Breaking Out Of The Boxes

A simple concept for playing out of familiar minor pentatonic shapes.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello, UG Community! This is my first column, so I'd like to begin by thanking you for reading. I hope you'll find something applicable in the following: When I had advanced enough in my musical development on the guitar, I realized I was growing bored and frustrated with the same old minor shapes, particularly pentatonic boxes (figure 1). If this sounds familiar to some of you, I'm not surprised; guitarists from all walks of life and musical inclinations remember some point where they felt their playing sounded stale or uninteresting. Many of these musicians find a way out of these ruts, often in the form of learning some new scale shape or applying techniques like sweeping and tapping.

Figure 1: example of an E minor pentatonic box.

When I got to that point, I tried to discover the source of my musical frustrations. I found that I had created a sort of safety zone for my soloing that was locking me into these minor pentatonic boxes, and at the center of that safety zone was my tendency to go straight for the root of the minor of whatever key I happened to be in. By starting off a lick with the root, my natural tendency to finish it out with the familiar box pattern took over. I resolved that I would approach soloing by avoiding the root entirely while still in that key. Instead, I focused on the second degree of the natural minor scale, a note not present in the minor pentatonic but one which can add more a bit more depth and exoticism to a standard I - IV - V progression (common in blues and rock contexts). One of the easiest ways to apply any new scale is to play it in three-notes-per-string sequences, so I built an ascending lick out of the second, the third (minor), fourth of the root on the sixth string, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh of the root on the fifth string. Then, I would simply jump up an octave to the fourth and third strings (playing the same scalar degrees on each string respective to the pattern used on the sixth and fifth strings), finally moving up one more octave onto the second and first strings (once again following the same convention). The resulting shape should resemble the Locrian mode. Whew! Thanks for bearing with me through all the description. For your reward, I present you with the following visual aid. Say we were playing in the key of E minor; the approach I discussed would give you the following lick up the neck (figure 2):

Figure 2


    F#  G   A   B   C   D  (Sequence repeats every other string.)          
What's nice about this sort of run is that you can apply at least three different techniques to it while playing. Let's assume you played the above using alternate picking. You could apply some legato on each string, picking the first note and hammering onto the second and third (figure 3):

Figure 3

... or utilize pull-offs playing the lick in a descending fashion (figure 4):

Figure 4

And for the more adventurous players out there, you can tap it out (figure 5):

Figure 5

          T           T         T          T          T             T 

   T           T          T          T          T           T            
G]----------------------- 7-p-5-p-4--------------------------------------
So there you have it: three licks for the price of one! The idea is simple, but utilizing different scalar degrees can really help you move around the neck while breaking out of root-based box shapes. Applying different picking techniques to these extended shapes can add new dimensions to your lead work, enabling you to explore these ideas in dozens of ways all over the fretboard. Thanks again for reading. Please let me know in the comments if you found the content of this column useful. If the feedback is positive, I'll post another column in the near future.

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very Helpful! Great lesson! I just want to let you know that your pentatonic box is wrong. It should be 12-14 on the 5th string not 12-15. Otherwise, great job!
    i was just thinking the same thing i was like "wait what? my 5 years of uitar playing was a lie! =( " haha
    Uhh, i think the guy just made a typo. And by the way, it is only wrong, when you call it the MINOR pentatonic. There is more than one pentatonic shape. There are 5 basic pentatonic scales(or shapes, if you wanna call em like that).
    The author would like to note that a) Yes, I am aware that my pentatonic shape in Figure 1 is incorrect; it should have a fifth (14th fret, fifth string) instead of a minor sixth. I caught myself right after I submitted this whole thing, but that's what I get for not having an instrument in front of me when I write. b) The tapping pattern in Figure 5 probably isn't the most helpful/useful, but space was limited. There, I'm done covering my ass. Thanks again for reading!
    Great lesson man, I'm stuck in these boxes right now and I needed something like this to lift me out of that.
    Nice lesson! I've been playing for almost 25 years but still find myself stuck in the old pentatonic boxes all the time when playing leads.
    Man, I thought I invented it. I figured it out too. The hammer on and pulloffs make a real big and nice Riff, walking on minor scales while riff pentatonic is the great thing. Trust it. I usually notice that great songs are those that takes a note or two outside the pentatonic. It's what gives the strong identity of that song. That strange note, that sometimes escapes from the music. Thanks man. I'm proud that I realized that too by my self, but I'm not the only one.
    Bending those notes just outside of the scale to mimic ones within it works well too. It's like finding the hidden notes between the frets on the way up or down.
    Thanks for the lesson. I was playing around and started jamming out to the scale. Came up with a nice lead riff along with a monster rythm riff
    Great easy to get stuck in the rut of playing in the boxes. Great info that every guitarist should know and practice!! Thanks!
    What helped me break out of the minor pentatonic boxes was listening to a lot of Robben Ford and also mixing the minor & major pentatonic in the same phrases.
    Great article. I've been playing for about 6 years and I am at that same point of boredom with the minor pentatonic scale. I'm looking forward to using this idea. Write another article soon!
    Nice Lesson! Another good way to break out the the boxes is by playing only on one string. Then only playing on two strings etc..
    Totally agree with you, man. I think one of the most challenging solo exercises on guitar is to come up with scalar runs on a one-note-per-string basis. I got the idea from a video where Shawn Lane busts out this insane solo with ridiculous on-the-spot phrasing and then finishes by walking up to the microphone at the clinic he was giving and stating that the entire solo was performed with one note per string.
    Pentatonic scales are often overlooked but i've found dozens and dozens of ways to spruce them up. Another cool trick is to outline the Pentatonic scale ascending on 2 adjacent strings.
    Thanks for the feedback, everyone! 5 stars if you liked it! New column coming soon, hopefully next week!
    PRS Fan 97
    i've finally gotten out of the rut, relatively. I still get stuck using, but I get a little more creative than I used to now
    Dorian mode saved me from the pentatonic rut, aeolian mode saved me from the Dorian rut. now I'm stuck in an aeolian rut! slowly moving forward though. I think it's important to add new things to your playing rather than replace things with your new scales, methods and forget about the old ones. I now force myself to use some pentatonics etc as it often seems a little cliche or counter intuitive to use your old stuff that took so long to break out of.
    My big issue when coming up with solos is that i'm always tempted to just shred and do the whole million notes per second within the same scale milarky. Even when I try and do things outside the box the only ones that sound right to me are boring root key scales (like if the song is in e minor i use scales beginning on the 7th fret of the A string or the scale from the 12th fret low E string etc.) I want to break out of that mould but so far the only effective tool i've found is thinking about the melody of the song in general because modal theory just goes straight over my head (and I've been playing for 6 years as well). Would chord progressions be a wiser thing to focus on for flavour or is there something seriously missing from my approach already? Any advice appreciated.
    I would suggest going over the mixolydian mode. Say you were playing in C major: G major with a flat seventh would the corresponding mixolydian. Playing a G minor or G minor pentatonic can add some nice tension to your leads and give you some of that outside sound. If you were playing in E minor, as you mentioned, D mixolydian would be the corresponding mode and the same minor/pentatonic minor concept would still apply. Also, focus on adding chromatic or passing tones to your phrasing. Should jazz is up a bit.
    To make clear (or...even more unclear) beginners, the 3 notes per string pattern is the Ionian or Major mode. You can combine this pattern with other patterns from neighbour modes to create a more fluid shred. Also, don't just go up or down, you can varry the notes to create a more complex lick or run.
    just as Anna implied I am alarmed that any body able to make $4435 in one month on the internet. have you seen this web page Red97dotcom
    Great Stuff man, this is really really helpful. Way to address and often overlooked problem! Thanks!
    Another good way to spice up the Penta is to turn it into a Dorian, simply add major 6th. Phrasing becomes a little more challenging IMO, but theres cool tricks about it like adding the tri-tone within a fast lick, or ending it by going thru the major 3rd and to the root - gives it a Mixolydian tone, while still essentially being bluesy.
    Examples 2-5 are all in locrian mode. You only use that with an augmented chord. -_-
    Don't tell me when to use the Locrian mode! You ain't my DAD!
    Yeah, I'm not your dad. Hell, you might even be older than I am. Whatever. All I'm saying is that using those examples (in F# locrian) would sound awkward with the E minor chord. Let alone if you're gonna use it to improvise on a passage on the E minor scale. Just saying. But if you're still gonna follow this lesson, I don't really care. I'm not your DAD.
    Rock Prodigy
    As RyanTS2 says in the lesson. Examples 2-5 are the remaining 6 of the total 7 notes in E minor. Just because the lick starts on the F# doesn't mean it's Locrian. The 9th over a minor chord sounds great in the higher octaves.
    I like how you looked for source of frustration . Thanks a lot this really helped
    I like how you looked for source of your frustration , that part really helped . i have same problem, and i ll try to solve it . Thanks
    Danny Gil of LickLibrary talks about the 5 pentatonic positions, that got me out of the cowboy box...
    My rut is that I shred all over mixing different techniques including staccato, legato, tapping, pinches and power chords mixing all different flavors from fret 0-24 but always in the shape of c-major weather I'm in standard, drop d (i make the needed changes on the low string to stay in key of course), drop c, drop b, drop a, etc no matter what tuning. It's the same positions. Only key changes occur when tuning changes occur. Any suggestions? I suppose I could learn a new key like Hungarian e minor but maybe I need to be told to do this...
    Well, it's good that you think of scale positions in terms of a C major shape, especially if you do it from a three-notes-per-string approach. You should know, though, that a C major shape isn't really a "C major shape" if your root note isn't C. Maybe it would be helpful for you to review the modes of the major scale. I recommend picking up a copy of Mel Bay's "Getting into Jazz Fusion Guitar". That book helped me quite a bit.