I know there's 7 box patterns for the major scale on the guitar. I think some people have it as 5 patterns.

I've never done scales that way though. I've only done it by ear where I can go up and down scales because I've done it many times. I also do it randomly because you can go between two octave points any way you want. For example, I could go just use 2 strings for an entire scale. I always thought 7 patterns was limiting because there's probably hundreds of patterns one could potentially use because there's so many paths one could take.

But I'm wondering if I should still learn those 7 patterns. Are there benefits to them, or can you do it by intuition just as well?

  • 1
    How do you know there are 7?
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 1:17
  • @ggcg I googled it. afaic there's at least 100.
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 2:49
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    Robben Ford doesn't know what "scale patterns" mean youtube.com/watch?v=TjfB7XDlfwc&t=8m45s Even the thing he's describing is musical patterns, not the visual dots-on-a-grid patterns that many guitarists actually mean with "patterns". Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 6:26
  • Intuition = immediate understanding without reasoning. How one achieves this, i don't know! Do you mean playing scales by simple hit and miss? One of the ideas of learning patterns is that they become automatic and take out of the equation the thinking 'I need that note, now where is it on the neck?' Intuition isn't going to help you learn much.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 6:33
  • @Tim too late for hit and miss (been doing that for the last 10 years). I can generally hit the note I have in my head now.
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 10:07

2 Answers 2


You seem to be basing a lot of your statements on assumptions and none of us can confirm or deny their validity. I could never convince you to use 6 strings if you claim that 2 is enough. But I cannot fathom how having more options reduces your freedom, as you imply. There are more benefits to learning patterns than can be listed here, but I will try.

First of all you mention "intuition". Without getting to far off on a tangent that should be in another exchange group I'd argue that there really is no such thing. People don't have mystical or magical powers to know things they don't already have some experience with. At least there is no objective scientific evidence for it. What most people call "intuition" is most likely pattern recognition. So I would argue that the more patterns you learn, the more intuitive you will become over time. Your subconscious mind will compare, contrast, and connect patterns you learn while you sleep. This will forge a deep knowledge of how such patterns are connected.

As for learning by ear? I do not equate this to "intuition", this is a form of pattern recognition, and a powerful one. Learning anything by ear is the right path for music since we need to use our ears. But there are severe limits to noodling around on an instrument using only your ear. Your ear should be what guides you in making musical decisions but to master an instrument you need to have the patterns in your muscle memory. If you want to develop virtuoso skills you need to commit patterns to muscle memory so you don't have to think about it or fish for notes when you perform. In a sense there is more than one thing to learn when learning a musical instrument. There is music itself (which is universal across all instruments) then there is the instrument and the idiosyncrasies that it presents. I would compare learning patterns to a boxer learning combinations. When you learn martial arts you throw 1000 jabs, 1000 hooks, etc. But then you commit 3 and 5 move combinations to memory. If the first punch doesn't land or the other guy reacts differently than expected you don't stop mid stream and change your mind. The mind gets in the way, introduces latency which kills the fluidity of the movement. You will sometimes see a pro throw a wild combo at the air and think why are they doing that? Once the combo was let loose it's going to finish regardless of the circumstances. I'm not trying to imply that musicians should throw out notes that don't work. The analogy is not perfect. But the point is, thinking gets in the way of performing and it is worth committing patterns to memory.

I am not sure what specific "box" patterns you are referring to. I have only heard that term in relation to the pentatonic scale and blues licks that seem to generate a lot of 4 note 2 string patterns that use only 2 fingers. If you are referring to the standard forms of the diatonic modes that do not shift position these are worth learning because they connect to standard chord forms. Even if one could successfully play melodies without using patterns I doubt chords would be as easy. We spend a lot of time learning standard chord forms to make playing charts on the fly easy. I cannot imaging the effort required to fish around for a G7(b9#5) on the finger board. It has a shape and most guitarists have it memorized (or perhaps 2 or 3 versions). Learning how the mode shapes connect to chord shapes allows one to rapidly access one pattern from another. You still need to use your ear when it comes to choosing the right notes but why would you want to have to fish for the notes you want when they are organized into patterns that connect to the other elements of music. This is a very guitar-centric idiosyncrasy. The layout of the guitar lends itself to being understood using geometrical patterns. A horn player would never benefit from attaching a mode pattern to a chord form since this geometry is not present in the horn. I am not referring to tonally connecting a mode to a scale which everyone does. I am referring to the fact that the E-form is related to Ionian, D-form to Dorian, C-form to Phrygian, etc. Knowing these basic patterns will, over time, allow you to immediately know, by muscle memory, what elements of music are under your fingers.

As I alluded to in my comment there are a lot more than 7 forms. All of them are useful in some way but their usefulness is different. For example I mentioned the connection between chords and scales. Chord form typically only cover a 4 fret neighborhood of the neck so learning the standard forms of the scales makes sense here. However you need to learn to shift all the way up the neck. In the classical guitar repertoire we have the famous Segovia Scales. These are scale patterns that climb up the neck, starting on the bass string in the lower position and ending way up at the 15th fret on the high e string, and back. The ascending and descending patterns are typically different. Segovia organized things this way because he felt that these patterns (from among 100s or 1000s) were the most economical in terms of learning to perform, and sounded best on the classical guitar. You can play a single note in 3 or 4 places and it will sound different at each place. The "box" patterns you mention are connected. Once you learn the connections you can weave in and out of them passing through different positions. You mention 100s of ways to play something in your question. Without committing something to muscle memory you have 0 ways to play something. Learning patterns doesn't limit your options, it opens them up. You just have to be committed to practice and learning more about how they are connected.

Most shredders will emphasis the value of 3 note per string scale forms because they think that they are "easier" to play at high speeds, and they are correct. It is also easier to apply consecutive picking to them. Then there are the 2 string groupings of patterns that repeat as you go up the neck, passing through 3 octaves using a single pattern. Which one of these should you, or any guitarist, learn? ALL OF THEM. Learning the guitar should be a cumulative process. There is no best pattern, all of them are important but for different reasons. I see a lot of videos and books that disparage one technique or pattern in favor of another. These are sales pitches. They are all useful and important for mastering the guitar. A good instructor will be able to point out the different uses of each pattern and how they are connected.

Every pattern is worth learning. Some are easier to play than others and those should probably be emphasized more. I would only advise against falling into the trap of "this versus that". There is no "better" pattern that trumps all others making them worthless. Each pattern or set of patterns has a definite purpose or use on the guitar. Learn what the connections are to the other elements of guitar playing.

  • 'E-form=Ionian, D-form=Dorian, C-form Phrygian'. Help! I don't understand. Unless it's related to the lowest note in a scale pattern?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 13:21
  • Not at all. The c form of the key signature is embedded in phrygian, or lydian. You can find it embedded in others too. But as you climb up the neck from e form, to d form, to c form, to a form, to g form you pass through the ionian, Dorian, phrygian, mixolydian, and aeolian respectively. My connection is based on position and where my index finger is.
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 13:32
  • It's just geometry based, nothing else. Wouldn't work in other tuning
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 13:32
  • this is a great answer, thanks for the effort you put into it. I do agree with your points on being open to different ways of learning. that's why even though I've been playing for a long time I'll always consider myself a beginner. btw, a quick example of the 7 major scale boxes: fretjam.com/major-scale-positions.html
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 15:01
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    @ggcg so you're right in a lot of ways. but the way I'm using this is different. for example, I use a lot of alternate tunings so those boxes only work in standard tuning. Also, I've already committed everything to muscle memory. so what you're saying is true but for a complete beginner. also, I don't like looking at anything visual. I do everything by ear. and I do mean everything. but I'll keep what you said into account as I said a lot of what you're saying rings true.
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 21:34

I think you are in a rare and interesting situation :)

Most people learn scales as positions on the fretboard, repeated mechanically over and over, often without even having a strong sense of how they actually sound.

And for most people, the challenge is to break out of those muscle-memory patterns, if they want to be able to play anything interesting at all.

For example, a common exercise to that end is to play melodies, scales, improvisations, etc. using only one string. If you are forced to use only one string, you have to rely almost exclusively on your ear and understanding of scale structures, rather than by using those all too familiar box patterns.

But you, apparently, are the exception... :)

Answering your specific question, I'd say that learning the standard 5 positions should do you no harm, but as to how much good it will do, that depends on how well you already can play scales in all keys all over the fretboard, and what are you aiming for.

If you can already pretty much do what you want to do, scale-wise, I would not recommend that you spend much time re-learning the same thing from scratch in another way. Rather, I would suggest you invest that time and energy into serious ear training, perhaps into sight reading, into learning the fretboard, or into developing other areas of your playing that are fundamental to the goals you want to achieve.

On the other hand, is you're still feeling insecure about scales, keys, etc. then it may make sense to learn the 5 CAGED boxes, because that will give you a reliable and dependable system, on which you can build further layers afterwards. And because you already have a good sense of those scales, it shouldn't take you too long to do that.

Perhaps you can test yourself in this regard with this video, see how far you can follow the scales in all keys as the video goes on:

I'd say that the more you can follow (key change every 4 bars? every 2 bars? every bar?) the less you need to bother learning the standard position boxes.

  • You don't gain anything by breaking from your muscle memory. If scales are mechanical then I'd say the person had a poor instructor. You can sing with the "pattern". Also, forcing yourself to play on one string doesn't mean you don't learn patterns, that is not pattern free. You just learn a different pattern. At the end of the day it's a matter of will whether you become mechanical but the method doesn't make you mechanical.
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 17:13

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