As you may have already gathered, any chord, arpeggio or scale can be written out as a sequence of intervals. This information is often lost on guitarists in favor of using a movable pattern, but the problem here is that we overlook the information inside the pattern i.e. the intervals. This is a double-edged sword as you can quite easily learn a pentatonic scale pattern and happily use it to solo to heart’s content, but not knowing what intervals the pattern contains will hold you back in the long-run.
Practicing without patterns focuses on navigating the fretboard by using a formula of intervals rather than a pattern. Let’s take the Lydian b7 scale, its interval sequence is 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7. Once you have this in your head, it’s time to transfer it to the fretboard, but not via a pattern.
In the fretboard diagram below, you’ll see just the root notes (in C), but every fret is labeled with its corresponding interval, allowing you to map out the Lydian b7 scale interval sequence as you play, rather than drill a pattern over and over.
I chose the Lydian b7 scale because to get the full benefit of this exercise, you need a sequence that’s unfamiliar. If you try this with a minor pentatonic scale, you probably won’t get much benefit out of it as you’ll slip back into those well-worn patterns.
A couple of interesting things happen here as first of all you get to choose the notes you play rather than blindly running up and down the scale on autopilot. This in turn forces you to slow down and consider what you’re playing in a kind of trial and error fashion as you start to hear what works and what doesn’t work. You’ll quickly realize you don’t need to play all the notes in the scale as fast as possible, and that you can really hone your phrasing. If you own a looper pedal, record a C7 or C9 chord to give you more context for the scale.
Chords are also made up of formulas, so if you take the formula for a maj7#5 chord (1, 3, #5, 7), you can start to make your own chord shapes. This was something my first guitar teacher encouraged me to do early on instead of learning endless shapes and inversions. The great thing here is that if you discover it, it becomes yours – you remember it because you feel like you own it. See how many Gmaj#5 chord you can find using the diagram below:
Last but not least are arpeggios and if like me you’re not a fan of rote-learning arpeggios, here you get to choose your own way to navigate through the intervals. Let’s take a Minor 9 arpeggio (1, b3, 5, b7, 9) and map it out on the fly in A below:
Remember that the 2 is the same as the 9.
If you want to see how far this kind of thinking goes, then check out Wayne Krantz’ book, ‘An Improviser’s OS’, which we reviewed here. Or check out Melodic Soloing in 10 Days for a complete interval improvisation method.
The PDF download below contains the diagrams for all 12 keys, and here is a selection of formulas to start you off:
Major: 1, 3, 5
Minor: 1, b3, 5
Dim: 1, b3, b5
Aug: 1, 3, #5
7th Chords (use for arpeggios too):
Maj7: 1, 3, 5, 7
Min7: 1, b3, 5, b7
Dom7: 1, 3, 5, b7
m7b5: 1, b3, b5, b7
Lydian: 1, 2, 3, #4 (b5), 6, 7
Mixolydian: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Dorian: 1, 2 b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Phrygian: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Aeolian: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
I’d encourage you to explore these and other formulas as the more you do this, the more you’ll become aware of the huge chunk of learning/thinking you’re missing out on when you go straight to the pattern.