Scales - Think Outside the Box. Part 1

Thinking outside of the box will give you many new options for playing your scales. This article will show you how to play a single scale all over the fretboard, giving you immediate accessibility wherever you may be playing.

Ultimate Guitar
If you've read my free report on learning the fretboard, you know I have a no-nonsense approach to learning scales in every position possible. This differs greatly from the typical box pattern approach. I'm not a fan of box patterns because there's too much to memorize visually, and it doesn't give you a good sense of what's going on musically. For example, below is a typical box pattern for an A minor pentatonic scale.
Like many guitarists, I learned this pattern when I first started playing, and for a time I found it useful in certain circumstances. At the very least, it starts on the root, and you can move it up and down the neck for different keys. What it doesn't do is give you the ability to play the scale up and down the neck. To do that you need more patterns - several more than I care to memorize. The other thing it doesn't allow for is immediate accessibility. Say I'm strumming along on the following power chord.
If I want to play the above scale over it I have to slide up the neck to do so. It would be very helpful if I could access my scale in the position I'm already in and integrate it right into the chord I'm playing. To really learn the fret board in this way, you need to think outside of the box. And to do so, you need a good learning strategy. Whenever I'm working on a new scale, I utilize the following strategy:
  • Practice only one octave at a time, starting and ending on the root
  • Practice your scales starting on each string as far as its practical
  • Learn at least three fingerings for each starting point So for the A minor pentatonic scale, starting on the low e string, you have the following three fingerings to practice. I've written the fingerings under each note to help get you started. Also, notice how example 1 is immediately accessible over the power chord. Example 1
    Example 2
    Example 3
    The next three examples start on the A string. Example 4
    Example 5
    Example 6
    These next four start on the D string. Example 7
    Example 8
    Example 9
    Example 10
    These last few start on the G string. Example 11
    Example 12
    Example 13
    Notice how with all of these patterns, they look pretty similar when you start on the same finger. I.e. starting on the first finger looks almost the same whether your root is on the E, A, D, or G string. That's the beauty of this approach. You learn three patterns that are transferable to other strings, and they all sound the same. To me this is a much more efficient way of learning the fret board. Someone may ask about the other notes, the ones below the root that we don't practice. I always point out that once you learn the scale and get a good sense of how it sounds, grabbing some extra notes will be pretty easy since your brain will already be anticipating them.
    A strategy like the one I've illustrated in this article will help you to think outside of the box and learn your scales all over the fret board. There is actually much less to memorize, and it lets you immediately access your scales no matter where you find yourself on the fret board. Try this same approach with your other scales, and use it to bring your playing to a new level. About the Author: In my Six Months of Speed training course, I use this strategy, along with others to teach you your scales up, down, and across the fret board, all while building killer speed. Visit to purchase the course and take your guitar playing to the next level.
  • 23 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Cool thing about a lot of rock and metal is that most of it is uses power chords as a chordal structure, which means you can use a plethora of scales for the same progression, with other styles, chord extensions can be quite limiting in terms of what will work over them... for example a B 7#11 isn't really too tolerant of notes outside of B Lydian Dominant being played over it, whereas a B5 chord will conform to a hell of a lot of scales (anything with a B and F#)
      "for example a B 7#11 isn't really too tolerant of notes outside of B Lydian Dominant being played over it, whereas a B5 chord will conform to a hell of a lot of scales (anything with a B and F#)" Ermm...what? I can easily play the B major scale over a B7#11. (Of course, this is assuming that your only chord is a B7#11, as opposed to a progression [in some key] that happens to contain a B7#11.) Yes, the 4th in the scale will clash with the #11, but depending on the mood you desire...I don't see an issue with that. You could always just avoid playing the 4th anyway, if the clashing of the 4th and the #11 didn't enhance the mood you wanted. However, as I mentioned, you'll most likely be playing a progression. Something like: Emaj7, Amaj9, and B7#11. (No, this isn't a strictly diatonic progression. It isn't meant to be.) I can mostly play in E major, if I make sure to touch on chord tones and sparingly use some accidentals. It should result in a harmonious but interesting sound. Why make it more complicated than you have to by memorizing tons of weird scales to satisfy any non-diatonic/expanded chords?
      Great point, but his original point still has some merit. While yes you could play a major scale over a B7#11 the sounds that will work with other scales (I use the term 'work' very loosely) are fairly limited, as you said the 4th (and maj 7th) may clash depending on how much tension you desire; whereas when playing over a simple 5chord, you can alter the very character of the chord, switching from a minor to major tonality with ease.
      Yea you would also have to avoid the 7th degree of B Major when playing over a B (dominant) 7 chord. So I would not advice playing any major scale over B7#11. Sorry if you're gonna call him out, I have to correct it.
      I didn't really think that bore mentioning since I already harped on the 4th (and mentioned chromatics, which basically serve to make things interesting). I assumed people could figure that out. Also, you could play the major 7th, if you wanted to add tension. Let's be realistic though, are you really going to sit in the middle of an improvising and go, "Oh, shit...B7#11! I'd better switch to lydian dominant in B?" No, you're not, unless you planned to in the first place (which would make it the opposite of improv, btw). Besides, in all likelihood, you're going to have a progression, as I mentioned, and use chords tones or chromatics, along with the notes of the key. @Lefty7Stringer: Of course, I wasn't discounting that. I personally think it would sound kind of boring; but yes, you can easily do as he says with a B5 (or any 5th chord).
      One thing that I find more useful instead of using patterns and shapes, is to play the scale only on one string, and then move to another string... For me it's an easier/faster way to understand and learn the scale and it's intervals.
      I agree completely. In my Six Months of Speed training course I lead the student through single note scales, two string scales, and positional playing for six different keys. It sets up a nice practice methodology since one week you're working on single strings, the next adjacent strings, and then finally positional playing.
      So how do you practice this technique. Or how would you teach this approach. sit down play the first three for a while. Wehen you got them down move to the next? This is a big problem i have in general with lessons. I find your approach very useful but cant imagine how to exactly practicing it.... thanks for you knowledge ; )
      One way to work on it is to work on the first three one day, move to the next day during your next practice session, the next four on the next day, so on and so forth. What you'll find is that all the scales sound the same, and they look fairly similar when you move from one set to another. The beauty of it is that there's less to memorize, and it develops your ear while practicing. I go into much more detail in my Six Months of Speed Training Course.
      I would assume that, in order to take advantage of this, you should 1) know the intervals of the scale you want to play AND 2) know where on the fretboard those notes are. Then, find the closest set of notes to whatever chord you're playing. For instance, if you want a riff in Amajor with some single notes, why not play A5 and then use whatever single notes in the key of Amajor are closest to your chosen postion of A5? You could also use Amajor instead of A5 or a Amaj7. Etc.
      Great Article! I have been playing for almost 20 years now and I had to learn most of the information in this article through trial and error. This is great advice for beginning guitarists. Fantastic job.
      Vertical is supposed to be more of pattern-type scales thing. You know, all of the boxes of various scales spanning from low E to high e, whereas the horizontal approach (linear) is the one-string playing stuff. IMO, both of them are necessary to understand and apply. If you relly only on the boxes, you won't see the intervalic distances (e.g. in the pentatonic box, there is is just m3, 2, 2 on the E, A and D strings) But if you play it on one string, starting from the root note, then you'll force yourself to think in intervals and the actual notes. It helped me a great deal in understanding the fretboard and to see the actual notes/intervals within licks - if you can recognize every 1,3,5,7 or whatever interval of any chord just by looking at it, then you're golden. At least that's the way it works for me
      I wouldn't call it exactly an "outside-of-the-box" type of lesson, but it does make a point...the pentatonic shape is just repeating itself once you've reached the octave (as do all of the other scales) IMO all you need to do is just remember the first octave of whatever scale you're learning, and then move the shape up vertically, paying attention to the shape as you cross the G and B strings, where it shifts by a half-step. Changing fingering patterns (as mentioned) is a big help, as it internalizes the scale shape in adjacent positions. The horizontal approach then unifies the knowledge/grasp of the scale/arpeggio/lick. Good article
      I'm curious as to what you mean by vertical and horizontal approaches. By vertical do you mean higher up the neck, or across the strings?
      Well put together, very informative and useful. hats off to you for the lesson. Thank you. look forward to more.
      I picked a progression and the appropriate scales and used this tip.It has really helped me to improvise more effectively. Great lesson mate. I look forward to the next one.