Picking Patterns: 3s in 4

Playing small patterns within scale shapes up and down the fretboard is a great way to improve your ear, chops and fretboard knowledge. It also gives you some good building-blocks for scalar licks. You can make these as face-melting or mild as you like depending on your preferred style. In this lesson we’re going to play with rhythm and timing to come up with something more interesting than the usual music conservatory exercise.

We’ve looked triplet-based picking patterns before. You may recall that when using strict alternate-picking the math works out so that certain string-crossings will be “outside-in” and others will be “inside-out”. To have a smooth alternate-picking technique, you need to get both maneuvers down solid. 

Let’s take the same basic concept of “threes” but change the rhythm from triplets to sixteenth notes. This will displace the starting note of each group of threes and it will change its position in each four-note group of sixteenths:

When musicians talk about musical tension, they’re usually focusing on harmonic tension. In this case we’re playing with a rhythmic tension. It takes a certain number of beats to resolve the rhythm (about 3½ bars by my estimation).

Taken as a whole, the entire exercise comes in at a whopping fifty measures! But it’s not nearly as intimidating as it may seem. You aren’t memorizing fifty bars of music, just a few rules to get you up and down the neck.

The rules for this exercise are pretty simple and straightforward:

  • Cover an octave’s worth of scale patterns up and down the neck
  • Play each pattern in ascending and descending order
  • Flow smoothly from one scale pattern to the next
  • Play consistent groups of threes in a sixteenth-note rhythm
  • Strict alternate-picking all the way through
  • Three notes per-string, no exceptions

The Ascent

Let’s start at the lowest position on the neck. We’ll play with an A Dorian tonality (basically G major with the focus on A). We want to start with the lowest position we can without relying on any open strings, so we’ll begin with this pattern:

Pattern 1

If you recall from the triplets lesson, if we start with a downstroke on the sixth string and play three notes per string, we’ll have “outside-in” string crossings between 5th and 6th strings, the 3rd and 4th strings, and the 1st and 2nd strings.

After you play the three highest notes of the first scale pattern, you need to shift up to Pattern 2 and begin the descent back across the neck. Here’s the scale pattern:

Pattern 2

For the patterns that descend across the neck (as we generally ascend up the neck), the string-crossing order is reversed. Now the “outside-in” string-crossings are on the 2nd and 3rd strings and the 4th and 5th strings.

Once you reach the bottom you need to shift your position up again to the fifth fret for Pattern 3. These kinds of exercises are great at working on position shifts. Make sure they sound as clean as the notes that don’t require shifts. Here’s Pattern 3:

Pattern 3

With that scale pattern in mind, we ascend back across the neck, alternate-picking all the while:

Once your pinky hits that note at the tenth fret it’s time for another position shift up the neck into Pattern 4:

Pattern 4

You may find it easier to think about just sliding the pinky up to the twelfth fret instead of one big position shift for your entire fretting hand. Your other fretting-hand fingers can get into place while you’re fretting at the twelfth. Now we go back down the pattern:

Just like 1st-string position shifts use the pinky, the position shifts on the 6th string involve scooting your first finger up the neck. Now it’s time to get ready for Pattern 5:

Pattern 5

Some of these three-note-per-string scale patterns may look a little funky. It’s very common for most guitarists to only learn (or be taught) five scale patterns. The only problem with limiting yourself to five is that it opens up some big “no-man’s land” gaps between patterns. With a strict three-note-per-string approach and only shifting up one note in the scale at a time, you fill in all those gaps between the patterns. I think the ultimate goal is to stop thinking in terms of patterns altogether.

Pattern 5 is a good example of a one with a lot of internal movement. On the lower strings your first finger is anchored on the 8th fret but on the first string it’s moved up two frets to the 10th fret. All of this is an artifact of how the guitar is tuned.

Moving up, we graduate to Pattern 6. Like Pattern 5 this one spreads out up the neck quite a bit. A lot of guitarists learn a simplified version of scale patterns that don’t involve so much shifting of your first finger. But that throws away the chief advantage of the three-notes-per-string approach—consistency!

Pattern 6

In all of these patterns, your picking hand is essentially performing the same motions up and down, back and forth across the neck. For quick speedy runs this is a great way to simplify things and give you the biggest chance of pulling them off.

Starting around the 12th fret I find that the tone of the notes can get a little mushy. For some reason it feels more difficult to pick these notes even though they should feel the same to the picking hand as patterns played lower down the neck.

Be really diligent about getting a good tone here. Speed is less important than a good tone and even rhythm. Speed will come later. But if you go for speed now without the other two aspects solidified you’ll just groove bad habits.

Pattern 7

Things are starting to get a little cramped on these tiny little frets way up the neck. The fretting strategies you use further down the neck may need to be altered as you move up. For example three-note combinations I might fret with fingers 1-2-4 are sometimes easier to fret 1-2-3 this far up the neck.

The Descent

Now you’ve covered an entire octave up the neck. Let’s descend back down this pattern, but this time we won’t make a position shift. The reason is that we want to pick these same patterns again, but we want to invert which string-pairs get the “outside-in” string-crossing.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, we begin our descent back down the neck by ascending Pattern 1. Not only does it give us a chance to play the ascending form of this pattern way up the neck, but it allows us to do it with the “outside-in” string-crossings in different locations.

As we shift down to Pattern 7, notice that the opening note of the descending pattern is played with a downstroke. This means that the descending versions of these patterns will have the “outside-in” string-crossings on the 5th & 6th strings, 3rd & 4th strings, and the 1st & 2nd strings.

It also means that the ascending versions of these patterns now have the “outside-in” string-crossings on the 4th & 5th strings and 2nd & 3rd strings. By now you should have a basic grasp of the overall pattern to this exercise. Here are the remaining bars:

Practice Tips

This picking pattern takes the rhythmic tension we talk about earlier to extremes in some cases. The focus here is to cover the neck with a consistent 3s-in-4 rhythm which can really challenge your time-keeping skills. Be sure to play this with some kind of metronome or beat and take it slowly at first. Shoot for even rhythm and good tone before ratcheting up the speed.

You might find this to be really challenging at first. One thing I like about playing something really tricky like this is that when I return to slightly more basic stuff it feels much easier. You might try this out if the basic triplets exercise is giving you frustrations.

If you’re at all like me you might find this enough of a challenge that you start pouring some serious time into really making this fly. I think the danger in that is getting really good at playing this particular exercise and losing focus of the bigger goals. In short, I wouldn’t over-practice this. There are so many variations in this kind of exercise that life is probably too short to spend weeks getting really good at this one instance.

Besides, you would never play this entire thing for anyone (unless you were torturing them). Use this as a springboard for new phrasing ideas, or as a warmup—by itself it’s not an interesting destination. But hopefully it will unlock some new freedom on the fretboard, in your picking hand and in your ears.

If you want to see all of the notation for this exercise in one place, take a look at this PDF.