Printable Version of Topic

Click here to view this topic in its original format

GMC Forum _ THEORY _ Breaking Out Of Pentatonic Box Patterns

Posted by: The Professor Dec 31 2013, 12:04 PM

Breaking Out Of Pentatonic Box Patterns

One of the most useful devices a guitarist can learn when exploring lead playing is the pentatonic scale, and more specifically, pentatonic scale box patterns. These patterns have been used by countless guitarists over the years to create some of the most important solos in music history, but if we don’t expand beyond these shapes then we can sometimes find ourselves in a guitar solo rut.

To help you break out of only playing pentatonic box patterns, this lesson will lay out five different exercises that you can practice in order to solidify pentatonic scale theory, help you learn your fretboard and break out of box patterns all at the same time.

So, let’s get started!

What Is a Minor Pentatonic Scale Box Pattern?

For those of you who are just starting to explore box patterns, here is a quick overview of these five commonly used scale shapes and how they are built on the guitar. A “box pattern” refers to one of the five main shapes used to play pentatonic scales on the guitar, the name refers to the “box-like” shape each of these patterns has on the fretboard.

Built with the intervals R-b3-4-5-b7, the minor pentatonic scale is usually the first scale we explore as lead guitarists, and so it will be the focus of this lesson. To help you get started, or as a review, here are the five main box patterns for the minor pentatonic scale in the key of A.

The letter “R” has been added into each scale to show you where the root lies within that given shape.

If you are new to these scale shapes, try learning one and then using it to solo over the A Blues Backing Track provided below. After that, learn a new fingering and repeat the process until you can solos with all 5 shapes over the backing track comfortably.

To learn more about these scales and how they are built, check out my “” lesson.

Related video lessons:,

Breaking Out of Box Patterns – Shifting

The first exercise that we’ll look at that will help you break out of box patterns is a shifting exercise where you move between two different boxes in a strategic manner, helping to blur the lines between these two shapes over time.

To do this, you simply pick two box patterns that lie side-by-side on the fretboard, as these two do, and review them first to make sure you have them under your fingers.

Once you have these shapes reviewed, you pick a string to shift on; we’ll start on the 1st string. You then play up the first shape, and when you reach the first string, you shift up to the second box pattern and into that shape from there. On the way down you do the same, play down the second shape on the first string, shift to the first shape and continue down from there.

Here is how that would look on paper.

When you are comfortable with this shifting exercise, you can move on to the second string.

And then the third string.

The fourth string.

Fifth string shift.

And finally a shift on the sixth string.

When these exercises are comfortable, you can pick two other box patterns to shift between as you continue to take this exercise to other areas of the fingerboard, and of course to other keys as you move around the fretboard.

As well, with this or any exercise in this lesson, you might want to pluck each note, or use slides and hammer-ons/pull-offs to give your lines a more slippery sound when working on shifting, and later on with one and two-string scales.

To do this with shifting, for example, you simply pluck the first note, then slide your finger up the string until you hit the next note in the scale. Since you are shifting positions with these exercises, this is a great place to start applying the sliding technique as you move from one box pattern to the next, as it will allow for a smooth transition between each shape on the neck.

Here is an example of adding a slide to a second-string shift between positions. Try this example out, and then when it's comfortable, take it to all of the other string shifting exercises in this section to get a full grasp of this concept on the fretboard.

Related video lessons:,,,

Breaking Out of Box Patterns – 1 String Scales

The next set of exercises that we’ll do will focus on completely breaking out of box patterns as you now play scales entirely on one string, in both technical and soloing practice.

This shift from vertical thinking to horizontal can be tough, but once you get it down you’ll be able to see and play key centers and scales across the entire fretboard with ease, rather than relying on box patterns as your visual guide.

The theory behind the exercise is pretty simple, you pick a key, then play the scale up and down one string, starting from the lowest note in that key on the neck, which may or may not be an open string.

Here is an example of that exercise with A minor pentatonic, A-C-D-E-G, on the 1st string. Start by learning this scale as written, then try other keys on the 1st string up and down, and finally put on an A blues backing track and try soloing over that track using only the A minor pent on the 1st string to build your solo.

For the fingering, any fingering will work so there's no set fingering for these scales when playing on one string. Try a few out and see what you think, then either keep those or switch on the fly, both ways are good. If you are having problems determining which fingering to use, you can use the middle finger for all notes.

And here are those notes on the 2nd string.

The same scale on the 3rd string.

And now the 4th string.

The 5th string is next.

And finally the 6th string.

Try working on one string at a time with one key, and then switch to other keys and strings as you use this fun and challenging exercise to break out of common box patterns and learn the neck at the same time.

Breaking Out of Box Patterns – 1 Finger Scales

This next exercise looks fairly simple on paper, but it can produce big results in the practice room in regards to both learning your neck and breaking out of box patterns on the fretboard.

The premise is as such, you pick one finger on your fretting hand and then solo over a backing track using only that finger to play each note.

Here are the four combinations for this exercise.

1. Solo only with your index finger
2. Solo only with your middle finger
3. Solo only with your ring finger
4. Solo only with your pinky finger

Try this out over a simple progression such as a one-chord vamp, or 12-bar blues progression, and then move on to more complex tunes with keys changes from there.

It’s an easy exercise to get down on paper, but soloing over a track with just your ring or pinky finger, or any single finger for that matter, can really push your playing in new directions as licks that used to be easy are now hard, and you are forced to move outside your comfort zone to make things interesting in the practice room.

Here is an example of a lick worked out with just the ring finger, the third finger, of the fretting hand. So, play EVERY note in this lick with only your ring finger in order to practice soloing with just one finger.

After you have this lick down with your ring finger, repeat the exercise with only your index finger, only your middle finger and then only your pinky finger to work out all fingers through this example.

To further this exercise, or any exercise in this lesson, you can also use the Minor Blues Scale as the basis for your note choices on the guitar. To build this scale, you simply add a #4 to your Minor Pentatonic Scale and you now have a blues scale.

To learn more about the Minor Blues Scale, how it's built and how to play it on the guitar, please check out the on the Theory forum.

Breaking Out of Box Patterns – Two String Scales

As well as practicing single-string scales, working scales and soloing on one string at a time, you can also work two strings at the same time so that you work horizontally on the neck but now add a bit of vertical action to your playing as well.

When practicing scales and soloing on two strings at a time, you can choose from any of the following combinations of strings during this exercise. Notice that you are only using two strings, but there are a ton of different combinations that you can use to keep things interesting in the practice room.

1. 1st and 2nd strings
2. 1st and 3rd strings
3. 1st and 4th strings
4. 1st and 5th strings
5. 1st and 6th strings
6. 2nd and 3rd strings
7. 2nd and 4th strings
8. 2nd and 5th strings
9. 2nd and 6th strings
10. 3rd and 4th strings
11. 3rd and 5th strings
12. 3rd and 6th strings
13. 4th and 5th strings
14. 4th and 6th strings
15. 5th and 6th strings

Here is an example of how you would play the A minor pentatonic scale on the 2nd and 4th string. Notice that the first time through the notes are played together as double stops, and then separately as single notes. Practicing two-string scales in both of these ways will allow you to apply them fully to your soloing, riffing and chord work as you bring this concept into your practicing and performing situations.

Try picking a different set of two strings each day and work a minor pentatonic or minor blues scale across these strings. Then, once you can play the scale from memory in one key on these strings, put on a backing track and solo over that progression using only these two strings.

From there you can expand to other keys if you like, and then try a new string combination and key the following day, repeating this concept until you’ve covered all the string sets.

Breaking Out of Box Patterns – Jimmy Page Scale

The next exercise we’ll look at combines each of the different box patterns into one long scale, which was a favorite fingering used by Jimmy Page in many of his classic Led Zeppelin guitar solos.

The scale shape starts on the first note of the 5th box pattern and then climbs up to the high E, which is a part of the 4th pattern, moving through the 1st, 2nd and 3rd shapes along the way.

When doing so, you play a symmetrical fingering pattern with your fretting hand. This means that you play the fingers 1-3, 1-2-3 and continue that up the scale until you reach to highest note.

Here is how that looks on paper, try learning this scale in A first, as written, and then take it to other keys across the neck.

Here is that same scale descending, which uses the symmetrical fingering pattern 3-2-1, 3-1, which you then carry down the fretboard from the highest to lowest note.

This scale is not only a great way to break out of box patterns, you are also learning your neck, working on your horizontal playing, and getting a Jimmy Page vibe into your solos at the same time.

Try this scale out on your own to begin, then put on a blues and jam along using this fingering to build your lines and phrases using this scale as the basis for your ideas.

Related video lessons:,

Backing Tracks

To help you continue your work on breaking out of box patterns with the Pentatonic and Blues Scales, here are a few backing tracks that you can use in your practicing at home.

The first backing track is a blues in A that you can use the A minor pentatonic and A minor blues scale to solo over with any of the above exercises in your practicing.

 Blues_Backing_Track.mp3 ( 5.25MB ) : 3745

The next backing track features a Country Groove and uses an 8-bar chord progression in the key of G major. You can use the G minor blues and minor pentatonic scales to solo over this track, as well as the E minor blues and minor pentatonic scales.

 Country_Backing_Track.mp3 ( 4.56MB ) : 2332

The last backing track is a Rock Groove in E, so you can use the E minor pentatonic and E minor blues scales to solo over this track as you work through the various exercises in the above lesson.

 Rock_Backing_Track.mp3 ( 11.52MB ) : 3012

To learn more about these genres of music and these chord progressions, please check out my and my

Now that you have worked out these fun and engaging exercises in the practice room, share your thoughts on which exercise helped you the most when it came to breaking out of box patterns.

If you have any questions or comments about this lesson, or want to post audio or video of you playing any of these exercises to get feedback, please post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Posted by: Bogdan Radovic Dec 31 2013, 12:13 PM

Thanks for the lesson Professor!

This is really an eye opener - I'll try out some of the exercises in my next practice session and recommend everyone to do it.

Posted by: The Professor Dec 31 2013, 03:01 PM

No problem. Glad you dug it and thanks for passing it along!

Posted by: Anders Karlsson Jan 1 2014, 02:05 PM

I must say, great lesson. Says alot.

Posted by: AK Rich Jan 1 2014, 08:20 PM

Great stuff Professor! These are the kinds of lessons that can lead to huge breakthroughs in phrasing and confidence in soloing in any key and anywhere on the fretboard. We will never get lost again! smile.gif Don't pass this one up guys, it is hugely valuable!
These types of exercises work great using the modal patterns as well.
I will definitely go over these myself to see if I can find some new ways of getting around the neighborhood that is the fretboard. smile.gif
Thanks Professor!

Posted by: The Professor Jan 1 2014, 08:49 PM

Thanks everyone, glad you dug the lesson so far!

Posted by: waynedcoville Jan 1 2014, 09:37 PM

Wow nice! I've always kinda stayed away from pentatonics for precisely that reason: they tend to be boring. This opens up a whole other chapter in my book of noodles. Thanks for the insight!

Posted by: The Professor Jan 2 2014, 07:11 AM

QUOTE (waynedcoville @ Jan 1 2014, 08:37 PM) *
Wow nice! I've always kinda stayed away from pentatonics for precisely that reason: they tend to be boring. This opens up a whole other chapter in my book of noodles. Thanks for the insight!

No problem, hope you dig the exercises!

Posted by: Anders Karlsson Jan 4 2014, 08:45 PM

Hi again, i saw small mistake (i think). The single string exercise, the low E says 0-3-5-7, i should be 0-3-5-8 and so on.

19 should be 20.


Posted by: The Professor Jan 4 2014, 10:08 PM

QUOTE (Anders Karlsson @ Jan 4 2014, 07:45 PM) *
Hi again, i saw small mistake (i think). The single string exercise, the low E says 0-3-5-7, i should be 0-3-5-8 and so on.

19 should be 20.


Nice catch! Will fix that up on Monday when I get back home. Until then it should be 0-3-5-8-10 cheers!

Posted by: PosterBoy Jan 7 2014, 09:31 AM

Great lesson. It's really well structured for something that shows how mindblowly big it means to really know a certain scale.

Can you play it in every key?
Can you play it starting on any interval of it?
Can you move smoothly between all the different patterns in and out of order
Can you play it on a limited number of strings?

These are the types of questions I've been challenging myself with this New Year.

So my practice is going to be less about building speed and more about building familiarity.

I'll certainly be taking this lesson on board for my pentatonics and using it as a guide for my major scales too.

(This month I'm focusing on the Keys C# and F#, as they are definitely ones I'm not happy playing in!)

Posted by: The Professor Jan 7 2014, 10:04 AM

Glad you dug the lesson, those are all great things to ask yourself with any scale, and then address in the practice room. Good luck with it!

Posted by: SeeJay May 7 2014, 03:46 PM

Whew, a lot to digest. Always looking to ways to play around the pentatonic scale and not getting stuck in "the box"

Powered by Invision Power Board (
© Invision Power Services (