Practice with your metronome set to 8th notes and try starting the pattern on different parts of the beat. How about playing triplets? What happens if you throw a rest in every five notes? The possibilities are nearly endless.
Now look at the picking pattern I’ve notated. One downstroke followed by three upstrokes in a sweep-like picking style. This makes playing fast much easier.
Changing your picking pattern can be tricky. If you play the first note on the downbeat, like in Ex. 1a, the upstroke might feel awkward. Try starting the pattern with two downstrokes to make it feel more natural. Alternately, you could play two downstrokes / two upstrokes repeatedly, sort of like alternate picking, but catching two string with each movement.
Exercise 2a: Dorian Mode
You might have noticed that this pattern uses two notes per string. As such, it can apply to various modes by playing notes from two adjacent chord shapes. In Ex. 2a, we’ll use two minor chord voicings commonly used by guitarists and pianists. In fact, these are the same chords Bill Evans plays on Miles Davis’ tune “So What” from the iconic album Kind Of Blue.
Notice how similar this pattern is to the pentatonic scale. However, this isn’t actually a pentatonic scale because we play all seven notes of the D Dorian scale. The half steps are displaced by an octave.
Exercise 2b: Lydian Dominant Mode
Now let’s try applying this to an altered scale. Ex. 2b explores the Melodic Minor modes. This pattern is derived from an F Lydian Dominant scale, the 4th mode of the C Melodic Minor scale, using the chord shapes of a G9 and F9(#11). Sounds pretty cool, right?
I also play this particular pattern for the Super Locrian mode, or the last mode of the Melodic Minor scale. In this case, it would work over a B altered dominant chord, like B7(#5 #9). You’ll really hit all the color tones and outline the harmony nicely.
Here’s a lick video using this pattern for an Eb9(#11) chord.
Practice playing this pattern over all your pentatonic scales, and explore shifting one or two notes on the fretboard for some interesting results. For example, start with one scale for the first two beats, and then switch to a different scale for the last two beats. What about changing modes for each beat? As I said at the beginning, the common denominator is your picking hand. Allow the scaler leaps that result from the picking pattern to enhance the patterns in your other hand.
Cameron Mizell is a freelance guitarist, music teacher, and musicians' advocate, in Brooklyn, NY. He performs frequently in NYC with a wide variety of ensembles. When not playing guitar, he writes for MusicianWages.com, a website about musician careers he co-founded in 2008.