What are scale sequences?
A sequence is a repeated and ordered pattern applied to the notes of a scale or arpeggio.
Imagine walking in a straight line for 8 steps. You could go ahead one step at a time like you normally would or you could decide to mix it up. For instance, you could step forward 3 times and step back once. You could step forward 4 times and step back twice. You could even skip a distance of 2 steps and then take a step back. All of these would be different ways in which you could walk ahead 8 steps. They are different patterns. They are different sequences.
Why learn them?
From the moment you learn a scale, it is your duty as a musician to convert it into music. Playing scales up and down the same way forever simply won’t cut it, and so the use of scale sequences is the answer. Sequences are an essential part of fretboard freedom and musical freedom. The more you master, the more interesting and creative sounds you can make with scales. Using sequences can change the way in which your guitar leadwork affects a track/song/jam. For instance, simply playing up through the notes of a scale produces a rather bland and straightforward result, represented below by a straight line. Whereas by applying something powerfully intervallic, you can produce a far more jagged and melodic sound to the ear, represented below by the jagged rising line:
The Four Terms
All you need to create scale sequences is this set of four terms: "Forward", "Back", "Skip", and "Hold". It's really that simple!
"Forward" means to proceed a number of intervals.
"Back" means to retreat a number of intervals.
"Skip" means to skip a number of intervals.
"Hold" means to hold on the final interval.
Examples of Scale Sequencing
To demonstrate how the four terms "Forward", "Back", "Skip", and "Hold" can be used to create scale sequences, I will now walk you through some examples.
"Forward (any number)" (unsequenced):
The instruction of "Forward (any number)" tells you to proceed through any number of notes. Forward any number of notes (can be anything, 1 through to infinity) produces an unsequenced scale, as you're just playing one note after another. This means that "Forward 1" would produce an unsequenced scale, as would "Forward 2", and so on. This isn't very interesting, but it serves to point out that even an unsequenced scale is actually sequenced! Let's proceed with more examples.
"Forward 3, Hold":
The instruction of "Forward 3, Hold" tells you to proceed through three notes and to treat the last note of the grouping as the first note in the next grouping. The result is that every third note gets double-picked. This creates a sequence that resembles something one might actually play.
"Forward 3, Back 1":
The instruction of "Forward 3, back 1" tells you to proceed through three notes, and then drop back one to continue the sequence. If you are familiar with my tuition material, you may recognize this sequence by the name of "Linear Threes".
"Forward 4, Back 1":
The instruction of "Forward 4, back 1" tells you to proceed through four notes, and then drop back one to continue the sequence. If you are familiar with my tuition material, you may recognize this sequence by the name of "Linear Fours".
"Skip forward a 3rd 4, Back 1":
The instruction of "Skip forward a 3rd, back 1" tells you to play the first note, then skip the second entirely to play the third of that original note, and then drop back one to continue the sequence. If you are familiar with my tuition material, you may recognize this sequence by the name of "Skipped Thirds". It also has the name "Diatonic Thirds". It's quite a common sequence in lead guitar.
"Forward 6, Skip back a 3rd":
The instruction of "Forward 6, Skip back a 3rd" tells you to play forward six notes, then skip back a 3rd to continue the sequence. If you are familiar with my tuition material, you may recognize this sequence by the simple name of "Sixes". Have you been playing this for years and never known its name?
Create Your Own Sequences!
You can create your own sequences! Simply use the four terms: "Forward", "Back", "Skip", and "Hold" to start building.
I will make one up now so you can see how this might work. I will use the diminished scale as it is one I frequently work within (as it uses all four fretting fingers with great regularity and is easy to sequence because of how the intervals are naturally laid out).
I really am making this up right now, let's see how I do:
"Forward 4, Back 1, Skip forward a 3rd, Back 1, Skip forward a 3rd, Skip back a 3rd":
An unsightly name, for sure, but a pretty pleasing sequence nonetheless.
Remember that although I have given all examples so far as ascending-only, you can certainly play them descending - the name does not change:
Now you try! Choose a scale, combine any of the four terms, and see what you can build.
Bonus Sequences You Have Probably Never Regarded as Sequences
Check out these three sequences which you've probably never realized are sequences.
"Hold" Just gives you a tremolo. The instruction simply tells you to treat that note as the first and last note of all groupings. A little silly to point out? Not really! We all know just how useful the humble tremolo can be.
"Forward 2, Back 1" immediately traps you in a loop where you go back and forth between two notes. Useless? No! This is a trill and is quite common in legato playing.
"Forward 3, Skip back a 3rd" will also trap you in a loop, but this is actually a very useful picking exercise. You may know it as "Repeating Triplets".
Get my "40 Scale Sequences" ebook PDF for more!