There are several guitar scale patterns that every serious lead guitarist needs to know. This helps him or her navigate the neck and play melodies all over the guitar with ease. If you don’t know these patterns, it will limit your ability to play with the freedom you need to be a serious improviser.
In my previous article about which scales to learn as a beginner, I introduced you to the major scale, and the pentatonic scale (major and minor). Those are great scales to start out with, This article picks up where that left off, and shows you all the patterns to learn to help you become a serious lead guitarist.
After the single string pattern, I’ll start out showing you all the major pentatonic scale patterns, then introduce the major scale patterns. The pentatonic patterns are a bit easier to start out with since there are less notes. The pentatonic scales have 5 notes in one octave, and the major scale has 7.
Here are the patterns I will present to you in this article.
- Major scale on a single string
- Pentatonic scale patterns (CAGED system)
- Major scale patterns (CAGED system)
- Major scale patterns (3 Note per String system)
There are two main “systems” of guitar scale patterns. One is called the CAGED system, and the other is called the 3 Note per String system. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. But first, let’s discuss the most important pattern of all.
The Major Scale On a Single String
This is the most important pattern there is, because it helps you understand the major scale in a linear way. Here it is in C Major.
Practice this first, and learn it before you even bother learning any of the other patterns. You must understand the following about the major scale on a single string.
- This pattern can be played anywhere on the neck, starting/ending on any note, and any string. For instance, if we slid the entire pattern back 1 fret, it would be the B Major Scale on a single string.
- The major scale follows this pattern when starting at the root note. Whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. Memorize that.
- This single-string pattern can be used to connect the multi-string patterns I’m going to show you below.
- the single-string pattern spans 12 frets, or one entire octave on the guitar.
Now, let’s discuss the first of the two systems…the CAGED patterns.
Pentatonic Scale “CAGED” Patterns
The CAGED patterns of scales are based off of the five open chords of C, A, G, E, and D. If you add various notes that surround the chord you can develop scale patterns. We’ll start by using the major pentatonic scale patterns. Here they are.
The pentatonic scale is, without question, one of the most used scale patterns in rock, blues, and metal music. I’m presenting the 5 patterns here that follow the CAGED shapes, but with fewer notes, of course.
CAGED “C” Pentatonic Pattern
This first pattern uses open strings and uses the open C major chord shape as a structure to form the scale.
CAGED “A” Pentatonic Pattern
This pattern uses the open A major chord as a structure for the notes.
CAGED “G” Pentatonic Pattern
This “G” pattern is, without a doubt, one of the most popular, and easily learned guitar scale patterns. Whether it be played in major or minor, it is highly useful. It uses the open G chord as a structure for it’s notes.
CAGED “E” Pentatonic Pattern
The “E” pattern uses the open E chord as a structure for it’s notes.
CAGED “D” Pentatonic Pattern
Like the others, the “D” pattern uses the open D major chord for the structure for it’s notes.
CAGED “C” Pentatonic Pattern (Repeated)
Here the same “C” pattern is presented, without the open notes we saw in the previous diagram. The 12th fret replace the open strings.
The “CAGED” Major Scale Patterns
The CAGED major scale system follows the same concept as the pentatonic patterns, except we add 2 notes into the scale. Here are the same patterns, but with the extra notes added for the major scale.
CAGED “C” Major Scale Pattern (with Open Strings)
Based on the C chord, this pattern uses the C Major chord shape. Can you see it in there? This is one of my favorite CAGED scale patterns. It’s great for forming arpeggios with to be used for jazz improvisation.
CAGED “A” Major Scale Pattern
Moving up the neck, now we have the “A” pattern.
CAGED “G” Major Scale Pattern
Like the “G” pentatonic scale pattern, this “G” major scale pattern is one of the most useful to learn. I use it all the time when I improvise.
CAGED “E” Major Scale Pattern
This is another valuable scale pattern to learn. The “E” pattern is another great pattern to help form arpeggios for jazz, or any form of improvisation.
CAGED “D” Major Scale Pattern
This is worth knowing, but I must say, I never really use the EXACT pattern much. I use a variation of it, that I’ll cover in the 3 note per string scales (Pattern 1), that is more useful.
CAGED “C” Major Scale Pattern (Repeated)
Now we are back at the 1st CAGED pattern I showed you…the “C.” just repeating the “C” pattern as listed above. Only now, we are not using open strings. We use the 12th fret.
3 Note per String Major Scale Patterns
This is the 2nd “system” used to play the major scale. This one is a bit different in the fact that it provides a very fluid and efficient way to get up and down the strings. It is often used for playing fast! So all you wannabe shredders need to learn all of these patterns.
In the diagrams below, you are presented with 7 patterns, in the key of F Major. I chose F Major because it was the best one that would fit in the diagrams. As with the CAGED patterns, the 3 Note per String patterns are also movable so you can apply to any, in any key.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 1
This is one of my favorite scale patterns. After some practice, it’s a really nice pattern to have under your fingers, because the pattern is the same for strings 6-5, 4-3, and 2-1. It starts on the 1st scale degree of F Major.
Another cool thing about this pattern is that it’s similar to the CAGED “D” pattern, therefore I substitute this pattern for that one.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 2
This is the 2nd pattern, which begins on the 2nd degree of the major scale. It’s greatest part is that 3 strings use the exact same pattern on the same frets.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 3
This pattern resembles the “C” CAGED pattern, but in 3 note per string form. It begins on the 2nd degree of the major scale.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 4
This pattern begins with the 4th degree of the major scale, and resembles the “A” pattern of the CAGED scales. This is another 3 note per string scale that I often substitute for the CAGED version.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 5
This pattern is one of my absolute favorites. Like the Pattern 2, it’s great since there are 3 strings that have the exact same pattern on the same frets.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 6
This is an alternative option for the “G” version of the CAGED patterns. It begins on the 6th degree of the major scale (which is the natural minor).
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 7
This pattern is similar to the “E” CAGED pattern, but is different on strings 2-1.
3 Note per String – Major Scale Pattern 1 (Repeated)
Here we are, back to Pattern 1, but an octave higher, beginning on the 13th fret. The patterns repeat themselves after that.
Which System is Better? CAGED or Three Note per String?
I’ve seen this question discussed on the internet many times. I’ve heard people trash the CAGED system and say it’s not a very good system to teach beginners. I think their argument is that it is easy to learn, but is not practical to use.
Here’s my answer to this debate.
Both have their uses. Learn them both!
There is so much overlap between the two, that it becomes a pretty silly question. So if you’re asking should I learn the 3 note per string patterns, or the CAGED patterns, my answer is just a simple…yes!
The first scale patterns I learned were a couple from the CAGED group. Then as time went on, I learned that each CAGED pattern had a slight variant that was a 3 note per string version. It’s all useful, and here’s how.
- CAGED patterns are great for forming arpeggios inside of them, which makes them highly useful for jazz improvisation. The reason I say that is because in jazz, the chords change quickly and it’s nice to have a small area on the fretboard to highlight those changes.
- 3 Note per String scale patterns are great for speed, and high speed scale runs. Paul Gilbert dedicated most of his instructional video “Intense Rock 1” to 3 note per string pattern exercises and licks.
You don’t just want to learn these patterns to say you know them. The fun part is when you learn the patterns well enough so you can start connecting them.
In case you haven’t noticed, the patterns all tend to overlap as you move up and down the neck. The magic happens when you are playing and you move right from one shape to another without realizing it. That’s when things get fun!
Okay, I hope I’ve given you plenty to work on in this article. Focus on learning the single string pattern first. Then conquer the CAGED patterns, and of course, master the 3 note per string patterns.
Learn the patterns, then play them over backing tracks, and finally, start working them into your improvisation practice.
You’ll come away having a more intimate knowledge of the guitar fretboard by the time your done. Good luck!