Scalar Circles

Playing scales up and back—it’s so very easy to get in a rut playing them in the same note-orders, in the same neck positions. One tool you can use to break out of these ruts is something I call “scalar circles”. Not only will they help you find new musical ideas, but they’ll help groove the scale patterns into your brain in a way that’s much more interesting (and fun) than running patterns up and down the neck.

The Basics

So what exactly are these scalar circles? In short, they’re little chunks of a scale pattern that are moved either across the neck or up and down the neck. Since the individual patterns tend to finish where they started I think of them as being “circular”. Let’s start with a relatively simple example in the key of G:

The key to all of these “circles” is the repeating pattern. In this case, it’s two triplet figures that spans a simple up-and-back pattern. What makes these a good challenge for your ears and your fingers is playing the same basic idea up and down the neck, instead of within a single position.

Because of how the notes are laid out in the scale, we can’t play the exact same fretboard pattern as we move up the neck. But if you blur your eyes a bit and focus on the structure of each note group, they’re essentially the same. This is a key part of scalar circles. You come up with a single pattern in one position and then start moving it up and down the neck.

In the previous example the ending note of one six-note group starts off the next group. This isn’t a defining characteristic of scalar circles, just an interesting artifact of this particular pattern.

Now compare the fretboard geometry of playing up the neck to playing within a single neck position. Here’s the same notes, but played within a single scale pattern:

It’s the same notes, but your brain has to do different work to play this. Personally, I find playing this within a single position more difficult than the “vertically-oriented” version that just uses the fifth and sixth strings. We‘ve come up with something that we probably wouldn’t play if we were restricting ourselves to a single position on the neck. But by playing a simple up-and-back pattern up and down the neck within the constraints of the scale’s notes, we have something totally new. This is what makes these so good and breaking you out of a rut.

Branching Out

So where do we go from here? Well, we have several options:

  • we can create another pattern on the same two strings
  • we can move to different strings altogether
  • we can add notes from another string
  • we can remove notes from a string

Let’s add some notes to our existing circles. This time we’ll go for a sixteenth-note rhythm. In order to do that, we’ll have to get creative with our fingering. Here’s one way to do it:

The constraint of making the math work out right forces us to come up with a creative solution to our circle. In this case we play for consecutive notes in a scale, then jump to the top note on the fifth string and and play four consecutive descending notes. The little intervallic jump in between makes the pattern sound a little unusual and interesting.

Changing Strings

Now we can try that same basic pattern, but move it to different strings. This time we’ll go from the lowest strings to the highest strings. The basic circular pattern is the same and the underlying scale (G major) is the same. The only thing that’s different is the strings we’re playing:

It’s the same basic idea as before, we’re just applying it to different strings. If you’re extra-attentive you may have noticed that the shapes played on the 5th and 6th strings are the same in this example (though in a different order). This makes sense since both string-pairs are tuned to intervals of a perfect fourth. You may find this similarity to be useful.

Adding Strings

Let’s try another variation–this time we’ll add notes from an additional third string to our “circles”. How about something like this:

Once we add another string we could really do just about anything. In this case I’ve decided to mix a little ascending three-string sweep and finish with a six note descending run for a sixteenth-note triplet feel. It’s kinda like an arpeggio and kinda not.

What’s really fun is how we get these big intervals playing the same patterns descending down the neck. It’s a good excuse to work on quick position shifts and the big skips make it sound a little more interesting.

Removing Strings

What happens when we remove a string? It may seem goofy to play patterns like this on one string, but I think there’s a real zen-like value to playing the “uni-tar”. Let’s make a little sixteenth-note “circle” just on the 6th string:

By focusing on one string, we don’t have to worry about those pesky string-changes, just the position changes. This is a great way to isolate and refine your position shift movement. Play it slowly and pay particular attention to how your fretting hand fingers are handling the position changes.

Next Steps

The basic idea of a scalar circle is pretty simple. The fun and challenging part is coming up with your own and developing the ability to play them. These work for any scale. Does G major sound boring to you? No worries, just apply these patterns and any others you come up with to something more exotic like the Melodic Minor scale.

Practice Tips

If you’re still trying to get your basic scale patterns down, you may find playing this way just makes your life more difficult. I think it does help to have a pretty good command of the individual patterns before you jump into this. The goal of this mental approach is to move beyond the station-to-station mentality of the individual patterns and get you moving up and down the neck more freely.

Tip #1: See (and feel) The Pattern

Outside of the diminished and whole-tone scales, the intervals of most scales won’t let you just move the exact same fretboard pattern up and down the neck. But the basic order of the notes in each circle will be the same. For many of these you can probably use the same fingering with just a few adjustments. 

Once you have a feel for the basic pattern at each position it should be easier to build the tempo up and generally feel more comfortable and fluid.

Tip #2: Use Your Ears

There are times when I play a scalar circle and, in the heat of battle, I’m not 100% sure what I’m supposed to play next. As we first learn this stuff we rely on our conscious brains to methodically execute one note after another. But to really play music we have work in larger chunks. 

At first your instinct will be to stop and work out exactly which notes to play. But as you start to get more comfortable, try relying less on visual and conscious thought and more on sound. So much of good improvisation is playing what you hear in your head. That means there’s an instant between the inspiration in your head and what comes out of your instrument.

These circular patterns have a “logic” to them so you should be able to sing them and know what the next sequence sounds like. Start shifting your focus to matching what you play with what you hear in your head. You may find that your fingers know where to land better than conscious mind. I can’t overstate how important this skill is for improvisation.

Tip #3: Multitask

I know, I know…all the research says don’t multitask. In this case what I mean by “multitasking” is getting multiple benefits from playing these:

  • Increased familiarity and comfort playing up and down the neck
  • A great workout for both hands
  • A chance to really groove the sound of these scales
  • A playground on which to explore your creativity

Lately I’ve been working to incorporate the melodic minor scale into my playing. These kinds of exercises and explorations have been great to really anchor the unique tone and sound of that scale in my brain. Even when I reach for a mode of that scale, my ears recognize the intervallic structure almost as well as any diatonic scale.

Tip #4: Get Creative

The point of the tablature here isn’t to give you specific things to play, but rather to give you some examples of a more general pattern. Don’t hesitate to come up with your own patterns. You may stumble onto something that you really like. Guess what? You’ve just extended your own personal style and taste.

There are so many dimensions to consider that the number of combinations is virtually limitless. Don’t be afraid to experiment! The goal here is to explore the fretboard and solidify your command of it—not to memorize a bunch of exercises.