How to Break Out of Scale Patterns (+ Free PDF Lesson)

how to break out of scale boxes

If you’ve been honing your scales for a while by running patterns from the scale system of your choice, be it the (awful) CAGED System, or 3NPS System etc., you’ll reach a kind of ‘dead-end’ where you need to make the transition into consciously choosing what notes to play, and almost of equal importance, what notes to leave out. Making this transition requires you to adjust your thinking, which in turn will alter your technical ability to accommodate your new-found freedom from scale patterns. It’s not something that happens overnight but making that conscious shift is the all-important first step.

Patterns are Shortcuts

When (most) guitarists learn a scale pattern they bypass the information contained within that pattern. For example, you can learn the ‘Eric Clapton’ minor pentatonic box, and in a matter of hours be blasting away and coming up with all manner of well-worn licks and riffs. This is all well and good but at some point you’ll run into problems with phrasing and resolving licks or simply run out of ideas. Guitarists sometimes also feel obliged to play all the notes in the pattern when soloing, just because they’re there; as you mature as a player you’ll discover that the notes you leave out are just as, if not more, important to consider. All in all, at some point you’ll need to start consciously choosing the notes you play, or leave out, as the case may be.


If you haven’t learned the notes on the neck then I would urge you to do so. If you can find them with minimal ‘hunt and peck’ then you should be okay, and this will give you the impetus to learn them properly. If you’re not too clear on where the notes on the neck are then please download the following free pdf guitar lesson and get stuck in.

File Size: 501 kb
File Type: pdf

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You’ll need a good knowledge of the notes on the neck in order to be able to transition smoothly from one tonality/chord to another. For the purposes of these exercises you need to able to anticipate the root of the next chord or tonality and be able to find the closest note, i.e. you don’t want to be going to the low E or A string every time to find the next root.

Get to Know Your Intervals

If you’ve been dabbling with scales for while you’ll know their interval permutations are what make them sound different. If you’re playing over a major triad then you could use the good old major scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), the Lydian scale (1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7), or even the Mixolydian scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7). Take a closer look at these scales (Lydian and Mixolydian in particular) and you’ll see that what makes them distinctive, in the case of the Lydian scale, is the #4 and in the case of the Mixolydian scale, the b7.

Task 1 – Find a fairly slow backing track with some major chords in it (try to avoid 7th chords at this point) and start to target those interesting notes. The only rule here is that: you’re only allowed to play a note if you know what interval it is, otherwise you need to go back and learn the interval.

Here’s a handy diagram to help you.

If you’re not accustomed to thinking in intervals then this exercise will slow you right down, which can be frustrating, but the benefits far outweigh any temporary loss of pattern-oriented warp-speed licks. You should aim to see the fretboard as stepping stones from one interval to another rather than patterns. Your fingers will want to fall back on the patterns but by shifting your focus to the sound/notes themselves, you should be able to avoid this.

Task 2 – This time grab some minor scales: Dorian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7), Phrygian (1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7), Aeolian (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7), Melodic Minor (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7), Harmonic Minor (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7) etc. and start targeting those distinctive notes.

The Big Idea

The purpose of this exercise is to start thinking about what notes to play over what chords instead of what scales to play; it’s a subtle but huge difference, and can have a dramatic effect on your playing.

Use Your Ears

If you’re not too keen on the above method, you can always dive in at the deep end and rely solely on your ear. See the whole fretboard as yours for the taking and try to play what you hear in your head. Your fingers won’t like this at first and they’ll retreat to well-worn licks and patterns but if you shift your focus to the actual sound of what you’re playing, your fingers should eventually follow suit.

Play Up and Down One String

If all else fails you may want to try playing up and down one string or on two adjacent strings. By making the switch from vertical to horizontal there’s no way your fingers can intervene, leaving you free to concentrate on the actual notes, plus it’s a little easier to ‘see in intervals’ horizontally.

If you’re interested in taking any of these concepts further then I really recommend Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist. which basically deals with this transition in-depth. You can pick up a copy here.


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