If you use the block/box positional scale patterns to good effect, and find them useful, then good for you. Anyone who can play well has my complete respect. However, if you feel a little trapped by them, or just find yourself playing scales instead of playing music, then breaking out of the box can be a really useful and liberating exercise. Block scales can be useful while initially learning the layout of the fret board, but for some, they can become a prison.
SINGLE STRINGS; KNOW THE WHOLE FRET BOARD FROM ANY NOTE.
If you’ve looked at a piano, you’ll have noticed that the black keys are grouped into 2s and 3s. If you play all of these notes, you’re playing a pentatonic scale, either Gb major, or Eb minor.
Play a pentatonic major/minor scale along a single string on guitar, and you can take advantage of the same 2 and 3 note groupings. Look at this C major pentatonic on the second string.
C D E G A C D E G A
Notice the group of 3, C, D, E, is made up of 2 whole steps, then there is a gap of a minor 3rd, E to G, which is made up of a step and a half, then there’s a group of 2, G and A, which is made up of a whole step, then there is another gap of a minor third, A to C. This 3 notes, gap of a minor 3rd, 2 notes, gap of a minor 3rd, 3 notes, gap minor 3rd etc, pattern repeats all over the fret board.
The major pentatonic is made up of the scale degrees, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. So once you’ve become familiar with the 2, 3 note groupings, and the minor third gaps, as long as you know which degree you’re playing, you’ll know everything that’s around you anywhere on the fret board.
In a previous article, I talked about the A to A approach to scales, and how phrase-friendly it can be. When the two approaches are combined, the fret board really opens up. If you practice playing along a single string, keeping this grouping pattern in mind, position shifts become easy. These two approaches can help free you from those two octave block/box scales.
Playing along a single string is a good opportunity to get control of your picking range. If you accidentally catch other strings when picking, then just trying to stay within the boundary of the neighbouring strings can make a huge difference. For example, when playing along the 2nd B string, simply keeping the pick inside the neighbouring high E, and G strings is a very useful exercise. Use the sweep picking technique of picking the B string with a down stroke so that the pick comes to rest against the topside of the E string, then instead of continuing to pick the E string as you would if you were sweeping, pick the B string again with an upstroke, and come to rest against the underside of the G string. This sweep/alternate picking will ensure you never cross the boundary of the neighbouring strings. This will help you out if your picking tends to be a bit indiscriminate.
Another area where block scales can cause problems is with the expressive part of guitar playing. As beginners, we tend to practice things such as the A minor block scale at the 5th fret, up and down one note at a time with one goal/question in mind; how fast can I do it? Maybe it was just me that did that, but I doubt it.
What’s so terrible about that approach? Well, we never pay much attention to the notes/scale degrees we’re playing, how they sound, the difference between the 7th, and the 5th etc. We don’t get to hear what kind of tone we’re getting. We don’t get a chance to bring notes alive because we don’t hang around on them long enough. We never pause for breath, and so phrasing doesn’t get a chance to show itself. And as was mentioned in The A to A of Scales, block patterns group together octaves of different stylistic properties, and this can disrupt phrasing.
Playing along a single string seems to eliminate a lot of these things immediately, and the constant position shifts seem to promote free movement because you’re no longer anchoring yourself in one position and clamping the hand to the neck. Having bass play the keynote for context while playing along a single string, hanging around on notes to really hear their unique intervallic qualities, bringing them alive with vibrato, small ¼ tone bends, sliding them in and out, hammers, pulls, all this good stuff can get a chance to show its worth when you slow down and allow the notes to be heard. This just seems to happen when you move away from the block scales, and start to move horizontally.
Here’s a slide/hammer/pull single string exercise that I like to use with a variety of fingerings. Remember to linger on notes for a moment to bring them alive with vibrato and small bends. Even the key note can be quickly bent and released a ¼ tone. Combine this with vibrato, and it’s much more lively and expressive than just playing the note straight. I tend not to use hole degree bends so much during these kinds of exercises because I’ve overused the bend and vibrato technique in the past, and it’s like you can become a bit of a one-trick pony, so I try to keep a lid on that when working on expressive stuff. However if you haven’t yet developed good bend and vibrato, then incorporate it into the exercise as it’s one of the greatest expressive sounds in guitar playing.
The following example is of the Ab major mixolydian along the G string, but you can use any scale, and whichever you choose should be applied to all strings.
*Fingering variations have been written beneath the first two lines of the tab.
*1 1 3 3 3 3 1 1
*2 2 4 4 4 4 2 2
*1 1 2 2 2 2 1 1
*2 2 3 3 3 3 2 2
*3 3 4 4 4 4 3 3
Another useful exercise is to play chord tones a long a single string using slides, hammers, pulls, and bends. I personally group chord tones into ‘inside’ and outside’ tones. The inside tones are the ones that appear in the first octave, 1, 3, 5, and 7. The outside are the extended chord tones that are found in the second octave, 9, 11, and 13, which of course are the missing scale tones from the first octave, 2, 4, and 6.
I practice the inside chord tones first, and give them higher priority in general, adding in the outsides later. I think this can help to keep things harmonically strong. Practice over a bass playing the root note. Without this contextual foundation, it’s hard to hear the individual qualities of the chord tones; a 7th only sounds like a 7th when we know exactly what the root is.
The following exercise is in D mixolydian along the B string, but again, it should be applied to all strings, and can be any scale you choose. Remember to be expressive, and ad bends if you feel the need to work on them.
Inside chord tone exercise in D mixolydian. The chord produced is D7.
Descend using same properties. Remember to always be aware of which tone you’re playing, root, 3rd, etc. Note the above exercise begins on the 7th.
Once you’re comfortable with the above exercise on all strings, you can try mixing it up a little to see how well you know the D7 chord tones all over the fret board.
Inside chord tone example using all 6 strings.
Obviously there are heaps of ways of playing these tones all over the fret board. You should be comfortable with all of them, not because you’ve memorized set patterns, that’s what we’re trying to break away from, but because you just know where all the tones are.
Use your familiarity with the inside tones as markers to add in the outside tones. Try adding them one at a time. Play the four inside tones, 1, 3, 5, and 7, with the occasional outside tone thrown in. Something like the following which adds in the 11th chord tone (4th scale degree). Note that if you flatten the 3rd, you have the D minor pentatonic.
I really believe that the ’I know where my tones are’ approach works better than the ’I know where my set patterns are’. It’s not so much a case of knowing your notes in terms of F#, A, etc, though it’s even better if you do, rather knowing that if this is the 7th tone, then I know exactly where the 5th, 3rd, 1st, etc are in relation to where I am now.
Hope this helps you to break out of the box, if that's what you want to do.