The Classical Approach
If you’ve ever checked out Al Di Meola’s book, ‘A Guide to Chords, Scales and Arpeggios’, you’ll know that the scales and arpeggio sections are written out in standard notation. I think this was the first (and only) book I had where scales and arpeggios were written out this way instead of box patterns or tab, and you’re encouraged to read the scales rather than working out the box patterns and becoming oblivious to the notes and intervals in the scale. Reading scales is something few guitarists probably do but once you try it, you realize what you’re missing out on.
The Other Problem with Patterns
If you run a scale pattern from the 3NPS or CAGED Systems after reading a scale from notation and finding the notes yourself, you’ll see that the ‘systems’ are in fact arbitrary sequences of notes that fit into a section of the fretboard and cover all the possible notes within reach for whatever scale you’re playing; in other words, this is their ‘default’ layout on the fretboard. If you think about it, learning scales via arbitrary boxes is pretty much exclusive to the guitar, and musically-speaking a rather odd way to learn scales. Patterns sacrifice the musical aspect of learning scales and turn it into a cold, mechanical exercise that leads to very scalar improvisation without much musical content. But doesn’t everyone learn scales this way? Pretty much, but that doesn’t mean it’s gospel.
The Pentatonic Box 1 Trap
But wait! I can rip out a sweet solo using box one of the minor pentatonic which I learned how to do by learning the scale pattern. Yes, but the thing about the minor pentatonic box 1 is that the notes fall so unbelievably nicely under your fingers that you’d have to make a humongous effort to play something that sounded bad in this position—in other words, you can’t go wrong with box 1.
Now, grab one of your 3NPS or CAGED patterns and do the same—for most players this is a little tricky because the notes don’t fall nicely under your fingers and in learning just the pattern, you sacrificed the musical content for an empty visual reference, which means that any attempts to be musical are somewhat of a shot in the dark because you don’t really know what you’re playing. I’ve often thought that this is why guitarists tend to overplay—it’s not that they’re into gratuitous soloing—they’re just trying to find some music within those generic patterns.
My first guitar teacher once said to me, ‘Your average sax player can improvise 10 times better than your average guitarist, you know why?’
‘They know the shit out of chords and scales.’
This is probably true for many other instruments where the player is not ‘shooting in the dark’ because they know which notes they’re playing and their function against the chord (intervals). Us guitarists, however, usually wait until we’ve hit a wall before we contemplate learning what are considered fundamental skills on any other instrument.
To be honest, I discovered that most players aren’t fascinated by the idea of reading scales from notation, especially if they’ve already paid their dues in the woodshed and learned all their scale patterns. The problem was that their improvisations were technically very good but musically hit and miss which leads to the age-old question of, ‘how do I break out of scale patterns?’ Or, ‘how do I make music from scales?’
If you ‘break out of a scale pattern’, where do you go? To another scale pattern with the same notes? To the notes that aren’t in the scale? To some kind of elusive area of the fretboard where everything you play makes you sound like the ghost of Hendrix? What guitarists really mean by ‘breaking out of scale patterns’ is, ‘how can I be more melodic?’ Or, ‘how can I improve my phrasing?’ If you can’t be melodic or phrase well in one position, chances are you won’t be able to in another. This is where I came up with the solution, which is more of a compromise between ‘reading’ what you’re doing, and working with a more improvisation-friendly scale pattern in a reduced area of the fretboard, or what I call, Zonal Improvisation.
Here’s an example:
There are 5 interconnecting zones on the fretboard which lend themselves well to constructing scale patterns that are more comfortable to solo with than their CAGED or 3NPS counterparts. Here’s a Lydian b7 scale pattern in Zone 2:
Compare what you just did to trying to be musical with the generic melodic minor/Lydian b7 scale pattern (Lydian b7 is the fourth mode of the melodic minor scale), and you’ll see a gaping difference in musicality. By using a zone, we went straight to the scale starting on its root note; by reducing the number of notes, we were able to shift our focus to crafting phrases and melodies as oppose to blindly running up and down a scale pattern trying to find the music.
I had a lot of success with this method, so I decided to turn it into a full reference book for 15 of the most useful, and common, scales in any style of music beyond pentatonic scales. In the book, you’ll find the patterns for all five zones by individual zone and all five zones for each scale, giving you the complete picture when it comes to turning scales into solos. Learn more about the book below.