Stuck In The Pentatonic Box?

April 17, 2009 by  

If you’re stuck in the pentatonic box and struggling to find a useful way to make any musical sense of the five pentatonic positions then do yourself a favour and try something new … Pack your virtual suitcase with a few simple ideas, cut off all contact, and lock away everything you know about the five pentatonic positions. Take a thirty day break from them and when you come back you’ll see them in a completely new (and usable) light. Suitcase ready, here’s your packing list!

  1. The pentatonic formula – 1 b3 4 5 b7
  2. The Pentatonic Box Pattern (Ok, I lied about locking away the five positions, we’ll be needing just this one)

    Pentatonic Box Pattern

  3. Jam Track in A Minor

  4. The ‘A’ Root Notes

    A root notes

  5. A few easy scale patterns

    Easy Pentatonic Patterns

Okay, enough of the holiday metaphors, what is this all about and how will it propel your pentatonic scale playing?

Well firstly this idea is much easier to work with than the common five pentatonic positions. The few easy patterns above still cover virtually the entire fretboard once they are pieced together and can be put to musical use easier than the traditional five position method. Secondly and most importantly, it will almost force you into letting the scale dictate the pattern rather than allow the patterns to dictate the scale – probably the biggest difference between guitarists stuck in the pentatonic box and those having total control of the scale across the entire fretboard.

This isn’t any kind of groundbreaking new method nor is it a replacement for other methods, just a kick in the right direction to help you see scale patterns and positions for what they are … the notes belonging to a five note pentatonic scale and not a set of fixed ‘patterns of the moment’.

Like everything else it’s up to you to put it to practice. I’m going to give you a few ideas to get going but it’s your job to do the thinking and piece it all together, do this and I guarantee you’ll start to realise that using the whole fretboard isn’t really that difficult.

Learning The Notes

Guitarists with great command of scales and the fretboard know a few things. Things that take a lot of hard work and time to master. Among these are all of the notes on the fretboard, the CAGED chords and other chord types, chord and scale notes and intervals, music theory knowledge and the structural and theoretical relationship between all of these things.

The more of this you know the better but you can’t learn it all overnight, it can take years. Right now it doesn’t matter but one thing there is absolutely no substitute for is knowing the notes on the fretboard. If you can’t find them quickly then moving forward and getting out of the rut is going to be impossible without resorting to memorised patterns, scale runs and counting frets from a fixed point of reference – analogous to having a piece of elastic tied between your fingers and the pentatonic box, the further away you stray from it the harder it gets and you are constantly being pulled back to it.

The good news is learning the notes isn’t as hard as you might think. Practicing all of this in one key only is the best way to quickly learn the notes. We are only using the ‘A’ notes as our reference for every pattern and as there’s only one on each string between every twelve frets, you can get used to these confidently in just a few days. Master this technique in just one key and you should find everything suddenly making a whole lot more sense as you see how the scale ties together across the fretboard. After this it’s just a matter of practicing in the other keys to learn the other notes. Enough rambling, time to start practicing!

Exercise 1.

Take the first octave of the pentatonic box and move it around the neck to start on the ‘A’ note of each string. Remember the scale sequence is 1 b3 4 5 b7. Even though the pattern itself changes on some strings, get used to the fact the note order is the same, it’s only the string tuning that changes the actual shape of the pattern, the scale sequence doesn’t alter.

Play along with the jam track and get used to jumping randomly between these patterns. A few days and you should be able to do it fluently without pausing.

Pentatonic Patterns Exercise 1

Exercise 2

The first exercise dealt with single octave pentatonic patterns ascending from the root. Now do the same thing again but this time use the highest four notes of the pentatonic box and jam along randomly moving between the strings. Like before, remember it’s the same sequence of notes even though the pattern changes slightly, this time only in one place.

Pentatonic Patterns Exercise 2

Exercise 3

For this final exercise we are using a simple Amin7 arpeggio pattern in just three positions starting on the sixth, fifth and third strings. This keeps things simple and still manages to cover a large amount of the neck when combined with the patterns from the previous exercises. Note that a minor seventh arpeggio is only one note short of the full pentatonic scale. If used sparingly this works well with the pentatonic scale while at the same time can help get you out of the habit of stepping through scale patterns in predictable sequences. Like before, fire up a jam track and spend some time randomly jumping between these patterns until you can find and play them fluently.

Arpeggio Patterns Exercise 3

That pretty much sums it up. Play around with all three exercises everyday until you are comfortable with them and can jump to every ‘A’ note without hesitating, combine them and mix them up randomly. Learn the scale intervals in each pattern even if they don’t help you right now, they certainly will later. Get used to sliding and moving between the patterns, it won’t take long before you can seamlessly join them all into one large scale up and down the neck. If you practice this everyday you’ll have come a long way in just a month or so. By this time you will find learning the notes on the fretboard for every key get’s easier and quicker, find jam tracks for various keys and play about with the same ideas for all of them. After a while you should be adding your own ideas and discovering new ways to play about with the pentatonic scale. The five common positions will suddenly become easy as you see how these smaller patterns overlap and integrate with them. The diagrams below give you an idea of this, study them and work the five patterns back into your practice routine.

The single octave patterns from exercise one

Pentatonic Positions Pattern Overlay 1

The four note patterns from exercise two

Pentatonic Positions Pattern Overlay 2

Minor seventh arpeggios from exercise three

Pentatonic Positions Pattern Overlay 3

All of the above combined and including the full pentatonic box position 1. As you can see, virtually all of the notes have been covered.

Pentatonic Positions Pattern Overlay 4

Now go practice!


10 Responses to “Stuck In The Pentatonic Box?”
  1. Amberisch says:

    Awesome Work..
    Simply Amazing…
    Wil surely help me get out of the box..

  2. Kris says:

    It’s exactly what I was thinking of for so long to teach better guitar-improvisation, but you laid it out in a clear and easy manner that there is nothing to add but: bookmarked your site and wait for more stunning lessons – best; I’ve seen so far.

  3. Mike says:

    I have used the penatonic scale for years and years but you have opened my eyes and now I can play the scale from any note on the fretboard at ease. By far the most informative site on penatonics scales on the web. I have it bookmarked as I still learning my intervals. Thanks for this site and all your hard work.

  4. Tom says:

    This is pretty awesome, like everything on the site. I’ve been playing guitar for not so long (2 years), but i get bored using the same part of the freatboard all the times i play in A for example. Now with this, and the other lessons in your site, i’ll be able to complement my playing to use more, and know more about the instrument. Hey, thank you so much, and keep rockin’!

  5. Lee says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone, glad it’s helping. This particular method is real easy to play around with but really can open your mind up to this stuff.

  6. Kim says:

    Lee, when I found this site, week and a half ago, I was really struggling to get a grip on the fretboard, and oftentimes found myself lost within the 5 patterns. After just a week and a half of using your methods of smaller boxes and learning the A note positions, I can now move up and down, backwards and forwards easily. Thank you so much.

    • Lee says:

      Glad you found it helpful Kim, it really is a powerful method to break things down and look at them in a different light (the one you should be looking at). Learning the other 11 notes is the next step and it all gets easier and makes more sense from here! These kinds of exercises turned my guitar playing around.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks alot for your lesson

  8. Declan says:

    I had been jamming over the 5 positions for the last year, and just could NOT find nice phrases… FINALLY thanks to this my soloing sounds good 🙂 cheers \m/

  9. Dan says:

    This is excellent and was what I needed to really learn the fretboard. The first five steps and diagrams were all I needed. Do you have a page similar for B, C, D, E, F, G?

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