Movable Patterns: Five Ways to Break Out of the Pentatonic Box

Five ways to free yourself from "box" playing.
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

Lead guitar involves mostly positional playing. In other words, it relies on scale shapes that lie across the strings in just one area of the neck.

For example, when you’re playing the A minor pentatonic box at the 5th fret, you’re playing in 5th position.

But if all your licks are drawn from positional shapes, you’re likely to get locked into them and never explore the rest of the fretboard.

So how to break out? Here are five ways to free yourself from “box” playing.

FIGURE 1 starts on the top two strings of the first A minor pentatonic box, then shifts up aggressively through the higher boxes in the style of Zakk Wylde. After you get the hang of this, change rhythms and/or move the patterns up and down the neck to create your own licks.


Image placeholder title

The descending lick in FIGURE 2 starts with the E blues scale at 12th position, then goes mobile on the 3rd string, shifting down to another E minor pentatonic box shape. Moving diatonically on string 3 like this is a trick you can use to bridge between common pentatonic shapes.


Image placeholder title

You can also shift up and down the neck on a single string while sticking exclusively to the pentatonic scale. The Steve Vai–inspired FIGURE 3 climbs the A minor pentatonic with strong bending, then heads back down in a sequence of three-note groups arranged in 16ths. Feel free to try this idea on different strings, in different keys or in reverse.


Image placeholder title

FIGURE 4 is a three-note-per-string exercise à la Paul Gilbert. Notice how the position shifts allow each sextuplet to use two three-notes-per-string sets continuously. This makes it easier to play fast, since the picking pattern simply repeats.


Image placeholder title

Of course, you’re not finished until you apply this idea to string sets 1–2 and 5–6 as well and try it in at least a few other keys.

In FIGURE 5, the approach is legato (hammers and pulls), but due to the uneven rhythmic groupings, the difficulty has gone up a notch. Don’t pay too much attention to the rhythm here. Just put the downbeat on the top of each cycle and cram in the rest of the notes as evenly as possible. At slow tempos, it’s actually harder to play with a click, so practice without one until you get the pattern under your fingers. For extra credit, figure out a way to make the pattern descend.


Image placeholder title