Thinking Vertically On Your Guitar

by Tim Gillespie

We have many tools from which to learn. Some are better than others, and some really shine when used for a specific purpose. I often think of myself as a an information sponge waiting for the right tool to come along to learn something new.

Curiosity is the key ingredient in this kind of thinking. If we investigate the things that make use curious, we usually do a good job of getting to the heart of the subject That happens because our interest is high.

Couple that with some excellent tools and you can develop an intensity for a subject that can yield results every time you exercise it.

A lot of the tools I relied on when learning to play a guitar were biased. They are still biased today and I still use them. The best example are scales. Most of the patterns, fragments and motion I use are skewed towards moving across the fretboard. Scales patterns usually only climb a few frets, then they transfer to another string. Here is a classic example to the right.

I have learned and practiced quite a bit when I realized that scales could be played up the fretboard as well as across the fretboard. When I saw this relationship, I started to realize the fretboard was just a big interlocking matrix with a beginning and an end.

Up until that period I had a lot of questions about where scales went and how far you could play them. It never dawned on me that scales covered 100% of the fretboard and every scale reached every fret and every string.

When I started to fool around with playing a scale on a single string, I realized that I was not very good at it.

I came to this conclusion because I did not practice moving that way thus I never developed the skill to do so. When I tried to climb I had no fluid motions or sounds. It sounded like I was struggling to hit the notes on time, because I was!

In my head I could hear a fluid progression of notes steadily climbing through the octave. But when I played it, I had to spend time thinking about where I should put my fingers. That thought process will bring your mechanics to a jerky stop and start sequence because it introduces hesitation.

Finger Assignments
1 = Index finger
2 = Second finger
3 = Ring finger
4 = Pinkie

It is very helpful to know what you want to play before hand. This useful benefit can be illustrated with an example. If you are trying to play a lead in the lower registers, around the first to third fret and then you want to skip directly up to the notes around frets ten to twelve, you will probably have to think about it. Why? Because you probably don't make the jump very often. So your head and your hands may not be able to do it without breaking rhythm. At least that has been my experience.

The nice thing about this problem is, it is easy to correct. If you play scales now, your abilities are probably already shaped. Now all you have to do is apply them.

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Here is a good starting point. Play this C major scale starting with the open string E note. Try playing the scale with these finger assignments.

F = 1

G = 2

A = 4

B = 1

C = 2

D = 4

E = 1

The trick to this is moving the hand between using the pinkie and index finger. Your hand must quickly jump up to the next note.

When you play across strings you usually do not have to worry much about wholesale hand relocation like this example.

There are two problem areas with this movement. The beginning and the ending.

When I began, I had a tendency to think I must move quicker than I really had to. This introduced a jerk if I was not careful. The ending had the opposite problem. I thought I had to be there sooner than I did, so I violated the rhythm to get there as soon as possible. If you sound the note too soon, it's a dead giveaway!

So the answer is to play this over and over. In fact, play all the strings just like this! If you are thinking this is going to be boring, you may be surprised. Playing a vertical column is a little more interesting than simple playing across strings.

And there are other side adventures to keep you amused. You can always peel off and create a run that goes across the fretboard. This allows you to combine skills to create something interesting.

Mixing the vertical and horizontal components can spark some interesting phrases. Very often a song will favor a certain part of the fretboard. If you stitch together a solo that encompasses different vertical areas, you may stumble across some sweet notes!

If I am improvising and I don't like what I am doing, the first thing I usually do is move somewhere else. If you hit a synergistic area, you will probably hear some phrases worth exploring. This is pretty dependable.

Another interesting component to throw in are triad cascades. Cascades are vertical in nature too and the combination of vertical lead work interspersed with triads can be electrifying. The solo in "The Wall" by Pink Floyd is a great example of mixing lead lines with explosive triads.

This is definitely an intermediate skill because it is built on top of your existing scale skills. You need some basic skills in place to get the most out of this. Plus having some scale skills and then trying this will allow you to use your skills in a new area. This usually means quick progress. We like what we do well!

So lets look at some easy cascades to mix in with this scale.

Try experimenting with this cascade in C major. Start by playing the vertical scale a couple of times and then go right to the C major chord at the eight fret.

Feel the chord punctuate the scale?

With a little work you can play the scale passage and mix in these triads at will. Keep this easy and slow at first. Try to get the feel of making the scale work together with the chords. Play chord progressions using triads right next to each other. Then start to play triads a few degrees apart.

One of the skills that makes this work is the ability to play the vertical scale in time and develop a sense of rhythm. A click track or drum track will help this process by holding down the rhythm. Then you can concentrate on experimenting.

You may need to play both the triads cascades and scale lines separately to burn it in your head. Sometimes it takes a few days of getting comfortable with the requirements before you can combine and link triads and scales. The Need For Speed will give you some exercises to try to build these skills.

Another idea is to mix vertical and horizontal scales in order to exercise both and add interest.

Here is one of my favorite exercises for this. Play this scale on the left first. Climb up to the highest note (C) and then transition to the next pattern and descend down to the G note on the low E string. That will put you in a position to start the first scale again and repeat the whole circular process.

This exercise is good because it makes you deal with climbing up the fretboard and working across the fretboard. When you feel like you can do this easily, reverse the process and see how you do. Most of the time this will cause new mistakes to emerge because you do not know how to play this. This will test your knowledge of playing scales and the location of each note.

Again you may need to play these scales separately before hand, and work up to combining them. You can also substitute an easier open string scale and the first scale if you want to decrease the level of difficulty.

These are easy ideas for increasing your reach when you practice. And it will help to keep the technical skills interesting. Building your skills and reaching a new level is fun in itself, but remember these are tools you can use when you build new song parts or improvise. When I see someone improvise by combining chords and scales, usually I stop and take a good look. It gets my attention. I find it interesting and you need to be more prepared than just showing up with a few chords or a scale or two.