Play Guitar: Diatonic Scales & Lead Patterns

Updated on January 29, 2018

Diatonic Scales Compared with Pentatonic Scales

Diatonic Scales Compared with Pentatonic Scales
Diatonic Scales Compared with Pentatonic Scales

Diatonic Scales

In my last article we had a good look at the widely used pentatonic scales using the CAGED appraoch popularized by Bill Edwards, whose series of books are well worth the invenstment. Check out the Amazon ad below for details. After the pentatonic scales have been learned and can be used instinctively, it is a logical step to learn the diatonic scales. The diatonic scales are 7 note patterns that in a sense are extensions of the pentatonic patterns. They require a bit more work to learn than the pentatonic scales but are well worth the investment to avoid ‘pentamania’ where lead guitar starts sounding ‘samey’ and predictable.

It is good to have lots of tools at your disposal when playing guitar and one of the advantages of diatonic patterns is that you mostly have 3 notes per string, allowing for fast runs and melodic phrases with plenty of interest.

Here’s a quote from John McLaughlin who has jammed with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Zakir Hussain, the great Indian tabla player, “I practice all the scales. Everyone should learn scales. Everyone should know lots of scales. Actually I feel that there are only scales. What is a chord if not the notes of a scale hooked up together? The knowledge of scales will unlock the neck for you and make sure that you are never lost when jamming with other musicians. It’s not all that difficult but you’ll have to be ready to apply yourself”.

The diagram to the right illustrates the five diatonic scale forms with the pentatonic forms next to them for comparison. The circled numbers indicate which finger to use. Notice that the diatonic scale forms for A, G and D span 5 frets - these patterns require a finger extension. Some of the patterns for diatonic scales are more similar to the pentatonic scales than others. The seven notes of the diatonic patterns provide greater potential for creating melodic riffs that catch people’s ears – a song can go a long way with a good hook.

Diatonic Lead Patterns

Play Lead Guitar Using Diatonic Patterns
Play Lead Guitar Using Diatonic Patterns

Diatonic Lead Patterns

The diagrams to the right show two basic lead patterns consisting of seven notes each. These lead patterns provide a map to move around the fretboard. It’s important to realize that they are just two examples of patterns that can be created by trying different combinations of the diatonic scale forms and I encourage players to experiment with their own variations.

Practicing Scales and Lead Patterns

Play the different scale forms in CAGED sequence to begin with, going so slowly that making a mistake is virtually impossible and gradually build speed. Then work with the forms and lead patterns starting in different positions on the neck. Count the frets to name the scale by the root note. Eventually, you will instinctively know what position relates to which root note and the appropriate positions for any given key but it will take time and lots and lots of practice. Use a metronome or drum machine while practicing and build from a slow tempo of say 60BPM or less and increasing by 5 BPM – as soon as the tempo gets too fast and you make a mistake – take it back to the last BPM and practice some more before moving up again.

As mentioned in my article on the pentatonic scales - a DigiTech JamMan or RP255 and higher models are great for practicing solos and inventing riffs by using the looper to record rhythm guitar and play over the top. These relatively inexpensive tools can make for very fast progress. That's not to suggest that mastery of the guitar will come in a short time. Even for very talented players, two to three hours of practice every day for five or so years would be a short time to learn to play with real finesse.

A lot of players want to know if they should learn to read music and I don’t have a simple answer to that – Jimi Hendrix couldn’t, Tom Yorke can’t (though other band members can) and many very original and talented musician’s in pop, rock and alternative rock can’t either. Personally, I can’t, but wish I had invested in learning to do so when I was young. If you have a desire to apply yourself to the task go for it! If you have no drive in that direction, don’t worry about it – just practice like a madman and put your heart and soul into every damn note.

I will leave you with a couple of quotes from two old guitar players with a very good command over their instrument.

“When I practice I usually put on a real hot record, crank it up and play along with it. It gives me that feeling of playing along with the band and gets the old adrenalin going”, Albert Lee.

“The bits that the lead guitar might play could be bits you can’t sing, so the guitar says them…The song dictates what you play far more than your playing style – like the old crying blues where the slide ‘talked’ …It seems to me that there is very little point having a solo for its own sake in a song: it should come in naturally in context”

-Mark Knopfler


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