When learning guitar, the biggest challenge isn’t mastering fingerings, but rather how to put them together in a musical way. Here are some cool tricks for moving from one shape to another.
• Connect different areas of the fretboard with some clever fingerings.
• Create lines that outline changes and move through various CAGED positions.
• Learn how to target chord tones.
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One of the most frustrating aspects of learning the guitar is that feeling of being stuck in a box. Some people will tell you it’s a byproduct of the system you use. In reality, unless you have hands that can cover 24 frets without having to move, learning the guitar in sections is inevitable. Whether you choose to see the neck in five small chunks (CAGED), or seven chunks (three-note-per-string shapes), or something entirely different, connecting these positions is essential if you seek the freedom to play what you want, not merely what your shape allows.
As an example, here’s the A Mixolydian scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G) covering three octaves (Ex. 1). I’ve started around the 5th fret, but shifted up on the 1st string to reach the high A.
But fretting eight notes on one string isn’t ideal, so here’s the same scale, but played starting in a higher position on the neck (Ex. 2). The result? Reaching the high notes requires fewer position shifts, but you sacrifice the scale’s lowest octave.
To me, it seems logical to have a collection of musical ways to connect these positions. I use the CAGED system when I play blues and jazz, so I have five box patterns as a framework, but that alone isn’t enough to guarantee interesting or inspired phrases. Instead, I like to use other ideas to connect these areas. Ex. 3 shows a series of diatonic thirds moving up the neck. This is a great way to melodically navigate from the 5th fret to the 12th fret, and while I won’t play these thirds as harmonic intervals like this, they offer an effective framework for constructing melodies.
Before looking at the eight licks I’ve got for you, here’s the rhythm guitar part (Ex. 4). It uses simple triads on the middle three strings taken from the key of D against an A bass note to create a cool Mixolydian modal vamp.
Ex. 5 begins at the 12th fret and uses the notes from the A Mixolydian scale, with the b3 (C) added as a passing tone between the B and C#. Beats 3 and 4 take advantage of the thirds we looked at on the 3rd and 2nd strings, this time descending and played one note at a time. The second half of the lick completes the transition into the 5th position, targeting the C# in the chord, and ending on the b7 (G).
The next lick (Ex. 6) does the opposite: It starts in 5th position and ends at the 17th fret on the 1st string. The first two beats are classic blues-fusion phrasing, again using the b3-to-3 move. Beats 3 and 4 ascend up the neck in thirds on the 3rd and 2nd strings before jumping over to the 3 (C#) on the 1st string via the C. There are shades of bluegrass in the second half of the phrase. I’d suggest using the second finger for the A on the 10th fret and then jumping up to the 12th fret with your first finger.
Ex. 7 begins in the open position, again taking advantage of that bluesy b3-to-3 movement and transitioning to 5th position at the end of beat 3 with a slide on the 3rd string. To take this lick to a new place, I opted to use diatonic sixths, rather than thirds.
In Ex. 8, we begin by approaching the 3 (C#) on the 1st string before beginning our descent. The lick then moves up to the 9th fret and ascends the A major pentatonic scale (A–B–C#–E–F#) before shifting up to 12th position via a slide on the 2nd string and playing the Mixolydian scale with the added b3.
I can’t overstate how valuable the Mixolydian scale is in these situations. Again, for Ex. 9 we’re in 5th position and use some well-placed thirds to get down into open position and resolve with both the 7 (G#) and b5 (Eb) added in for fun.
Arpeggios are key to playing through Ex. 10. After a few scale fragments, we move into a C#m7b5 (C#–E–G–B) arpeggio on beat 3. We then descend through the minor pentatonic scale before sliding into an Em7 arpeggio on beat two.
The A blues scale (A–C–D–Eb–E–G) plays a starring role in Ex. 11. We start in 3rd position before sliding up to 5th position and transitioning to the Mixolydian scale. It ends with a subtle shift and some sixths on the 3rd and 5th strings.
The final lick (Ex. 12) begins with the A blues scale at the 5th fret before climbing the neck using thirds on the 2nd and 3rd strings. The lick finishes with a classic idea that includes walking chromatically from the 3 to the 5, then approaching the 3 again from a half-step below.
Finally, here’s a backing track for practicing some of these ideas. As always, try the phrases I’ve shown you, but don’t be afraid to use them as a springboard for your own ideas. The sooner you start developing your own vocabulary, the sooner you start sounding like you.