Fretboard Workshop: Two-String Scales

Discover a new way to think about those same-old scales.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediater
Lesson Overview:
• Open up new fretboard possibilities using two-string scale fingerings.
• Find fresh visual and physical relationships within major scales, modes, and pentatonic patterns.
• Learn how to apply these technical concepts to musical lines. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

When we begin exploring the fretboard, we typically learn rote fingerings for major, minor, and pentatonic scales in a single position. We memorize these patterns across the neck, and then transpose them into each key and adjust them for each mode. These patterns often form the basis for how we visualize notes. This method is fine—you can craft amazing lines within a pentatonic box—but it can become a bit cumbersome, conceptually speaking, when you start scouring the neck for new ideas.

As much as I love the guitar, I’m jealous of how much easier it is to visualize musical concepts on the piano. While the fretboard’s grid allows lots of interesting note possibilities that are unique to the guitar, it can create some real difficulties when you try to see the big picture.

One trick for making the fretboard easier to understand is to learn two-string scale fingerings. When an entire scale happens across two strings, we have less variables and a more consistent visual and physical relationship to the notes. Additionally, it makes playing three-octave scale shapes a breeze. That alone makes this lesson worth your time!

There’s a lot to unpack here, so consider these examples as jumping-off points. To really open up the fretboard, I recommend trying all these scales, sequences, and licks in as many keys and modes as possible.

Ex. 1 lays out three octaves of a G major (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) fingering that stretches from the 3rd fret to the 15th fret. Notice how the fingering alternates between groups of four and three notes on each string. (The last group on the 1st string contains four tones simply because we’ve run out of strings and need to conclude with a final root.) Look at the sequence closely: Each string pair contains all seven unique notes within the octave, starting with G, the root, and ending with F#, the 7.

In Ex. 2, we apply the same concept to G Aeolian (G–A–Bb–C–D–Eb–F). Once again, we see alternating groups of four and three notes in each pair, and this pattern remains consistent until we tack on that last root on the 1st string.

Click here for Ex. 1

Click here for Ex. 2

Let’s move to pentatonics for the next pair of examples. Since there are fewer notes in a pentatonic scale, the pattern shifts between groups of three and two. Ex. 3 is based on the G major pentatonic scale (G–A–B–D–E) and Ex. 4 tackles the G minor pentatonic scale (G–Bb–C–D–F).

Click here for Ex. 3

Click here for Ex. 4

Scale sequences are handy when you want to commit new fingerings to muscle memory and refine your technique. The following two examples are just two possibilities, but of course, you should experiment with others, which you can refine, tweak, and speed up as far as you’re willing to go. Ex. 5 revisits the G minor pentatonic scale for a 16th-note sequence that offers a few rather stretchy passages. Ex. 6 uses a descending motif to ascend through a G Mixolydian scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F).

Click here for Ex. 5

Click here for Ex. 6

Once you have a feel for how these scales lay across the neck, it’s time to explore how these fingerings can affect the kind of ideas you’re able to play.

Ex. 7 is an ascending lick that repeats in all three octaves of an F major pentatonic scale (F–G–A–C–D). This is a good example of how to use these fingerings to visualize and repeat ideas in other octaves. Measures 2 and 3 both have notes on the 2nd string and illustrate how to adjust for the tuning difference in that string.

Click here for Ex. 7

When thinking about scale patterns in this way, it’s easy to see how chord shapes fit into the scale. Ex. 8 uses G Dorian (G–A–Bb–C–D–E–F) to play over a four-measure chord progression. Pay special attention to how this lick outlines the chord tones as it runs through each of the chords but stays within the scale pattern. Look for the Gm triad (G–Bb–D) in first inversion in the first two measures, an F triad (F–A–C) in root position in the third measure, and a C triad (C-E–G) in root position in the final measure.

Click here for Ex. 8

Ex. 9 starts off with a fast descending slur-heavy pattern in E Dorian (E–F#–G–A–B–C#–D) over the Em chord. Measure 3 begins to repeat the initial motif an octave lower, but then resolves to the root in measure 4, where it begins a triplet-based three-note sequence to ascend through the scale over A7, ending with a descending resolution to the 3 (C#) of that chord.

Click here for Ex. 9

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