Joe Gore’s The Subversive Guitarist: Don’t Think Scales—Think Sequences!
Try this technically challenging workout that liberates you from muscle-memory habits.
There’s nothing wrong with practicing scales by simply running them up and down. But this column is about a more musically gratifying way to practice that simultaneously improves your ear and your manual dexterity. It’s all about sequences.
In genetics, sequencing is the process of determining the order of nucleotides within DNA. In music, a sequence is a short melodic pattern that gets repeated but starting on a higher or lower note. Just as sequencing DNA reveals simple chemicals as the building blocks of all life forms, musical sequencing transforms a lifeless abstraction—a scale—into a font of musical ideas.
Breaking the Box
When you learn a new scale, chances are you work from a diagram—a bunch of dots on a grid. We rely on graphics like these to find and memorize the needed notes, but it’s a visual process, not a musical one. But as soon as you start finding melodies within a scale, you advance from theory to music.
In fact, I recommend practicing with sequences as soon as possible after learning a scale. This cultivates a subconscious connection between your brain and your fingers. You get better at playing the tunes in your head without pausing to think where your hand should go. And when you practice scales using melodies, you eventually grapple with every awkward fingering. It’s a more technically challenging workout that helps liberate you from muscle-memory playing.
God Save the Sequence
This month’s exercises borrow sequences from familiar tunes and repurpose them for scale practice. Let’s start with a very simple pattern from “God Save the Queen” (aka “My Country ’Tis of Thee”). Ex. 1 captures the tune in notation and tablature.
Check out the six-note pattern in measures 7 and 8: A single note (G) is played four times, followed by the scale step below, and then the one below that. This pattern repeats in measures 9 and 10, but beginning on F. The exact intervals between notes change: In the first phrase (let’s call it a “cell”), the first note, G, is a whole-step (two frets) above the next note. In the second cell, the note that follows F is only a half-step (one fret) below the first note. Still, we maintain the same basic pattern: Play the first note four times, then the note one scale step down, and then the one below that.
Now, what happens if we keep repeating the sequence, working down through the scale? (Ex. 2.)
We can keep descending this way till we run out of notes and strings. And that’s the premise for the remaining exercises.
Fun fact: Did you notice how the rhythm of measures 1 and 2 gets echoed in measures 3 and 4? It’s not a strict melodic sequence—the two cells veer apart in their second measures. But this sort of repeated rhythm is sometimes called a rhythmic sequence.
Let’s look at another familiar tune, the Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” (Ex. 3.)
The “Gloria” section beginning in measure 5 and repeated in the next two measures is a textbook example of a melodic sequence. In Ex. 4 the pattern continues beyond the original three statements.
Again, notice the rhythmic sequence between measures 1 and 2 and measures 3 and 4—that is, different notes, but the same rhythm. There’s a lesson here about how repeated rhythmic patterns help make a tune memorable.
Even though this song was written in the 19th century, it sounds like Baroque music, probably on purpose. Melodic sequences are one of the most common composition techniques in 18th-century music. Sounds like a good excuse to hack on some Bach!
Ex. 5 shows one of Bach’s most familiar melodies: the G major minuet from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.
Despite the tune’s simplicity, there’s a lot going on here. Measures 5 and 6 are a melodic sequence. In fact, it’s the same sequence of notes as in Ex. 4, except the first note is a quarter-note rather than a half-note.
But let’s pursue a different angle. Notice how measures 3 and 4 are a rhythmic sequence of measures 1 and 2. The measure 1 melody starts to repeat sequentially in measure 3, but veers away in measure 4. But let’s spin out a melodic sequence based on measures 1 and 2 (Ex. 6), even though that sequence doesn’t appear in the piece. Unlike before, this is an ascending sequence, with each statement starting one scale step above the previous one.
Ex. 6 is a bit trickier than the previous sequences. In Ex. 2 and Ex. 4, every note was followed by an adjacent note. Here, though, the melodic cell has two leaps of a fifth. It’s easier to bluff your way through the earlier exercises. Here, you must know and hear your target note.
Ex. 7 takes another approach to the same melodies. This time, instead of sequencing only the first two bars, we sequence the entire four-bar phrase. The longer the phrase, the more mentally challenging the sequence. This one lasts a whopping 16 notes.
Going for Baroque
Our last pair of exercises comes from Vivaldi’s D major lute concerto. Ex. 8 shows Vivaldi’s original melody.
Ex. 9 spins Vivaldi’s melody into a sequence. Like the Bach tune, it’s a mix of melodic steps and leaps. But not just any leaps—the phrase is packed with fourths, which are notoriously tricky because they usually require you to play two consecutive notes on two strings at the same fret using the same finger. (We discussed this problem in last month’s lesson.)
Practicing scales straight up and down teaches you the notes. Practicing with sequences teaches you the spaces between them. Why not try this practicing experiment? Each time you run a scale, slot in a short melodic cell instead of flying straight up and down. The tune doesn’t matter. The first phrase of “Over the Rainbow?” “The Streets of Laredo?” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider?” “Rolling in the Deep?” All of the above, and thousands more!