3N/S Patterns: Blues Scale

Recalling the Scales and Intervals series from a few weeks back (and we will be looking at the various intervals in the coming week), learning and memorizing scale patterns is probably the best way to build an arsenal of melodic licks.

As we’ve alluded to before, one of the most efficient ways to learn scales and cover some real estate on the neck is to use 3-note-per-string patterns. (“3N/S” seems like a convenient shorthand to use, hence the post title.) These patterns lend themselves very well to a variety of rhythmic and melodic sequences, many of which we’ll cover soon.

But first, let’s take a look at some scale patterns, starting with the blues scale. Unlike the diatonic major and minor scales, which have seven notes, or the five-note pentatonic scale, the blues scale has six notes (hexatonic). It is the pentatonic minor scale with an added flat fifth; intervallically, it’s spelled 1(R)-b3-4-b5-5-7.

Here’s the usual positional layout for the A minor blues scale, covering the first two of the five box positions:

Am Blues Scale

This is great if you want to remain in position, but if you want a convenient way to navigate, and come up with melodic sequences that are more efficient and easier to play at higher tempos, then the 3N/S style is really useful. Here’s how the blues scale looks in 3N/S:

Am Blues

It’s really just the same two-string shape, repeated three times across the neck, with position shifts. Just play the first two strings a few times at first to get the shape down; the first three notes are likely to be awkward to play at first, since about the only way to play that part is by using the third (ring) finger, a 1-3-4 fingering. Consider it a good way to get that tricky 3-4 fingering combination into shape. Play the shape ascending, and then back down, per the tab below:


If it’s too much of a stretch to start down at the 5th position, move the whole shape a few frets up.

Practice the entire sequence in a few different keys, in various positions along the neck. The first note is the root note, so if you start the sequence at the 7th fret of the low E string, it’s in B minor, 9th fret would be C#m, and so on.

Try this melodic sequence using the 3N/S pattern in sextuplets:


Use strict down-up alternate picking, take it slow at first and build up speed. Use a metronome to track your progress.

Stay tuned, we’ll have some other 3N/S scale and modal patterns over the coming week, as well as some sequences to try out on them!

Lick of the Week: Blues You Can Use

Let’s try a simple two-finger pentatonic run that moves across and up the neck. You should be able to play the entire thing with your 1st and 3rd fingers. The lick uses the A pentatonic boxes, joined together as follows:


Easy enough, right? Notice in the third and fourth bars where the pattern varies; instead of the ascending sequence, the pattern reverses before ascending again. These sorts of back-and-forth sequences and pattern fragments add color and melodic tension, rather than just playing a predictable, repetitive scalar run.

So let’s add a little flavor to those spots where the pattern reverses, throw in some quick hammer-on/pull-off notes. Check out the variation below for the last two bars:


Sliding into the final note, and then holding it, resolves the run with a nice “vocal” quality. With solos and short melodic runs, it’s generally the beginning and the end which are the most memorable parts of the melody, so it’s helpful to throw in some stylistic elements in those parts.

As far as picking goes, you’ll notice that there are no picking indications given. The odd-numbered note groupings per string make alternate picking more interesting, but as soon as you internalize the pattern and position shifting, use hammer-ons and pull-offs as much as possible throughout. That will make the entire run sound more smooth and fluid.

Melodic runs like this are great for “connecting” the fretboard, and for getting between distant points quickly and smoothly. The wider intervals of the pentatonic scale are especially useful for these sorts of connector licks.

5 Basic Pentatonic Licks Every Rock Guitarist Should Know

Many classic rock solos tend to be built up from various combinations and sequences of easy-to-play pentatonic licks. Let’s take a look at five powerful “stock” phrases, all based around the standard A minor pentatonic box. Each tab is accompanied by a .wav file, at two speeds (92 beats per minute and 160bpm), so you can hear how it should sound.

Here’s a two-string pull-off lick:


BasicPent01(slow) BasicPent01(fast)

For many two-string legato exercises using box shapes, it helps to use your index finger as anchor, similar to barring a chord, but just for the two or three strings you might be using for the lick.

The next one uses a hammer-on instead of a pull-off:


BasicPent02(slow) BasicPent02(fast)

No doubt you’ve heard similar phrases used in countless rock, metal, country, and blues lead playing. Definitely use a metronome and follow the picking suggestions until you get these licks internalized, then you can start putting more distinctive dynamics into it, and make them yours.

Let’s move to the middle two strings of the box, and try a nice four-on-the-floor alternate picking lick:


BasicPent03(slow) BasicPent03(fast)

Again, while these are simple phrases, your advantage is that you’re a guitar player, so there’s all sorts of cool dynamics you can incorporate into even the simplest four-note phrase. In the above example, you can use palm muting to get a percussive “chunk” sound, you can add artificial harmonics for a nice “squeal” effect here and there, you can make some or all of it into a legato phrase, whatever.

You can also play it in reverse, or with a different section of the box, or any of the other four boxes, or transpose it to another key.

Are we having fun yet?

This next lick is a fun and easy one, that will work out both your legato and picking chops. Zeppelin fans will probably note its similarity to the final phrase Jimmy Page plays in the middle (main) Rock and Roll solo:


BasicPent04(slow) BasicPent04(fast)

Don’t be afraid of the triplet-16th/eighth note phrasing; once you get it down you’ll appreciate the polyrhythmic quality. It’s a huge element of developing your own phrasing as a lead player.

All of these examples are shown as just simple repetitions, because that’s the easiest way to get it under your fingers. The idea is to build a nice arsenal of these “stock” licks and take a piece here and there to combine and sequence into a great solo.

The guitar is your voice. Everyone has something to say, what’s on your mind?

The fifth lick involves the use of the blues scale. The blues scale is the pentatonic scale, with a flatted fifth (the tritone or “blue note”) thrown in. Here’s the blues scale as it lays along the first two boxes of the A minor pentatonic sequence:

Am Blues Scale

Take a close look at the above diagram; there are only six notes in the scale, repeated throughout two full octaves: A-C-D-Eb-E-G. See where Box #1 and Box #2 border each other and overlap.

So we’re going to throw that blue note in the mix with this last lick. The first bar of the phrase will just take you through the first octave of the scale, with a little back-and-forth phrasing. The second bar features some easy bending, before moving up to the 2nd box for another bend (but this time no release) with a nice chromatic passing tone (the C#, E’ string 9th fret), before ending on the high root note A (B string, 10th fret), by sliding into it from the G note (8th fret) below.

Check it out, and listen to the .wav files to hear the phrasing and nuances. This is more of a “voicing” lick, in that you don’t need (or even want) to crank it up to too high of a speed; dynamics such as bends and slides really don’t sound all that great at Mach 1:


BasicPent05(slow) BasicPent05(fast)

While all of these licks are fairly simple to play and easy to master, the challenge is to make them sound unique. Use all of those dynamics (palm muting, harmonics, slides, legato, etc.) available to you to infuse the phrases with your voice and personality. Since the above exercises are in A minor, they should all sound pretty good over progressions in the keys of Am, Dm, or Em.

While it’s a rule of thumb to play any exercise in every key, not just the key it’s shown in, with pentatonic exercises there are keys that are advantageous to focus on, primarily because of the way the guitar is tuned. So while it would be great if you can transpose all of these into all 12 keys, the best ones to focus on for pentatonics are: Em (open and 12th positions), F#m (2nd and 14th positions), Gm (3rd/15th), Am (5th/17th), Bm (7th), Cm (8th), Dm (10th). The positions indicate where Box #1 will start, as shown on the cheat sheet.

When thinking about musical keys, think about how the relative minor/major factors into it as well. The relative minor key is always three frets (1½ steps) below the major key. So in your five interconnected pentatonic boxes, Box #1 is minor, Box #2 is #1’s relative major. That means the A minor boxes can also be played in the key of C major. The reverse is true as well; you will find some rock songs in the key of E major whose solos are played mostly in the C#m box at the 9th position.

The concepts are more important than rote memorization of every position and every box; once you learn the boxes in one position and get the hang of transposing, you’re most of the way there.

Stay tuned, we’ll have more intermediate and advanced pentatonic licks coming soon! Please feel free to drop a line in comments if there are any issues with playing the sound files.

If you’re ready for an in-depth exploration of the pentatonic/blues scales and boxes, and want to learn how to develop tasty, memorable licks and melodic runs with them, check out Pentatonic Licks & Sequences. Dozens of fresh licks, along with valuable tips and tricks to construct your own! Get some blues you can use with Pentatonic Licks & Sequences!

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Pentatonic Power: Unwrapping the Boxes

The five pentatonic boxes are usually one of the first things most players learn. Like many things, while they’re simple to get the hang of, you can spend a great deal of time mining cool licks and ideas from those five simple boxes.

A classic basic picking exercise that has great practical application uses the “two-finger” boxes on the 1-2 (E’-B) string pair. Chances are you can play this pattern at a fair amount of speed:

Basic 2-string pentatonic box pattern

Single-string and two-string exercises are ideal for isolating any picking-hand issues and working on them before they develop into habits that might limit speed or accuracy. Start with down-up alternate picking, then work in hammer-ons and pull-offs to build legato technique, Once it sounds smooth and clear, it’s time to move it up and down the neck. Here’s the standard A minor pentatonic, all five boxes, starting at the fifth fret:

A minor pentatonic box pattern

The above exercise is a great one for synchronizing both hands, between the string-crossing and the frequent position shifts. If you drill the pattern repeatedly, it’s more rhythmic to hit the turnaround at the first beat of the second bar and start descending at that point, instead of going up to the next box at the 20th fret.

Just as important as working up and down the neck, is working across the neck in a single position. So let’s try running our four-note pattern down through the entire box in position, one step at a time:

A minor pentatonic box (Box 1)

Naturally, we’ll want to work on all five boxes in this manner, ascending and descending, and string them all together in succession when comfortable with all of them.

So far, we’ve just been working with straight 16th notes (groups of 4), but triplet and sextuplet patterns, because of the odd numbers of notes picked per string, are excellent for alternate picking. This last exercise shows the entire first Am box in sextuplets, ascending and then descending back:

Pentatonic box sextuplet pattern

Again, keep it strict down-up alternate picking until you’re comfortable with the pattern and build some speed and accuracy, then start throwing in legato dynamics, observing how those affect your picking hand dynamics as well.