Why Can't You Break Out of THE BOX On GUITAR?

How To Free Yourself From Pentatonic And Other Scale Boxes

Tommaso Zillio

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scale boxes guitar

Most frequently asked question #37: “How do I break out of the box?”

That’s something that nearly every guitar student will ask upon learning a few basic scales (like the “pentatonic box”, indeed), and for whatever reason, there seem to be a lot of conflicting answers about this.

So, let’s clear things up and give what I believe to be the best answer to this question, so you can start seeing past the boxes and understand your fretboard on a deeper level.

The situation is this:

  • Most people, whenever they start playing lead guitar, learn some “scale patterns”.

  • Scale patterns are really useful, but with their usefulness comes a steep price: you get “imprisoned” by these patterns (or should I say “caged” by these patterns hehehehe…). That is to say, you start to believe that these patterns are ‘real’ rather than just a convenient simplification.

  • Goes without saying: we would like to have our cake and eat it too. That is: we want to ‘see’ the patterns, but we also want to be free to do whatever we want.

To do this, we need to have what I call the “Matrix-vision”. Remember in the movie The Matrix when Neo is finally able to “see” the computer code underlying the simulation of reality?

(Remember also when I outed myself as a massive nerd? No? It just happened…)

Anyway, we want to have the “Matrix-vision” for scale patterns: we want to see what’s behind the pattern and get to the real substance underlying them.

… it’s much simpler than I make it sound, BTW.

Instead of seeing the notes as dots on a scale diagram (this is what is keeping you in the box), we need to see them for what they actually are: notes and/or scale degrees.

Once we know this, then it becomes clear to see how much repetition there is in these scale patterns, and how all of the different boxes of any scale are actually just the exact same things being repeated over, and over, and over, and over.

None of the above makes any sense in words… (just like everything Morpheus says to Neo makes no sense for the first 80% of the movie…)

So, what is the best way to become the chosen one… I mean, to understand the notes behind a scale instead of seeing it as just some box?

In the video below, I’ll be explaining precisely that to a student of mine.

If you do what I show in the video, before you know it, you will have broken out of the Matr… erm, the box once and for all.

I have much more content on freeing yourself from the boxes and shapes on the guitar, and one of those is a completely FREE eBook, called 18 Tips To Make Your Pentatonic Solos Sound Professional. Check it out to finally sound great with the pentatonic scale!

Video Transcription

Hello internet; so nice to see you! everybody or nearly everybody when they learn to play guitar, learn the basic box pattern, but how do you break out of this pattern? Here’s the curious thing about guitar players, the moment they ask you, ‘Hey, how do I break out of this pattern?’ The guitar teacher teaches them other patterns. And then it’s patterns over patterns over patterns, and everything is a pattern and it becomes confusing. It looks like that scene in A Beautiful Mind where he has all those things plastered on the wall, all those diagrams here and there, it becomes complex.

So. the question here is, how do you break out of old diagrams? How do you break out of old patterns? How do you make it so that you can understand the pattern, you can use the pattern, but you are not tied to these patterns forever?

Well, a student of mine asked me how to visualize the fretboard and break out of patterns. And here’s my answer to him. But before that, you can have much more about all these on breaking out of the patterns. If you get my free eBook, 18 tips on making your pentatonic solos sound great. In this ebook, I’m gonna show you some other tricks to break out of patterns and make everything sound great. So, get it and then here is the answer I gave to my student:

‘So, my question is related to improvising. And I’d like a recommendation for a method to visualize what patterns are available and what notes I should be targeting.’

‘Okay, are you searching for a method that tells you, for instance, starting from a chord progression, what are the names of the notes you have to target? Are you searching for a method in which you know what motifs and targets already, but you need to find them on the fret board?’

‘Yes, the patterns on the fretboard, how to visualize the patterns on the fretboard and the target notes on the fretboard.’

‘Okay. Well, the first step would be to know what your notes are. So, my next question is, if I’m asking you to find an A note on the second string, do you know how to find it?’


‘Can you play it? Okay, what was your thought process?’

‘Second string, where’s the A note?’

‘Okay. So you know your notes all around the fretboard?’ ‘Pretty much, yeah.’

‘Okay. So, the problem is not knowing where the names are around. Fantastic. Okay. So, wherever you put your hand, on a span of three strings, any three strings, and five frets and so at most extending the index finger, you have all the nodes under your hands. Okay, that’s the first thing to note, wherever you are on a span of three strings and five frets, you have literally all the notes. Okay. I could prove it to you, we could stay here and try for the rest of our time, but I’m not gonna do that. You trust me on this?’

‘I’ll do that at home. Yes.’

‘There is mathematical proof if you want, we can literally go down there. Okay. You don’t need to move. Okay. It becomes important to know, the areas of your fretboard essentially. So, I wouldn’t think too much in terms of patterns. At the beginning, I will start thinking of the single notes. Okay. Okay. When you think in terms of pattern, for the future, I will think in terms of arpeggios, not on scales. Okay. There’s nothing wrong with scales, I love scales. But if you’re trying to improvise over a chord progression, you want to know what the chord notes are. Okay? Make sense?’


‘Good. When you improvise over a chord progression, you will have to do a number of different things. You have to know what is the chord progression, and you do it once and you write it down, you’re fine. Then you need to know what chord is playing right now, which requires part of your attention. You need to know what notes are in those chords, then you need to find those notes on your fretboard which are wherever your hand is, those notes are there. And then you have to play. Any one of those phases could be the bottleneck, the thing slowing you down. Okay, right.

So, the only way to know which one it is, is a lot of introspection and seeing where you get stuck. Okay, and then you have to optimize that passage in isolation. Okay. So, if the problem is knowing what notes are in the chord, you need to memorize all the chords, right?

The way to do this, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. It’s simple in the sense that I can explain to him one minute you simply ask yourself a question like what are the notes in G sharp minor? And then you answer yourself, it’s G sharp, B, D sharp. And you keep doing this until you feel the answer coming back immediately. Okay, and whenever you don’t know, you calculate it and you keep doing this. And It’s done completely in your mind. So, you can do it anywhere. As long as you’re not driving heavy machinery. I disclaim any responsibility for motor vehicle accidents.

I mean, you’re waiting for the bus, you are at a boring meeting at work. Okay. And your boss is talking to you and are thinking what are the notes in G sharp minor? Okay, exactly, it helps. You just do this whenever it makes sense, okay, well, you don’t need a guitar. That’s a completely mental skill. Okay, finding the note, it’s easier to find the note on the guitar, if you have a guitar, okay, the A, C, E have become straightforward. And we’re going to do this right now. But you can potentially do this without a guitar and completely in your mind which requires a lot more imagination, a lot more concentration, but close your eyes a moment, put your hand somewhere on the guitar, and just go up or down or whatever. Good.

Now you are on 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. And you’re gonna use the first three strings. Okay, so you can be there or you can shift at most, one fret up or down whatever you want. Now play me a C note. Is there another one close by? Always on those three strings. Okay, play me an E. Is another one possible? Yes. Which is the same on a different string. Okay, and you do this. And you do this in your time yourself on a metronome, for instance, or something else, or you work with a friend. So, he says one note, you play, you say one note, he plays, and so on and so forth, and try to see who’s faster, okay. Or, I don’t know, find a source of random letters from A to G, essentially. And just do this even if you do it only for the natural notes. So, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, no sharps and flats.

You still learn a lot because sharps or flats is just moving up or down a fret when you change any of the fretboard. Let’s say now move around to fret twelve but go on strings three, four and five. Okay, yep. Play me a G there. Yes, play me a C. Okay, play me an E. Yeah, the whole point is constraining yourself, because otherwise it will be the easy one, that’s an easy one, you want to constrain yourself.

And again, they’re always under your fingers. You did this until you feel comfortable. Okay, and this reduces the time used for this specific step a lot. Yeah, makes sense. Right? Yes. Okay. So that will be the exercise I suggested. There’s more to it. I mean, it’s we can go on and on and on talking about fretboard and how to visualize the whole thing. But I will start from the notes because from there, you can build everything to build arpeggios, you just put together the three notes of the chord right now there’s more than one fingering some are more convenient than others.

Yes, I will not start imposing a top down system immediately. Okay, I will rather grow up this system from the bottom because different people understand things in a slightly different way. So maybe the system from top to bottom is exactly what you want. But it may happen or another top to bottom system that will not work for you. Okay, so I was building this way. Okay, first, the notes that maybe start to see arpeggios, and see how the arpeggios connect with each other. Okay, but you start this way.’

‘Great. Thank you.’

‘Okay. Yes. Thank you, Scott.’

‘Thank you very much.’

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