Scale Patterns for Jazz Guitar

Breaking Out of Boxes

Hey everyone! Marc here with another lesson for ya. Today, we’re going to be talking about scale patterns for jazz guitar and some of the problems I see among my students when learning them.

Many of the “boxed” patterns beginners learn early on are great dexterity exercises and do serve their purpose, but they can hinder you when it comes to improvisation. In this lesson, we’ll talk about why that happens and different strategies you can use to break out of that.

Don’t worry, we’ll make sure to keep things easy. I like easy and you should too! 😉

What’s happening?

Well, basically, students are picking up method books to get themselves going. That’s a good thing. The problem is that we need to make the distinction between technical dexterity exercises and actual music. While they go hand-in-hand, you will quickly notice – if you haven’t already – that music requires more subtlety and attention to detail.

Download ALL of the licks here: “Scale Patterns for Jazz Guitar” PDF (includes TAB)

When you learn these “boxed” scale patterns, there are sections of them that tend to be technically difficult to play. When you’re “in the zone” in an improvising situation, the last thing you need is to stumble around because of something that’s tough for your fingers. In other words, going beyond your box of 5 frets will allow you to skip some of these in favor of shapes that are easier to reach or grab.

Let’s go over some of the ways I like to approach scale patterns. I think these will help to make things more musically accessible for you.

Exercise 1: Move it across the fretboard

Let’s take a simple scale pattern that I’m sure you’ve probably seen a ton of times. In this pattern, we’ll go up the scale in 3rds.

C major scale: Ascending 3rds boxed pattern

Notice some of the trouble spots between the 3rd and 2nd strings. Some of these intervals can be pretty uncomfortable or awkward to grab. For that reason, it might helpful to find different ways to play them across several fretboard positions.

Let’s see how this might look across two positions.

C major scale: Ascending 3rds no box

Much easier, right? When you don’t have to think about whether or not you feel comfortable fretting what’s in your head, your improvisation will have a much better flow.

Exercise 2: Changing the way we approach descending scale patterns

Now, in this exercise, we’ll take the same scale pattern in the same key and reevaluate how we approach the descending pattern.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s the scale pattern again:

C major scale: Ascending 3rds boxed pattern

Now, the natural tendency is to play the descending pattern like this:

C major scale: Descending pattern in 3rds

But why don’t we try something different? See, if you’re trying to stick to the same pattern, it would look this way descending:

C major scale: Descending 3rds pattern 2

Next, let’s try the same idea with a different scale pattern to give you a better idea.

C major scale: Ascending groups of 4

Most people would approach the descending pattern like this:

C major scale: Descending groups of 4 pattern 1

Instead, I’m going to have you apply the same principle from before to this scale pattern. Instead of inverting the pattern itself, we’re going to play the same pattern but in descending sequences.

C major scale: Descending groups of 4 pattern 2

Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s try some more stuff!

Exercise 3: Learn intervals and disregard positions

If you were watching the video, you probably noticed I have trouble staying in positions. This happens because I need to be able to hear what I’m playing, and the way I visualize these phrases tends to disregard certain box patterns.

Just go ahead and take this scale, play it in 3rds, and let yourself wander around on the fretboard. Find different ways to play this. Here’s a good example of how I might approach this:

C major scale: Ascending 3rds "free roam"

And, of course, try this with different intervals. Here’s the same scale but in 4ths. I encourage you to try it with every interval!

C major scale: Ascending 4ths "free roam"

This exercise is particularly effective for improving your knowledge of the fretboard as well. It would also be a good idea to try this exercise with 3rds that alternate between ascending and descending. Check it out:

C major scale: Combined 3rds pattern

Download ALL of the licks here: “Scale Patterns for Jazz Guitar” PDF (includes TAB)

Book: Patterns for Jazz

Lastly, I want to leave you all with a little book recommendation. All of the music is in standard notation because it is not geared to any one instrument. This is a great book for building your library of scale patterns and permutations.

The book is called Patterns for Jazz by Jerry Coker.

I would definitely recommend this book to improvisers of all levels.

Jump In

Thanks for joining us for this lesson on scale patterns for jazz guitar. I hope that with this lesson, you’ve been able to put together a few ideas on how to break out of the same old scale patterns and really start making music. Remember, music is about music. It’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the instrument – especially with an instrument like the guitar – but the most important thing must always be the music.

If you’re having trouble with any of the terminology used here, we’ve got our covered with our Improv 101 course.

Jazz Improv 101 Course

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Please comment below with your questions and comments. Feel free to share your ideas with us about playing faster. See you soon!


Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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