Harness the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic power of sequences to create more interesting lines.
• Understand three types of sequences: rhythmic, melodic, and complex.
• Discover ways to improve your technique.
• Learn different ways to outline harmony.
According to Merriam-Webster, a sequence is “a continuous or connected series.” In music, a sequence is a very powerful concept. Quite simply, there’s no better way to understand how a scale, mode, or arpeggio works than to develop different patterns (or sequences) around them.
Not only does sequencing really help you learn a musical device inside and out, it’s an excellent opportunity to correct and improve technique. The ear is attracted to repetitive patterns and when a sequence is used as a compositional tool, it makes the end product much more interesting. If your lines tend to be all flash and no substance, working in a few sequenced patterns will give you more melodic control and target what’s coming up more effectively.
I’ll organize everything we explore today into one of three categories: rhythmic, melodic, and complex.
The first example (Fig. 1) is less melodic and more based on a numerical pattern. In this case, it’s groups of four starting on each scale tone. If you are new to this approach, this is a very straightforward example based on something we should all know—the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G).
To create a more flowing sound in the next example (Fig. 2), I’m reconfiguring the same concept in a different way. By widening our reach, we can access the same notes elsewhere on the fretboard and give our picking hand less of a challenge. This approach allows more fretting-hand assistance where it might not have existed before.
The chromatic scale is fair game when it comes to this idea as well. Although not as common, a chromatic sequence can get you very quickly from one area of the neck to another. For example, a chromatic lick would work perfectly to transition between two different positions of the pentatonic scale. Fig. 3 is a horizontal chromatic run that uses a pivoting slide with the index finger to keep us in motion.
We connect two neighboring positions in Fig. 4. We start with a pentatonic run in A in the 2nd position and use a chromatic sequence to move up to a triplet-based phrase. To keep the ear guessing in the final measure, I threw in some passing tones in the descent to the root.
In Fig. 5, we work with a basic Em7 arpeggio that starts on the 5th string. Compare the intervallic sound to the previous scale-based examples.
We can push our lines further outside the norm by adding some non-diatonic tones and mix up the rhythm a bit, as in Fig. 6. To break up the monotony that some sequences might generate, we alternate between descending groups of three and six notes.
Instead of grouping by a specific number of notes, we can also sequence by intervals. I call these “melodic” sequences. In Fig. 7, I took a C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) and sequenced it in thirds. This means each note is separated by a third interval. An easy way to think about this interval is to imagine playing every other note in a scale. Practice this type of sequence using other types of intervals, such as fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths—they’re all valid.
Finally, let’s take a look at a pair of examples that are a little more complex and combine several of the approaches we’ve discussed so far. In Fig. 8, we’ll stick with the C major scale, first ascending with an arpeggio and then descending through the scale. In the first measure play a Cmaj7 (C–E–G–B) arpeggio and then descend to the next scale degree (D). Repeat the arpeggio up/scale down process until you’ve worked through all the diatonic chords.
To go a little deeper—harmonically speaking—in our final example (Fig. 9), we’ll add some outside sounds to our line. We start with a C major triad (which in this context implies an A7#9 sound) and land on the root note before descending to the next chord tone.
Order of operation is something that should fascinate any aspiring musician. Taking a scale and running it through a process that completely changes its sound is challenging, yet rewarding. Sequencing can stimulate us creatively and help us raise the bar on our technical abilities.