Im in pentatonic hell

Glowing Tubes

Gold Supporting Member
Hi guys,
Im not a bad player but I find myself unable to get out of my little pentatonic box. After seeing so many great players at NAMM, Im dying to change my playing. I can not read music or tab.:jo
Any suggestions?



Mark C

Listen to some players you dig and pick out their licks by ear (get the amazing slowdowner or slowgold for your computer). Take a few lessons and learn some new scales. It's not that hard to find new ideas, you just have to be open to them. Good luck.


Ditto on Mark's suggestions.

Im almost in the same boat, cant read music to save my life, but getting the hang of tabs. its really not that difficult, hey if i can understand it, ANYONE can :p

Id say to concentrate on a selected scale (esp if youre learning on your own), eg dorian, and familiarize yourself with it. next step is to listen to artists eg santana and try to dissect their playing. it can be challenging but very rewarding as well.

there's also another thread on practice routine that has some good suggestions.

good luck!

Hipster Dofus

Try going from major pent to minor and back, over 7 chords...

Lots of the masters did this, Like Freddy King.

Try major on the I chord, and minor over the IV, & V.

Add the major notes to the minor Pent and find the ones that fit,

In A minor pent, the B, F#, C#......


By "stuck in the box" I assume you mean the first position (root on sixth string) which is the "Chuck Berry" position if you will. You can have fun with this position forever if you like. But the real fun begins when you connect the other boxes or positions and then add the accidentals. Google "pentatonic minor boxes" and look for the link - gives you a grid of all the positions. Learn those (you will intuitively know how to connect some of them just from your playing experience), and add the accidentals by ear.

For the pentatonic major positions, the most intuitive way to get started is to arpeggiate up and down on the C A G E D triad voicings. Hopefully this helps and isn't redundant for you.


You can arpeggiate each chord for one.
Or switch penta scales with each chord for a little variety.
Start looking at the chord being played, not the key that the entire progression is in.
Hi, Richard - good running into you (often!) at NAMM.

One thing that kick-started my playing quite a bit is learning the about the CAGED system. I'm sure there must be a site somewhere that lays it all out, but in the meantime, think in terms of the open-string chord positions, but moved to where they need to be for the chord you need to play. Start on the top three strings, for example. So an A major chord would be:
--14-- (the "A" shape)

--6-- (the "E" shape - think of a barred E shape on the 5th fret)

--9-- (the "D" shape) etc.

Then learn the minors and the sevenths. And when you get around to it, the fourth, fifth and sixth strings. But start on the top three strings because it's more manageable to have a smaller set of things to begin with.

The usefulness of this is that it gives you the arpeggios, for one thing, and for another, it gives you places to go to get out of the box. Learn the major or minor pentatonic shapes around the chord shapes, but emphasize the chord tones and it will help you outline changes much better. For the A to the D in a blues progression, tie the shapes together in easy ways:
--5-- --5--
--5-- --7--
--6-- --7--
The notes of the two chords are near each other, but have interesting differences (the major 3rd in the A moves up a fret to the 1 in the D chord, for instance).

There's lots more to this, and as I said, I'm sure lots of folks have written about it (I learned it from Shades), but doing this has really helped me unlock the neck and get out of the pentatonic boxes I used to be stuck in. I find it much easier to play melodically and to define chords better.

And hey, we all know the open position chords, so you don't even need to learn new fingerings!


Hey bro, welcome back to NM. Hope you had a good time at the NAMM.



Glowing Tubes

Gold Supporting Member
Thanks for the tips guys.

When it comes to this stuff, Im a total dunce. Cant read tab. For me it has always been by ear which is good in some ways, not good in others. Most of your generous suggestions are way over my head unfortunately.:jo



Hey Richard, TAB is easy to learn, no problem. You owe it to yourself to learn it and maybe find a good teacher. I was stuck for a long time, then I took a few theory lessons from a good teacher and it opened a lot of doors for me. Of course that was years ago, now I'm stuck again, just on a little higher level. :jo
Good luck.



Gold Supporting Member
David, that was an excellant way to lay out that information. I also struggle with getting out of the minor pentatonic box. I need to spend some time with my Fretboard Logic book I have.

Also, I think someone else mentioned "THink about the chords your playing over...not the key". I think that is a key point also. I tend to just say "oh...we're in A so I can noodle aroudn this Am pentatonic box pattern". Knowing the difference in the pattern over the chord your playing will help. I think however that to tie those together I probably need to learn where all the notes are on the fretboard. Starting with the top 3 strings seems like a good plan. I struggle with "I'm going from an A chord to a D where is that D note on the 2nd string". I took a few lessons a couple years back and the teacher described wanting to have "landing notes" to hit on the chord changes. That seems like a good idea also.


Hey bud. I feel your pain. 2 weeks ago I purchased a DVD/Book called FRETBOARD LOGIC SE. It is beginning to open new doors for me and has me thinking in new directions. I have been playing 20 years and am finnaly able to start grasping the concept of how this stuff fits together. He presents it in a logical way yet I don't get that math vibe. Good luck in your journey from the penatonic hell. and take care man.


Almost as good!
Gold Supporting Member
Check out "Fire and Flow Pt 1 and 2" on, originally in GP mag. Jimmy Herring shows some very simple ways to break out of the pentatonic blues in a way that is very easy to apply :cool:

Jon Silberman

10Q Jerry & Dickey
Silver Supporting Member
Originally posted by shinrock
listen to the beatles:dude

Excellent suggestion and, now that I think about it, a similar suggestion to the one I was going to make: change your focus from scales and arpeggios to chord tones and intervals. A good teacher can help you with that.


Originally posted by decay-o-caster
Hi, Richard - good running into you (often!) at NAMM.

One thing that kick-started my playing quite a bit is learning the about the CAGED system. I'm sure there must be a site somewhere that lays it all out, but in the meantime, think in terms of the open-string chord positions, but moved to where they need to be for the chord you need to play.

The CAGED sequence is thoroughly explained by Bill Edwards in his book "FretboardLogic SE" ($16 at It really helped me to understand the reasoning behind the layout of the guitar fretboard and how the 5 root chords (C, A, G, E, D) are related. Its certainly not the end-all of guitar instruction but theres lots of good stuff in it, and its written to be understood by experts and beginners alike. I bought it and it remains part of my library.

Its worth at least a flip-through if you can find it at a local music or guitar store.



Something that you can do right now, just using your ear, and not having to shed any new theory or reading, is what I call limitation exercises.

Rather than going to your tried and true pentatonic box, limit yourself to playing on 1 string. Pick a string and figure out the notes of the pentatonic scale and force yourself to play using only that string. Because your fingers will not be able to fall back into patterns from the familiar box, you will be forced to find new melodies and also phrase differently and use different techniques.

Once you have done that for a while and are feeling comfortable with it, move on to another string (still limiting yourself to one) until you have done all six. Then you can try using 2 adjacent strings, 2 non-adjacent strings, etc.

I have found that this kind of practice really helped free up my fingerboard knowledge out of boxes and patterns and helped me see the neck as a whole. Plus, it is much harder to let your fingers go on automatic pilot, so you tend to listen to your playing more and (hopefully) try to play what you are hearing.

Hope this helps.


chris nix

Hi Richard,

It was really great meeting you at NAMM!
I would recommend listening to other instruments. I like to listen to Mark O'connor and Stephane Grappelli (both violinists, though Mark is a great guitarist, too). I've been on a real Thelonius Monk kick lately....
Just find stuff that you notice the notes tweaking your ears ina cool way, and figure out (on the guitar) what the line of harmony is that interests you about it. I used to do that with all kinds of stuff, then I would build scales out of the intervals that sounded cool to me.
Also, learning by ear seems like the best way, as anyone can always learn to read music, but not everyone has good ears. Reading is NOT hard, at all. Though, I think sometimes music teachers try to make it seem that way!
A great book to try, for learning to read is "Reading and Writing Music for the Musician" by Dave Stewart, who is a keyboardist that has played with Holdsworth, among others.
The book should be called "Music Reading for Neanderthal Guitarists", it's so easy to get through!
Music is not as complicated as a lot of people like to make it out to be. So, don't be discouraged!!


I may be a little off here, I'd say get some lessons, possibly in classical. I did that for a year, just did a bunch of reading. I played electric still, I didn't just stop. Taking jazz lessons will get you out of the box too.


Silver Supporting Member
Pick up a copy of Matt Smith's Chop Shop book. It comes with a CD, and is by far the best "upper intermediate" level instruction I know of. Covers everything from practice skills, major and minor blues, playing outside, modes, playing thru changes etc...

Matt teaches at NGW, is a Hamer clinician and monster player, but most of all a truly great instructor.

You can order from NGW or from

I am not related, just a happy student. :D


The obvious solution is to learn how to read music, and then tap into the huge amount of transcribed western music out there. You can't help but et a grip on major and minor scale playing by doing that, which will at least give yu options other than pentatonics.

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