An Origin of Patterns

Scale and arpeggio patterns form a large part of how we typically learn to play jazz guitar. Some of the most popular jazz guitar pedagogy books and techniques from the 20th century have used scale & chord patterns to instruct (ie. Ted Greene’s ‘Chord Chemistry‘, the CAGED system, Howard Roberts ‘sonic shapes’, among numerous others). They are also ubiquitous (along with tablature) in popular guitar magazines and online tutorials.

To illustrate: a sample of famous and non-famous books that use chord and scale patterns:

  • Warren Nunes & Jerry Snyder – Jazz Guitar – The Blues (~60s)
  • Ted Greene – Chord Chemistry (1971)
  • Ted Greene – Single Note Soloing (1978)
  • Joe Diorio – Fusion (1979)
  • Jack Petersen – Jazz Styles & Analysis: Guitar (1979)
  • Tom Bruner – How To Play Guitar In A Big Band (1980)
  • Leon White – Larry Carlton (1980)
  • Howard Morgen – Guitar Method: Fingerstyle & Popular Guitar (1982)
  • Dave Eastlee – Scale Connection (1982)
  • Pat Martino – Linear Expressions (1983)
  • Ron Anthony – Comping (1983)
  • Mel Bay Presents … Jazz Guitar Workshop (1983)
  • Frank Gambale – Essential Soloing Theory Course (1989)
  • Bruce Forman – The Jazz Guitarist’s Handbook (1991)
  • Progressive Jazz Guitar (1992)
  • Mel Bay Presents .. Fretboard Basics (1993)
  • Arnie Berle – Patterns, Scales & Modes for Jazz Guitar (1994)
  • Jody Fisher – Mastering Jazz Guitar (1995)
  • Larry Coryell – Jazz Guitar (1998)
  • Mel Bay Presents .. Essential Jazz Lines in the Style of Joe Pass (2001)
  • Mark Bohling – Comping Concepts for Jazz Guitar (2004)
  • Dean Michael Norris – Advanced Scale Improvisation (?)
  • Paul Lucas – Jazz Improvising for the Rock/Blues Guitarist (?)

So although there are notable exceptions, (ie. Joe Pass’s ‘Chord Solos‘, Barry Galbraith ‘The Fingerboard Workbook‘, George Van Eps ‘Harmonic Mechanisms‘ and the Berklee Method), jazz guitar is infrequently taught by notation alone. Since classical guitar was, and still is, mostly taught by notation – how did patterns become such a central tool in teaching jazz guitar? My argument is that they were deliberately introduced to overcome technical challenges unique to jazz guitar performance from the earliest moments of jazz guitar development.

As jazz was developing in late 19th and early 20th C., in American guitar communities* notation was considered superior to tablature and chord charts (Noonan, 2004: 150-156). In American BMG magazines, scale patterns and tablature were frequently mocked as ‘the Simpleton Method’ and considered a substandard learning method for the guitar (Noonan, 2004: 156). The initial change came with one of the very first published jazz guitar books, ‘Fingerboard Harmony‘, ghost-written by banjoist Dave Berend in 1935 but attributed to guitarist Eddie Lang. In it, Berend includes a vigorous defense of the use of chord charts, saying that “… since the notes on the staff do not follow the placing of the fingers on the guitar fingerboard as logically as for the right hand of the piano or harp (high note-high finger) the diagram idea is the best means of transferring the chords from the printed page to the instrument.(Fingerboard Harmony, p.62).

Essentially, his argument was that jazz guitar skill in particular needed visualization. Notation did not always work well as a teaching tool for jazz guitar, as a guitarist needed instantaneous recall of the entire fretboard in order to improvise accompaniments**. The only way to do that, according to Berend, was to reduce the fretboard to easily recalled visual patterns. Chord and scale patterns, (called visuomotor transformations in motor learning studies), directly reference the hand positions and motor movements to be made. Notation does not do this directly, instead only referencing the desired sounds. Guitar performance is a complex endeavour, as the fretboard has many duplicate notes and an irregular layout (Matone, 2005; Goodrick, 1987). By visually representing them, visuomotor transformations can be seen as simplifying the memorization and recall of chords on the guitar, in a way that is not necessary with more linear instruments such as the piano.

This approach also has some grounding in our understanding of cognition and expertise. Firstly, when we are sighted, our vision is dominant in multisensory tasks (Hecht & Reiner, 2009). Secondly, reducing a complex task into smaller ‘chunks’ (individual chord shapes) that make up larger ‘schema’, (mental databases of chord shapes) – is seen as a psychological hallmark of certain kinds of expertise, for example chess (Gobet & Simon, 1996 and 1998; Bilalic, 2010).

Although visual patterns are deeply embedded in the history of jazz guitar, there is certainly a case to be made that it hinders creativity (Elmer, 2009). Indeed, late 20th C and early 21st C jazz guitar books tend to move away from these patterns and focus on more conceptual understandings. In ‘The Advancing Guitarist‘, Mick Goodrick speaks of breaking patterns with the ‘unitar method’. Miles Okazaki‘s ‘Fundamentals of Guitar‘ goes beyond typical visuomotor transformations into circular and hexagonic shapes to illustrate intervallic and rhythmic concepts and structures. Others continue to focus on visual patterns, but breaking them into smaller, interchangeable ‘chunks’ and ‘schema’; such as Stein Helge Solstad’s ‘Strategies in Jazz Guitar Improvisation‘ or Mark McKnight‘s ‘The Creative Method‘.

Visualizing the fretboard in patterns has its origins in some of the earliest jazz guitar pedagogy to be written, a deliberate tactic to ease improvisation in the complex grid of the fretboard. However, whether memorized visual patterns hinder creativity is not clear, and is still the subject of discussion, debate and exploration within the jazz guitar community.

*American guitar communities we have lots of documentation for – ie. white / middle-upper class. There is of course a class/racial aspect to this as well as blues and jazz were often completely excluded from BMG magazines.

**In 1935, guitar was not frequently considered a soloing instrument in a big band context – Charlie Christian of course would spearhead that only a few short years later.

Illustration: Fingerboard Harmony, 1935. p.61


3 thoughts on “An Origin of Patterns

  1. Very thoughtful. I like the approach — exploratory, questioning, evidence based, analytical, yet passionate about the topic — very much what it takes to learn jazz guitar or jazz period on any instrument.


  2. This is deep stuff. It’s calling into question how we think about chord patterns vs scalar patterns, and why some people are better at one than the other. I teach people chords by spelling the basic notes in a chord and looking for all the different ways they can be found, starting with the more or less standard shapes and expanding into nonstandard stuff, and I’ve hoped that helps with linear conception as well as harmonic conception. But maybe they’re two different things, two ways of looking at the FB, and reconciliation between the two is key.


  3. Thank you Matt! I appreciate your comment. Visual-perceptual patterning shows up in non-Western stringed instruments (Baily, 1977) and in untrained jazz guitarists such as Sonny Greenwich (Scott, 2003) so I feel there may be a cognitive element to why patterns are so prevalent in guitar music. However, as you note – not everyone agrees and it can be a little controversial. But you are right – there is some reconciliation needed. Thanks for reading.


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