I get asked a lot about 3NPS scales, or the 3NPS system for learning guitar scales, and while it’s by no means the ideal solution to learning scales on guitar it does have some interesting uses, some of which are not so obvious at first shred.
What is the 3-Note-Per-String System?
The 3NPS system, like it says on the can, is a way of dividing scales up into seven patterns (one for each scale tone) using three notes on every string. Here’s a pdf containing the 3NPS patterns for the F major scale:
In my humble opinion the 3NPS system is not really a system per se, but it is probably the most consistent way of dividing up scales. This is because note location remains fairly consistent throughout the patterns, that is, the same three notes will always be repeated in the same way, just on different strings. Therefore, it’s less work for your ears as what you play and what you expected to play are more likely to coincide, unlike the random CAGED patterns which don’t have anywhere near the same consistency.
It’s also a great technical exercise for two reasons; firstly, it forces you to stretch your fretting hand to be able to play the pattern (take it slow if you’re just starting out to avoid tendonitis and other hand injuries), and secondly it also obliges you to use your pinky.
The 3NPS system is also a requisite for playing legato style licks a la Joe Satriani et al, though this kind of playing requires you to build up strength in your fretting hand first. In fact, once you’ve been playing these scales for a while you’ll find that your fretting hand does most of the work while your right hand picks a note now and again to keep the flow going. You should also use your right hand to mute any unwanted string noise.
The main drawback I find with the 3NPS patterns is that your hand gets kind of locked into ‘claw position’ and the patterns become very mechanical, and somewhat unmusical. I always find myself wanting to break out of the hand position and play something else. It could be a personal thing but when you try to play 3NPS patterns without using the ‘claw hand position’ it’s very easy to lose sight of the patterns. Perhaps it has something to do with the visual relationship of the hand to the fretboard, or maybe it’s just me.
If you watch Joe Satriani when he goes off on a 3NPS excursion, his hand position is totally different to when he’s playing pentatonic scales, and remains locked there until he’s done. All credit to him though as he seems to have endless ideas, licks and runs, and it doesn’t sound at all like he’s just running up and down scales.
Is it relevant to your soloing style?
I think if you’re going to pursue 3NPS scales then it’s probably a good idea to decide whether you’re going to base your soloing style on them, or just have them in your bag of tricks. If you’re going for the former then you’ll really need to work to get your fretting hand up to strength then work on getting creative so it doesn’t sound like you’re just mindlessly blowing up and down the scale.
The 3NPS system is probably not the best introduction to the modes. If you’ve investigated you may have seen things like, ‘the first 3NPS pattern is the Major Scale, then if you start it on the second note it’s the Dorian scale, from the third note it’s the Phrygian scale and so on. While this is certainly true in theory, in practice it becomes a major headache, and besides, there are better ways to learn the modes.
I think 3NPS scales have quite a limited use and not a very broad scope as far as being an effective method or system to learn scales, but they’re a great means to improve your technique, your use of the pinky, as well as having another trick up your sleeve. Plus, it’s always worthwhile investigating different scale systems as each one will give you a unique perspective of the guitar and is sure to inspire you in some way.
If you’ve been blessed with rather large hands a la Allan Holdsworth, you might like his own 4NPS system. Check it out here.
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