Friday, November 26, 2010

Build your own box patterns


I quite regularly see forum posts from players looking for a resource for "box patterns" of the major scale. In the spirit of the old saying: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime" here is a method for the 'do-it-yourself-er' inside you. The process of writing this out, can help you see the fretboard in a new light. So grab some neck paper and lets get started.

It is easy to do, you just need some very basic theory to do it.

  • All notes have 2 frets (whole-step) between them EXCEPT:
    E to F and B to C - they only have one fret between them (half-step)
  • So if you start on the note C and end with the note C you get the major scale formula:

    W-W-H-W-W-W-H

    (W= whole-step, H = half-step)
 The cool part: Armed with this pattern memorized, you can build ANY major scale on the guitar. Start from any note on the neck, and move up in this pattern and voila! Major scale of note started on.

That's fine that there are those two fret distances.. but what is in between?
In between those is where the sharp or flat note resides. The note F#, for example, is located between the notes F & G. To make a note sharp you raise it by one fret. This same identical note is also referred to as Gb. To make a note flat you lower it by one fret. Let me reiterate: these 2 notes are exactly the same in pitch and location. They are named differently because they are needed to build all the major keys. It would get too confusing if the system wasn't so. To have all the possible variations you need both sharp and flat keys. This is a topic for another day so lets leave it at that for now.

Let's build some patterns



  • Put circles on the notes, as you find them, So if you started on the C note (8th fret) E string and draw out the neck on a piece of paper here is how you would work it out:

    C to D (two frets between) = W (whole step)
    D to E (two frets between) = W
    E to F (one fret between) = H (half step)
    F to G (two frets between) = W
    G to A (two frets between) =W
    A to B (two frets between) = W
    B to C (one fret between) = H

    Remember the distance between the notes themselves is fixed - it never changes. There is ALWAYS only one fret between E to F and B to C.

    So if you start on the Low E string it will looks like this:
    E|F| |G| |A| |B|C| |D| |E|F| |G etc
  • Then do the A string:
    A| |B|C| |D| |E|F| |G| |A|
  •  Keep going and do all the strings. If you do this, over the whole neck to ALL strings you will have just mapped out the entire neck for CMaj (Which is also the same notes as A natural min or Aeolian for you mode fans)
  • Next step, subdivide those patterns into 3 notes-per-string blocks and WHAM! - your box patterns. The C pattern will look like this using 3 notes per string


    You can finger these any way you like so I find it is better to work out your own. Then you can customize the blocks to suit your comfort. 

With all this, I will add that you need to be aware of where all the root C notes are. Also the note A. It is prudent to always practice these forms, coming off of those primary notes, to make them applicable. Many players, focus on the lowest note on the E string (barre chord-style thinking) and always start the pattern from the index finger - which can lead to real clashing when you start trying to use them.

OK, OK, for those of you who just have to have it now (you guys are probably already searching the house for your Christmas presents aren't you)! I have created a full neck matrix here (click to download the pdf). Maybe this is old hat to you, and you just want a clean copy. Whatever the reason use and enjoy. I will stress, for your own good, you should use this file to check or formalize your work. Go through the process of writing this out for yourself a couple of times first. FYI - I have labeled the modal shapes and also colour coded which form has a major or minor feel. It is a good bird's eye view of the entire form.

Remember these are C SCALES - the note and chord C is very important to these boxes (A minor too). Internalize these patterns, being very cognizant of the location of those 2 notes and their associated chord shapes that lie within the forms. Then do up some other keys with a different starting note. You will begin to see this, as a large sliding form, that simply moves the same way a barre chord does. Very powerful stuff!

Remember, patterns are great, but to really understand the neck, you need to begin to think notes and their relationships. Patterns, over time, can become a serious crutch ... take a look at how many "I cant break out of the box" threads there are internet wide. The guitar is a very visual instrument - that is one of it's strengths. But that same strength can end up working against you. Ultimately you must let your ears, and the music, NOT YOUR EYES be your guide.

Good luck!!

P.S. I just published a follow up to this post on figuring out the order of chords within these scales. Check it out click here.

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