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Sequencing Scales: Practice Patterns

When we learn scales on the ukulele we tend to play them one way: up and down, in order. That’s great. But when it comes to soloing and exploring melodies, it can be very helpful to have a bigger repertoire of interval jumps and note patterns to pull from. I feel that this is one of the most valuable things I have practiced in regards to building my familiarity with any key for soloing.

Sequencing a scale breaks it into smaller melodic patterns and groupings that are played from every note in the scale.

The idea is simple. Take a basic scale – F major in this example – and play each note with a grouping added to it. The grouping in this case is 1 2 3. After that you’d start from the next note in the scale (2) and count up three: 2 3 4. So the pattern would look like: 1 2 3 2 3 4 3 4 5 etc… It’s shown below with the scale numbers displayed above the tab:

sequence in f

As you can see, when you get to the top it can be nice to step into the next octave for a few notes to complete the pattern back on the root – or 1 – note.

This simple pattern, while not complex, can really add a lot of interest and musicality to the plain scale. It creates phrases that are much more like real-life music than any scale played up and down.

You can take that concept further by changing the number of notes in the grouping. Here it is in 4 and 5 note groupings:

4 and 5 in f

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An idea that requires more interval jumping, and consequently more melodic sounds, is skipping directly up to the highest note in the group. Going back to the first example, you’d remove the middle note from the grouping. That leaves you with the 1 and the 3. So the pattern would now look like: 1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 etc… Here it is in tab:

skipping

You can (and should) do this with any interval.

I’ve always found that sequencing pentatonic scales creates a fantastic sound. Because these scales have only five notes as opposed to the normal seven, you are often forced into playing jumping intervals – even when you are playing the next note in the scale.

Lets try an E major pentatonic descending in 4 note groupings starting on the E note, 7th fret, bottom string:

e pentatonic sequence groups of 4

Again, you can do this with any grouping or interval jump.

Finally, I’d like to point out that any melodic pattern can be sequenced. Say this:

melodic pattern

If you look at what scale degrees are played there (I’m assuming this is in the key of A), you can increase each number by one and find the next sequence. Here it is worked up a couple times:

melodic sequence

There are endless possibilities, so take this idea and run with it.

Start with 1 2 3. Simply count up from the first note of the scale (counting the first note too, as you always do in music): 1 2 3. Let’s use A Major just for fun. 1 2 3 would be A B C#. Then do the same thing for the 2nd scale degree: B. 1 2 3 = B C# D. From the 3rd degree, C#, you’d get: C# D E. And so it goes. Instead of counting 1 2 3 from every scale degree it might be easier to envision the pattern AS the scale degrees: 1 2 3 – 2 3 4 – 3 4 5 – 4 5 6 – 5 6 7 – 6 7 8 – 7 8 9 – 8.

Where do you play this? Anywhere and everywhere. A simple application would be from the open Astring:

A |-0-2-4-2-4-5-4-5-7-5-7-9-7-9-11-9-11-12-11-12-14-12-|
E |----------------------------------------------------|
C |----------------------------------------------------|
G |----------------------------------------------------|

It looks like a lot, but working on a single string is often the best way to visualize scales. (You should play all scales along single strings too. Not just when sequencing.) Figure it out, then find the alternative positions from the A notes on 5th fret, E-string and 9th fret, C-string. Scales are easy from a notes perspective. But how well you can play relies completely on your familiarity with the many places these notes live on the fretboard and how to connect them.

To break it up and really make you think, I love to play this same thing, but force myself to play a single note of the pattern on one string and two notes from the pattern on another. For instance, if I was to play one note on the E-string and two on the A-string, and play the same 1 2 3 pattern, I’d end up with something like:

A |---2-4---4-5---5-7----7-9----9-11-|
E |-5-----7-----9-----10-----12------|
C |----------------------------------|
G |----------------------------------|

You can reverse the string numbers to two notes on the E-string and one on the A-string, play the same exact notes in slightly different places and get this:

A |-----4-----5------7-------9-------11-|
E |-5-7---7-9---9-10---10-12---12-14----|
C |-------------------------------------|
G |-------------------------------------|

The only thing that changes is the location of the middle note in the 1 2 3 pattern.

Needless to say, you can start a pattern like this from any scale degree and string set. What if you did a 1 4 5 or 1 7 6 pattern? The little quirks hidden in these mini patterns will really teach you where the whole steps and half steps that make up a scale lie.

Patterns can be three, four, five, even six or more notes long in any kind of order. You should never have a shortage of things to practice even if you spend a whole year working on C Major.

The more patterns and sequences you can work a scale through, the more familiar with it you’ll become. A big mistake uke students often make is to bite off too much at once because they are bored. They work through many scales at once. I won’t say this doesn’t help at all, but I believe it’s more effective to spend that same amount of time learning one key really well. Sequence it, play it up and down, figure out melodies with it, work out solos with it, jam along to songs in the same key/tonality. I like quality over quantity. Give it enough time and you’ll begin to acquire a collection of scales that you’re really familiar with and can use to play music without hesitation.

brad bordessa avatar About the author: Brad Bordessa I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from an off-grid cabin in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me