How To Make Guitar Scales Sound Good

When it comes to improvising using scales many guitarists get into the habit of playing in a linear and predictable fashion. This is mainly because of how we initially learn scales, using sequential patterns on the neck. A question I often get asked is how to make scale movements sound more musical. In the first lesson on major pentatonic, we learned the importance of using target notes to give our scale movements more purpose and keep them connected to the backing music. But how we approach these target notes is also a key factor in melodic soloing. If you listen closely to some of the best loved solos out there you’ll notice that they often mimic vocal dynamics in terms of moving from one note to the next. The most memorable melodies, whether vocal or instrumental tend to avoid prolonged linear movements through a scale. So how do we escape the trap of simply running through a scale in straight, predictable runs? Once you’ve learned a pattern, you’ll know how to get from one note to the next in the scale’s natural sequence. But you’ll also know how to skip notes in the sequence. For example, in this major pentatonic pattern we could start on the 5 on the second string, and instead of moving down to the 3, we could skip the 3 and move to the 2 before targeting the 1. We could of course reverse this movement and skip a note moving UP the scale. Or we could play from 5 to 3, but skip the 2 before landing on 1. These are two simple examples of how skipping notes in the scale sequence can create more melodically interesting phrases. Now, when fingering these note skips, especially with pentatonic scales we’ll often have to use a technique called “rolling”. This is where we consecutively play two adjacent strings on the same fret, using the same finger for both. Using just one finger keeps our fingering economical especially when playing at speed. In the previous example, we’d fret the second string with the flat part or pad of our finger, just below the tip and then “roll” it to a more vertical position so the tip frets the third string below. This technique is quite subtle and takes some practice. But being able to roll will allow you to skip certain notes in a scale seamlessly. The rolling technique is also essential for many arpeggio patterns, especially for sweep picking. We can create exercises covering the entire pattern that use this roll technique. Such as this one… Once you can play through the entire pattern like this break it down, isolating parts of the sequence as a lead up to your target note. Try also skipping two notes in the scale sequence. For example… We can then experiment with combining the different sequences with linear movements. You can find more skipped note sequence ideas, with tabs, on the lesson page. We can make linear runs sound more interesting by staggering them. For example, here I play three notes down from the top… Now I take one step back in the sequence and play another three notes down… Repeat this sequence and you get the following… Simply reverse the sequence to move up the scale. Just like the skipped note sequences, we can break down this full exercise into small phrases that resolve to a target note. Pedal sequences involve playing one static note and alternating between that static note and a sequence of other notes. It’s quite difficult to explain in words, but here I identify the pedal note, or pedal point, marked in red. I then alternate this note between other notes in the scale. Again, the idea is not to play through an entire pattern using these sequences rather isolate small phrases that lead to your target note. Already we have countless combinations of skipped, staggered and pedal sequences to create melodic phrases. Once you’ve practiced each type of sequence individually, it’s time to practice combining them seamlessly. For example… Of course, you don’t want to completely crowd your solo with drawn out sequences so be sure to also include simpler phrases, that give your solo some breathing space. If you like, you can try out what you’ve learned in this lesson over my guided jam tracks. Try applying different sequence techniques over other patterns across the neck. There are other ways to bring your scale phrases to life, including techniques such as bending, slides and legato but we’ll look at adding those to our repertoire at a later time. For more help with the techniques covered here, including tabs, visit the lesson page. Cheers!