Fretboard Geek

How to go beyond the Pentatonic scale

Break out of the pentatonic

Getting stuck in Pentatonic boxes is a phase most guitar players go through for many reasons.

Playing only pentatonic is not necessarily a bad thing as it can and has produced some of the greatest solos. However, choosing to play on the scale and being forced to play on it for lack of alternatives are two different things.

This article will share ways and tips that will help break out of boxes. You can see the tips in action on the short demonstration of a guitar solo that follows the concepts explained. 

Why is the pentatonic scale so comfortable to play?

The main reason why the pentatonic is the first choice for many guitarists is the chord progression over which most modern music is built.

Without getting too much into music theory, what you should pick up from the article is that blues, and it’s common I, IV, V along with rock, pop, and most genres of “guitar” music are built over “common” progressions where the pentatonic is of great use. Even if you are not into classical music or jazz, you probably have picked up that soloing over those genres is not something the pentatonic can help you with.

Besides, harmonically, the way the scale is spread out physically on the fretboard both vertically and horizontally is very friendly for the hand and different guitar techniques like alternate picking, bending, etc.

Another reason why it’s so popular is the visual aspect of guitar learning.  Most of us are either self-taught or with some glimpses of real lessons. The many youtube tutorials that are based on the pentatonic have massively pumped its popularity.

How to break out of the Pentatonic scale?

The best approach to breaking out of the Pentatonic is first to deepen your knowledge of it. As strange as it might sound, the main reason why people get stuck is that they only learn the Pentatonic as a shape and not a derivative of notes and intervals.

The following steps are how I did start from a spot where I only knew how to play a couple of pentatonic shapes and some licks over them.

  • First, learn all the pentatonic shapes.

Learning all the pentatonic options gives you is the first step to break out of it. 

The five positions of the pentatonic cover pretty much the whole fretboard, so it’s very convenient to know them all. Start with the position you know and expand your knowledge horizontally across the fretboard by blending different shapes.

A very good way to make the process faster is to play the licks you already know and love in another pentatonic shape. It will give the lick another meaning and help you learn the shapes.

In the demonstration, I’m using the A minor pentatonic for most of my playing and going in and out of it.

  • Learn the notes on the fretboard

A very underrated aspect of guitar playing is learning the notes on the fretboard.

Learning notes means recalling them instinctively in all fretboard positions without giving them a second thought. The fretboard geek app drills might be exactly what you need.

Without recognizing notes right away, I would have had difficulty following the chord progression.

  • Play solos in one string

Getting stuck is usually associated with the words “inside boxes.” If you have experienced the same issue as I have of playing horizontally, soloing vertically on only one string will help you break out of shapes.

When I first started doing it, knowing all the shapes of the Pentatonic and the notes was necessary for me. However, you could start soloing in one string even before knowing those.

  • Learn triads 

The next step is to break out of scales by following chords and their extensions.

I have written an entire article dedicated to the topic as I think it’s truly freeing to follow chord tones with any chord progression. Even the ones you have trouble following with the pentatonic. You will notice in the video that I go to arpeggios shapes and triad shapes all the time, especially when chords that are a bit “tricky” and off-key are playing. This way, I make sure that I don’t get lost!

For example, the chords in the demonstration are – Am, E7, Dm, Bb, A.  Wherever the Bb and A chord hit I make sure to be in one of the triad positions of the chords as the A minor pentatonic does not sound good over the last two chords.

  • Learn and analyze solos and the rhythm

The biggest lesson in music for me has come from learning songs.

As a session player learning a song involves getting it is as perfect as it can be to the original. Even though it takes lots of hours, learning a solo note per note and the chord behind it will eventually help you understand how notes work with chords.

Understanding chords and notes is crucial to breaking out of the pentatonic.

  • Learn the melody of the vocal

The goal of being free is to use your guitar as a singer uses his voice – without shapes or boundaries.

A singer does not think in scales, so vocal melodies hold interesting lines that you would have never thought of playing on guitar. Learn the song’s vocal melody once you finish with the guitar parts, and your fretboard knowledge will expand massively.

In the video demonstration, I first started humming the main melody, as a vocalist would do. Then I played it on guitar and built over it by adding guitar-friendly shapes and techniques.

  • Get deeper into mastering the fretboard.

There are endless levels to fretboard mastery, and all of them bring you one step closer to complete freedom not only from the pentatonic but from all shapes.

Check out the drills available on fretboard geek for a complete method of learning the fretboard on the go.

Final thoughts on going beyond the pentatonic scale

Ultimately trust your ears! There is not much point in breaking out the pentatonic if you are just looking for other trickier shapes!

Use the pentatonic and what lies behind it to guide you and break out of it a step further in transmitting the music inside you on the guitar.

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