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How to practice the Major Scale better: triad-based patterns

Updated: 4 days ago

Practicing scales is an endless topic when learning to play guitar. Most of us get into practicing guitar scales at some point or another, and for many, it becomes very frustrating.


Learning the shapes, running them endlessly, trying to get faster and faster - all in the hopes of sounding fluent and musical.

And yet, when we try to use them - it always ends up sounding like an exercise.

There isn't an easy fix for this problem, as there are many different aspects to learning scales.

However, there are certainly things to learn on the fretboard that will help us get there faster. In this post I'll explore triad-based patterns - a valuable tool that acts as a bridge between playing scale runs and outlining chords (and this way, makes it easier for us to use scales musically). There is a practice routine included.

In the end, the goal is to be able to improvise something like this:

Let's dive in.

1. Finding the triads inside a scale shape

Let's take this E CAGED shape for C Major (you can do this with any scale shape, but let's just start with this one to make it easier!).

Now let's see a smaller shape inside this one.

This is a C Major triad arpeggio shape.

We made this shape by taking the first, the 3rd and the 5th note of the scale. Essentially skipping every other note. It is also obvious, that if we play this arpeggio when the band plays a C Major chord, it will sound right.

Now let's repeat this idea starting on every note of the scale.

I know, this diagram can be a bit much. Don't worry about remembering it - it just illustrates the principle.

What we got here is, we've built small arpeggio shapes for all the 7 chords contained in the key of C Major (They're called Diatonic Triads. One of the most useful bits of music theory!).

Now we can build a scale pattern by playing them one after another.

We'll call it playing the C Major scale in Triads. Bonus points if you can also think / say out loud the name of the chord that you're playing.

(can you spot the mistake that I'm making in the video? drop a comment below!)

And here's the tab.

And of course we can play it as a continuous pattern, without pausing.

This exercise can be a bit challenging technically, as it requires rolls, so don't worry if you can only get it slowly.

There are variations and patterns that are based on this that are easier to get down, but this one is important, because it's for our brain.

Exercise 1: Play the Major Scale in triads, up and down.

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2. Triad-based patterns

Here's a simple pattern based on the triad shape.

Pattern 1.

We're playing the C major triad, and adding a little scale run after it.

Now we can repeat it using all of the triads in sequence. I'll just write out the tab for a few of them but I'm sure you get the idea.

Note how every time we play the pattern from a new place, we're playing a different fragment of the same C Major Scale shape.

By combining the triads with the scale, we're building the muscle memory to go between chords and scales seamlessly.

Exercise 2: Play Pattern 1 up the scale, with a metronome

There are many more patterns of this sort that you can find or come up with, however right now I'll propose just one more:

Pattern 2.

It's very similar to the previous one, however it introduces one important idea: a passing note within the triad. We call this figure "1235".

Practice these patterns slowly, deliberately, with a metronome while also thinking about the current chord that you're on. What's the name? What scale degree number is it built on?

Of course, this works exactly the same way in any key and in any major scale position/shape.

Exercise 3: Play Pattern 2 up the scale with a metronome

I recommend that you practice this for all 5 CAGED major scale shapes. Then, if you know how to move shapes around the fretboard to use them for different keys, you'll be able to use this to solo in any key.

3. Use it to make music!

Ok, this is all great, but how do I make music with it? By linking it to the chords of the song.

As an example, we'll use a simple 4-chord song in C Major. C - Am - F - G

1. Copy-Paste

We'll select the parts of the pattern within our scale shape that outline each of the chords.

And now we'll play our backing track and simply copy and paste these patterns in their appropriate places.

Here's a demo.

And here's the backing track for you to try it yourself.

* backing track by Pier Gonella Jam

Exercise 4: Play the patterns from above over the corresponding chords in a tune

2. Delete parts to create space

Now we'll only play the patterns over every other chord. This leaves space to fill with improvisation.

Start by just leaving the space empty, then gradually add scale runs and other ideas to fill it.

Here's a tab for reference.

Be sure to switch up which chords you're playing the patterns over and which you leave empty from time to time :)

Exercise 5: Play the patterns over every other chord and improvise in-between

3. Freestyle it

Also try using these patterns simply as scale patterns - without connecting to the current chord. Then you can combine different approaches.

Practicing like this will gradually make the connection between chords and scales intuitive, and that will give you lots of ways to navigate the scale shapes.

That's it. Now to finish the practice session, it's time to cut loose and just improvise! Remember to leave some silence, add some accents, and play with the rhythm. If you need some help with that, there's a handy post on our blog about phrasing.

Good luck! Hope this has been helpful. Be sure to leave a comment below!

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