Three Notes per String Scales (lesson)

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Once you've dived into the world of scales and become familiar with the 5 pentatonic patterns or the CAGED major patterns you will know how these patterns are great for navigating your way around the fretboard.

In this lesson we will look at more patterns that can be used to map out the major or minor scale, or indeed any of the modes over the fretboard.


You first question may be: "Why?" and that just so happens to be a great place to start.

As you may be aware by now in your quest for theory expertise, there are many different ways to play any note, lick or sequence on the guitar due how the notes are laid out on the neck.

By learning to play these licks or sequences in different areas of the neck we vastly increase our knowledge and understanding of the fretboard and can help us to break out of the "stuck in the box" situations.

This goes the same for learning scale patterns. If you can play the same scale up and down in different places or even combine the patterns then your soloing and improvisations will be far less limited. Three notes per string patterns also make learning a scale over the entire fretboard very easy.

Three note per string scale patterns are especially useful to players who wish to hone their techniques such as alternate or economy picking or even legato. The consistent number of notes on each string really facilitates the use of these techniques and is why these patterns are the choice of so many great players, especially shredders such as Paul Gilbert. Think about it - if each string has 3 notes, its a lot easier to get into a rhythm of playing a constant number of notes then moving to a new string, than it would be with any of the CAGED shapes with their mix of 2 and 3 notes per string. Three note per string scales are great to use when playing triplets as you will be playing all the notes on any one string for each triplet which helps a lot with the timing.

In fact, the CAGED shapes are constructed specifically to keep things easy to play without changing position, wheras, 3 note per string scales, as we will see, involve position shifting throughout. This position shifting is a little harder for a beginner to master, which is why CAGED shapes are often taught first.

Constructing a 3 notes per string scale

To construct a 3 notes per string scale, you must first consider the notes in the scale, for this example we'll use the C major scale.


We'll start at the C note, on the 8th fret on the low E string.


From here, we can proceed by adding the next notes in the scale; these being D E then F.


However, once at the F note on the low E string we now have 4 notes on this string. To keep to the 3 note per string concept we must move this note to the adjacent string like so.


So when building this scale pattern, we must move a note across to the adjacent string to keep to the 3 notes per string rule.


Now, note here that we moved position - up one fret is all but it it is worth noting. All three note per string scales will involve 2 or 3 position shifts throughout the scale. This is not a big deal, but means a little practice is needed when playing to smoothly move up the neck at the same time as you are changing strings.

Eventually we end up with a completed octave of this pattern.


However this is not enough for us, as one of the main benefits of a 3 notes per string is to be able to play a scale over the entire fretboard. So we will continue to build this pattern until we have used all 6 strings and have 3 notes on each.


Second pattern and beyond!

Now that you have constructed this first major scale pattern you are able to play the major scale starting from any note on the low E string as the root. However, using this one pattern can be limiting so we will continue to build more patterns.

To do this, we will start from the second note in the C major scale, D.

Applying what we know about constructing a 3 notes per string scale will look like this.


..and eventually..


Your next guess was correct, we'll build a 3 note per string scale off every degree of the scale starting on the low E string.

Here they all are laid out for comparison and as you know; the first pattern starts from the first degree of the scale, the second pattern starts from the second degree of the scale and so on.

Pattern 1


Pattern 2


Pattern 3


Pattern 4


Pattern 5


Pattern 6


Pattern 7


(you'll notice that we ran out of room on the neck there so this pattern is shown starting at a note an octave lower on the E string)

And so that you can see how it all fits together..


You can see that a pattern can be used at the other end of the fretboard whether it being an octave lower or higher as it contains the same notes, in the same order, so we can use the same pattern.

Why Seven Patterns?

Our regular CAGED boxes only give us 5 patterns, so why do 3 note per string scales have 7 patterns? The answer is simple; every scale will have the exact number of patterns that there are notes in the scale. Pentatonic for instance has 5 patterns, whereas Major, Minor and the modes will all have 7 - as we have seen above. The trick here is that for the CAGED system, we are simplifying things to make it easier for a learner to pick up, whereas 3 note per string scales are more advanced. For this reason, in the CAGED system we miss out a couple of the boxes that are separated from the previous boxes by only one semitone to avoid cluttering things up (these would be boxes 4 and 7 of the major scale).

Minor Scales

Instead of going over exactly the same process again, which you should be familiar with at this point of the lesson, here I will list the seven 3 notes per string patterns for a minor scale. I'll keep these as general patterns, as you know how to apply them to a scale and also how they fit together.

Pattern 1


Pattern 2


Pattern 3


Pattern 4


Pattern 5


Pattern 6


Pattern 7


Wait a minute…

You may have noticed that our major and minor scales share the same 7 patterns for 3 notes per string scales patterns.

Here it is laid out for comparison:



(for this section you will have to have first read through Andrew's mode lessons found here and here )

So let's recap a few things we've picked up about three notes per string scales; we build patterns starting from each note of a scale - also that the minor scale (Aeolian mode) shares the same patterns as the major scale (Ionian mode).

This screams out for us to use the modes to help us remember these patterns!

Instead of confusing ourselves with a pattern 1- 7 for each scale, we can instead name each pattern by the name of the mode built of the corresponding degree of the scale.

For example, the third mode of the major scale is Phrygian, so we can name the third three notes per string pattern of the major scale the Phrygian shape.

If we now move to Aeolian mode, the patterns are offset by 6 positions, so the fifth pattern of the Aeolian mode would also be the Phrygian shape - 5 + 6 = 11, we subtract 8 (since we went into a second octave) and we get 3, meaning the Phrygian shape, since Phrygian is the 3rd mode.

Similarly, we can use the Phrygian shape as the second pattern of the Dorian mode (The offset is 2 for Dorian, we are moving up 1 pattern, making 3 (2 + 1), in this case we don't go above the octave so don't need to subtract 8.

Now, you see that a little understanding of the modes has allowed us to use just 7 shapes to be able to cover the entire fretboard with all the modes of the major scale.

Now we've covered a fair bit of ground in this lesson, so to conclude here is each of the 7 three notes per string patterns named by their corresponding modes.

Ionian shape


Dorian shape


Phrygian shape


Lydian shape


Mixolydian shape


Aeolian shape


Locrian shape