Blues Guitar Institute

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Escape The Trap of the Big Box Patterns of the Minor Pentatonic Scale

Lesson ID: TB337

Scales were supposed to be the key to unlocking improvisation. So why did my solos still sound like practice exercises?

Early on in my guitar journey, I just wanted to jam on long solos like my favorite players. So, I turned to my trusty Guitar World Magazine and learned the minor pentatonic scale that everyone was shouting about.

Well, I didn’t truly learn the scale. I just learned the patterns.

I devoured those pages, practicing the five big box patterns incessantly. Clearly this is the path to ripping solos like my favorite players. I had no trouble memorizing the two-note per string patterns and at some point, I could play them pretty fast. Sweet.

The next step, creating slick solos with the scale should be easy, right?

It wasn’t.

I struggled to use the patterns in a jam even though I’d spent so long practicing them. I was convinced mastering these patterns was the key to ripping solos like my heroes. Turns out, my fingers memorized those patterns a bit too well and my jams sounded like I was practicing my scales.

Frustrated, I stumbled on a book called the Advancing Guitarist. The first few pages challenged me to use a scale to improvise a melody with one big catch. I could only use one string. Using a single string to improvise a solo was frustrating at first.

But after a few practice sessions, it began to pay off. I began to move up and down the neck using pentatonics in ways that I couldn’t before.

This breakthrough led me to place limits on my practice in other ways like shrinking the scale.

How to Get More from the Minor Pentatonic Scale by Shrinking It to Four Notes

The minor pentatonic scale is just five notes – Root, Minor 3rd, Perfect Fourth, Perfect Fifth and Minor 7th. Shrinking it to 4 notes doesn’t seem like a big change. But the big box approach to the scale focuses on one position at a time – twelve notes. What we’re really doing is shrinking these twelve notes down to four.

Start with a four-note box pattern:

  • Note 1: The root note (e.g., A on the 4th string, 7th fret)
  • Note 2: The next scale degree (e.g., C on the 3rd string, 5th fret)
  • Note 3: The following scale degree (e.g., D on the 3rd string, 7th fret)
  • Note 4: The note below the root (e.g., G on the 4th string, 3rd fret)

Now, play along with a chord progression on loop, like the one below. Use these four notes only. Challenge yourself to create something interesting as you play along.

How to Play with the Shrunken Scale

Resist the temptation to venture out or slip into licks that you already know. That can come later. You’ll quickly realize that it’s difficult to play something interesting with four notes. You can’t fill the space with the notes of a big pattern. Instead, you’ll have to rely on other, more musical skills.

  • Try varying the rhythm of your simple lines.
  • Use bends, slides, hammer ons and pull offs to embellish the notes.
  • Create peaks and valleys by controlling and varying the dynamics (tk-link).

As you play, pay attention to how each note sounds against different chords. Notice which notes sound more or less “right” over certain chords.

What can you do with four notes?

Expand this Exercise by Moving the Four Note Box

After a few rounds, move the four-note box to different positions on the fretboard. When you do, you’ll be playing the same four notes just in a different octave.

Once you’re comfortable with the four-note box, expand it to include the fifth note from the scale. Then, expand into other notes from the scale in the same position. Yes, you’re back to the big box pattern.

So why take this shrunken scale approach at all?

The Difference is in the Journey

It’s easy to fall into the trap of over-practicing patterns. You feel like you’re getting somewhere every time your fingers fall where you want them to. But if you don’t balance that with real-world application two things can happen:

  1. You might get bored and quit practicing your scales altogether and
  2. You’ll probably get stuck knowing a scale but not knowing how to use it.

When you’re stuck, you’ll need to practice things like phrasing (tk-link) to get you unstuck. This is exactly what happened to me. So why not start small? Why not start out having fun and making music and growing from there?

For me and many of my students, this approach is fun and a huge time saver. So spin up a track, find your four notes and…

Play On!

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