How to Break Out of The Pentatonic Box
The Pentatonic scale is the most accessible way for beginners and intermediate guitarists to learn how to improvise. It’s used in countless songs and can produce some amazing results when used properly.
Unfortunately, most guitarists hit a point where they feel like they’re in a rut with the Pentatonic scale. If you put on a backing track and start soloing over it using the Pentatonic scale, how long until you feel like you’re stuck? Do you ever feel like you’re playing the same things over and over? Is it starting to all sound the same?
In this article, let’s look at how to break out of the Pentatonic box and why so many guitarists get stuck in the Pentatonic rut. If you feel like you’re stuck or playing the same things over and over, this article will point you in the right direction.
If you can improvise effortlessly using the Pentatonic scale and are happy with your results, fantastic! This article isn’t for you. Keep doing what you’re doing and if you get stuck in the future, this article will still be here.
Why guitarists learn the Pentatonic Scale
The Pentatonic scale is magic.
Listen to an inspiring guitar solo and the chances are it uses the Pentatonic scale. It just works. You can put on a backing track and if you play the Pentatonic scale in the right position, it will work. You don’t need to understand music theory or know what chords are playing in the background. All you need to do is match the scale to the key and you’re good to go.
The Pentatonic scale is usually the first thing guitar teachers give students when teaching how to improvise or solo. The Pentatonic scale is a five-note scale, which means it’s quicker and easier to memorize compared to a seven-note scale (eg: the Major scale).
The ease of learning the Pentatonic scale and the sheer number of fantastic solos that use it means almost everybody wants to learn it.
Why we learn the Pentatonic Scale using box shapes
We learn the Pentatonic scale because it’s easy to learn. You don’t need any theory knowledge to learn it and can start using it straight away. It makes learning to improvise easier and a lot of great guitar solos use it.
But why do we learn the scale using ‘box’ shapes?
Take a look at the Pentatonic box shape below:
Compare the above box shape to the below example:
Which one looks easier to memorize?
It’s no surprise that we immediately jump at memorizing the box shape, but hesitate to try and learn the full fretboard all at once. There are fewer notes and the box shape the Pentatonic scale makes is a nice way to remember what to play.
There are only five box shapes you need to learn and you will know the Pentatonic scale all over the fretboard. That’s fantastic! Instead of struggling to memorize the full scale all at once, we can break it down into five shapes and piece them together. Great, right?
The downsides of memorizing box shapes
Learning the Pentatonic scale using box shapes is the common approach because it’s quick and easy. In a single lesson, a guitar teacher can get a student improvising using the first box shape. You don’t even need a guitar teacher to learn to solo using the Pentatonic scale. A short YouTube video can tell you everything you need to know to get started. That’s how easy it is to learn.
While all of this sounds great, there are downsides to learning the Pentatonic scale in such an easy way.
Learning to improvise by memorizing box shapes is like painting with colorblind glasses. You don’t need to think about how the notes you’re playing relate to the chords in the background. That’s the same as painting without thinking about what colors you’re using. It’s easy and you can still come up with great results.
The reason many guitarists get stuck in a rut with Pentatonic box shapes is that you gradually start to learn how to identify chords and notes by ear. It’s like if the colorblind glasses started showing you which paint was red. You immediately notice that you’ve been using red in the wrong spots and learn to use it properly.
You feel like you’re playing the same licks and runs over and over because you start to hear the different ‘colors’ in your playing. You don’t know how to use them and can’t describe what you’re hearing, so you feel frustrated. Because you weren’t taught what ‘colors’ go together, you feel stuck.
Thinking inside the box
When you memorize the Pentatonic scale using box shapes, you’re thinking “inside the box”. You’re not thinking about the notes you’re playing. Instead, you’re thinking about position 1, position 2, shape 1, shape 2, etc.
While that makes things easy when you’re starting out, it doesn’t take long before you hit a wall.
Have you ever looked up Pentatonic licks and found that you already play a lot of them? Have you ever heard different guitarists playing the same licks as you?
Do you often play licks like these:
Even if you haven’t played these exact licks, the chances are you’ve played similar licks. To explain why licks like these show up so often when playing with the Pentatonic box shape, I’ll share a story about a short time I worked in a guitar store while I was a teenager.
The point of the story isn’t to put down any of the guitarists I heard repeating the same ideas and licks over and over. Those guitarists didn’t realize anything was wrong.
The point of the above story is that there is a downside to learning things with the easy way. When you take shortcuts, you miss out on important parts of the journey. If something feels easy, it might be a sign that you’re missing out on something important. When a guitarist tried out a guitar and ran through generic licks and box shape runs, he probably felt he was being unique and creative. He probably thought he was expressing himself in unique ways. I could see otherwise because I had already seen ten other guitarists that day play the exact same things.
The reason you feel stuck when playing the Pentatonic scale isn’t that the scale is bad. You feel stuck because the method you were given is holding you back.
I want to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with the Pentatonic scale. It can and has been used to create amazing music. The problem is the way most guitarists learn it. Let’s look at a completely different approach and how it can change the way you play.
How NOT to break out of the Pentatonic box rut
In researching for this article, I watched a lot of videos on YouTube to see what others were recommending. Many videos were filled with great information and advice. But I noticed a common issue with the solutions they were giving to help guitarists break out of the Pentatonic rut.
At the start of this article, I mentioned that understanding the problem is far more important than finding the solution.
The problem with most of the videos was that they didn’t explain (or understand) what the problem was. So while the solutions they gave might help some people, none of them dealt with the root problem.
The most common solution given was to learn more shapes.
Hopefully, you already understand the problem enough to know why that’s a horrible solution. The problem is caused by memorizing shapes, so the solution is to learn more shapes?
For example, a couple of videos explained that by slightly changing the first Pentatonic box shape, you can open up new doors in your playing. This is what they suggested practicing and they gave some example licks to learn using this shape:
If you haven’t already learned this scale, it’s the Blues scale. The blues scale is exactly the same as the minor Pentatonic with an extra note. It’s a quick and easy shape to learn and sounds great if you want to get a bluesy sound.
While that one extra note does make a big difference in what you can play, it’s still the exact same problem. It’s still a shape to memorize. It’s like giving the colorblind painter an extra color. They still don’t know what colors they’re using so they’re still going to have the same problem. A guitarist who learns the Blues scale might feel some freedom for a while but will end up in the same rut as before.
The solution to getting out of the Pentatonic rut isn’t memorizing more shapes.
The real way to break out of the Pentatonic rut
Hopefully, you didn’t skip ahead to this section. If you did, the solution isn’t going to make any sense. You will read it and reject it. If you have jumped straight to this section, I highly recommend going back and reading everything above. You need to properly understand the problem before you can look at a solution.
The solution to breaking out of a rut isn’t to do the same things that got you into the rut. Learning basic shapes got you into a rut and learning more shapes only puts you into a different rut.
So what other options do we have if memorizing shapes are out?
Let’s do something crazy. Let’s not memorize any shapes at all.
I know, that sounds hard. It is, at first. At first, it will feel like a lot of work with zero gain. Why bother learning this way when it’s quicker and easier to memorize shapes? Hopefully by now you know the answer to that question.
Instead of thinking about shapes, let’s think about notes.
A lot of guitarists put off trying to memorize notes because memorizing shapes is quicker and easier. But as you will see below, there are some great advantages to learning the Pentatonic scale using notes instead of shapes.
Shapes vs Notes with the Pentatonic scale
While memorizing note positions is harder than memorizing a scale shape, it leads to real freedom on the fretboard.
To give you an idea what it’s like memorizing notes rather than shapes, let’s look at the pentatonic scale again. If you know all five shapes, you probably see the full fretboard like this:
When you memorize the scale using shapes, your brain keeps thinking in shapes while you improvise. If watch somebody improvise using the Pentatonic scale, you’ll know if they learned the scale using shapes based on how they play. If they play around in one of the colored zones shown above, then shift to another colored zone, they’re thinking in shapes. They may not believe they were thinking in shapes, but subconsciously they were.
The ‘blue’ zone will feel different to the ‘red’ zone or any other colored zone. Not only will they feel different, you will play in a different way. Guitarists who learn this way tend to stick around the red zones because that’s the first shape they learn. Even if the guitarist is completely confident about playing up and down the entire fretboard, subconsciously they’re jumping around the different shapes as they play.
Now let’s compare that to somebody who memorizes the Pentatonic scale using notes. This is closer to what they see when they improvise:
At first, it may look confusing. That’s why guitarists tend to want to learn shapes instead of this method. But the advantage here is that once the guitarist memorizes all the notes, they’re free to play over the entire fretboard.
The guitarist won’t be thinking about shapes or zones while playing. Instead, they’ll be thinking about what notes they want to play. Each of the colors above represents a different sound or ‘flavor’ they can play. Have you ever hit a note that just seemed to sound perfect over the backing chord? When you learn using this method, you’re able to instantly learn why that note worked so well and keep using it across the entire fretboard.
For example, let’s say you play one of the green notes and you love how it sounds over the backing chord. The next time that chord comes up again, you can target any of the green notes on the entire fretboard and know that it will give you that same great sound.
Compare that to a guitarist who plays using shapes. That guitarist isn’t able to easily reproduce that sound later on because the shapes don’t give them enough information. The guitarist would need to look at the note and find the other positions for that note.
The main point to remember is that the way you learn a scale plays a big part in how you play it. If you memorize the scale using shapes, you’ll consciously or subconsciously be thinking with shapes while you play. If you memorize the scale using notes, you’ll consciously or subconsciously be thinking with notes while you play.
The reason so many guitarists get stuck in a rut with the Pentatonic scale is that they’re stuck thinking in shapes. There are plenty of great guitarists who do think in shapes, but there are far more guitarists who are stuck because of shapes. You won’t get stuck by learning using notes.
How to learn the Pentatonic Scale using notes
By now, you should feel confident for the reason why you’re stuck in a rut with the Pentatonic scale. The shapes that made it so easy to learn the scale are holding you back.
Here are the steps to follow to learn the Pentatonic Scale using notes:
1. Learn the notes on the fretboard
This is one of the most important things you can do on guitar, so make it a priority if you don’t already know all the notes across the entire fretboard. Memorizing the notes on the fretboard won’t just help you with the Pentatonic scale, it will help you with all scales and chords.
I’m working on an article explaining how to do this and it will be released shortly.
If you already know the notes on the fretboard, you’re half-way there.
2. Learn the ‘formula’ for the Pentatonic scale
Every scale is built using a formula. If you know what the formula is for a type of scale, you can figure out the notes of that scale in any key.
Here are the two formulas for the Pentatonic scale:
Minor Pentatonic scale formula: 1 b3 4 5 b7
Major Pentatonic scale formula: 1 2 3 5 6
For example, if you wanted to play the E minor Pentatonic scale, you would start on E and use the formula to figure out the notes. E is 1 (the root note), G is b3, A is 4, B is 5, and D is b7. So the notes in the E minor Pentatonic scale are: E G A B D.
If you wanted to switch to the E Major Pentatonic scale, you simply switch scales to figure out what notes you need to change. Following the Major formula, you would get: E is 1 (the root note), F# is 2, G# is 3, B is 5, and C# is 6. So the E Major Pentatonic scale uses the notes E F# G# B C#.
If this seems confusing now, it will get easier after you try it a few times. Eventually, it becomes so easy you can do it in your head within a couple of seconds.
3. Find the note positions on the fretboard
Once you know the notes for the Pentatonic scale you want to play, you need to find those notes on the fretboard. This is easier than it sounds if you’ve properly memorized the notes on the fretboard.
4. Learn to feel comfortable moving around the fretboard
At first, you’re going to struggle to break out of thinking in box shapes. You’re going to see the shapes as you play and revert back to licks as soon as you see those shapes. Resist those shapes as much as you can. Try to avoid playing any licks you’ve memorized and move freely around using the notes rather than the shapes.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Play up and down on only one string (eg: the B string). This forces you to stop thinking about shapes because shapes don’t work on a single string.
- Stop on a note and practice finding the following (this helps you break out of thinking in shapes and think about nearby notes instead):
- The next higher note on the same string
- The next lower note on the same string
- The closest note on the next string (either direction)
- The next octave up from this note
- Call the note names out loud while you play. This helps reinforce your focus on notes instead of thinking about positions or shapes. If you struggle to call the note names out loud while playing, that’s a sign you’re trying to memorize positions.
- Change keys to force yourself to shake thing up. If you only stick to a key you’re familiar with (eg: A minor Pentatonic), you’re going to struggle thinking in shapes. Try playing in a key you’ve never played before (eg: C# Major Pentatonic).
With consistent practice, you’ll quickly find how liberating it is when you’re able to think about notes instead of shapes.
Moving Beyond the Pentatonic Scale
One of the advantages of learning the Pentatonic scale using notes is that it makes it simple to move beyond the Pentatonic scale. You don’t need to learn any new shapes when you learn a different type of scale. All you need to know is the scale formula and you’re set.
For example, let’s say you want to learn an exotic sounding scale like the Harmonic minor scale. If you learned the Pentatonic scale using shapes, you need to start again from scratch and memorize the Harmonic minor scale shapes. Yuck.
If you’ve properly memorized all the notes on the fretboard, all you need to do is find out the formula for the Harmonic minor scale (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7). As soon as you know that scale and find the relevant notes on the fretboard, you’re free to start using it.
The reason this is such a powerful way to learn scales is that it gets easier every time you learn a new scale. When you rely on shapes to learn new scales, you need to start from scratch every time you learn a new type of scale.
I know you might be hesitant to re-learn the Pentatonic scale using notes, but I highly recommend it. If you want to break out of using Pentatonic box shapes, this is the best way to do it. Once you get past the initial stage of memorizing notes, you’re free to explore any type of scale without needing to ever rely on shapes again.