A big problem a lot of guitarists face, whether they’re just learning to improvise, or have been at it for decades, is what we commonly refer to as “getting out of the box.” We guitar players love using the minor pentatonic scale, but a lot of us get lost if they end up outside of the traditional scale shape, or “box.” I think we all know the one I’m talking about. This one right here:
Many guitarists never leave this sanctuary. It can get you through pretty much any solo. It’s only a matter of time, however, until you’re overusing it, and start running out of ideas.
Because of this, guitarists will start using other shapes or “modes” of the minor pentatonic scale, like this one:
There are actually 3 others, but the above 2 are definitely the most common. Now you have two boxes to pull from!
Unfortunately, however, you’re still delaying the inevitable. Yes, you have 2 boxes to completely exhaust, but you’re still limiting yourself quite a bit. Even with all 5 boxes, it’s hard not to sound just like you’re just switching between the different boxes and sound a little all over the place.
When you listen to some of the best guitarists out there, you’ll hear them fluently mixing these shapes together to make long, lyrical lines. This is where most guitarists want to be, and this is an idea I talk a lot about in lessons.
The problem here is how people practice these shapes. Again, even if they have all 5 under their fingers, they’re still only used to starting on the low E string, and ending on the high E string. We always just run them back and forth. This means that even if you start switching between the boxes a lot, you can only feel comfortable doing so on the outside most strings. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve taught who would get totally lost if they had to switch from one shape to the next on the D or the G string.
So here’s an exercise to help with visualizing going between different pentatonic boxes. It’s a little hard to put into words, but I’ll do my best here. I also have the whole exercise tabbed out, so you can follow along. Applying it makes all of this make much more sense.
Basically, we’re running up shape one, and blending in shape 2 one string at a time. Here’s doing so on the high E string. This one probably won’t be too hard for experienced players:
See how once we played the last note of shape one of the high E string we shifted up and continued on into shape two on that same string? Now, let’s do that on the B string:
Notice here that once we shifted up, we continued on as if we were playing in shape 2.
Here it is on the G string. Again, notice how we’re just blending in more and more of shape 2.
The D string:
The A string:
And finally the Low E string. This is basically shape 2 in its entirety, with the addition of one lower note borrowed from shape 1.
Fingering for this can be a bit tricky, so I would always recommend playing any shared note between the two shapes (the second note of a string from shape 1 is always the same as the first note of a string of shape 2) as if you were playing the second shape.
Obviously, you can do this with all shapes that are adjacent to each other, but for an extra challenge, you can try doing this same idea while skipping shapes such as shape 1 to shape 3 and so on.
Doing this enough is a good first step in become fluent across your fretboard with the minor pentatonic scale without sounding too “boxy.”
As always, if you have questions, or anything you’d like to add, you can leave a comment below!
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Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School