stuck in scale patterns

Very often guitarists complain of being stuck in scale patterns or boxes, they then go in search of some way to break out of them; however, I don’t believe that it’s necessary to ‘break out’ of a scale pattern to somehow sound more musical or get yourself out of a rut. While this might sound like heresy, there are a couple of things that get hugely overlooked by guitar players (and teachers) when the impending frustration stemming from the confines of a scale pattern starts to raise its ugly head. There are two main reasons you’re stuck in scale boxes, which you may or may not want to accept, but the good news is that you don’t have to ‘break out’ of them to free yourself from this particular rut.

Reason 1: You’re not melodic enough.
This is kind of obvious when you think about it, but if you can’t make a melody from the notes available, then no amount of ‘breaking out’ ideas or techniques will cure you of your ills. I imagine BB King never worried out breaking out of scale boxes because he had all the notes he needed right under his fingertips; all he then did was to make beautiful melodies out of them. For some reason guitarists tend to use 10 times as many notes as they need to, and this is what creates the desire to somehow reach the ‘mystical notes’ beyond the box you’re stuck in; these notes apparently containing the answer to all scale ruts.

I’m sure you’ve heard the famous riff from the Deep Purple track, ‘Smoke on the Water’, especially if you’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in a guitar shop. While the riff itself pretty much overshadows the actual song, it’s worth having a look at the solo as it’s a masterclass in melodic phrasing, tasteful runs, and the thing that everyone misses about Ritchie Blackmore’s playing: he’s an absolute master of the less is more school of thought, and a great example of how to make an incredibly melodic solo from what are basically scale runs. If you break this solo down, you’ll see how he takes scale patterns and injects melody and phrasing into them.  

What to do about it: There are a couple of things you can do to start thinking in more melodic terms, especially the method we looked at in the, ‘How to Create Melodic Guitar Solos’, blog post.

Reason 2: Scale fingering options
This follows on the from the previous idea because one of the reasons you may not be able to squeeze any melodic ideas out of certain scale boxes comes down to the way you’re fingering the scale.

Let me explain…

You may recognize the scale pattern below, which is of course the A Minor Pentatonic ‘Clapton’ style box. The great thing about this particular pattern is that the natural fingering you use to play it, and the layout of the notes, lend themselves well to actually coming up with musical phrases, runs and ideas; it’s also fairly easy to create melodies from this pattern.

eric clapton pentatonic box

Let’s compare this to another pattern such as this 3NPS F Major Scale box:

3nps scale guitar

What happens here is that the natural fingering you use to play through this pattern doesn’t lend itself well to making actual music. Your hand feels restricted and tied to the 3NPS idea, making you more likely to play stuff that sounds like scales; in other words, what’s restricting you is the fingering, not the scale pattern.

What to do about it: The best thing to do here is to find fingerings within the scale pattern that are comfortable for you, or as comfortable as the Clapton box above. I’m not suggesting you turn this into some kind of hack pentatonic shape but look for a way to finger the notes so that you can come up with melodic ideas, rather than having your hand in that rigid 3NPS position. Remember that you don’t have to use all the notes in the scale, there are only 7 different ones out of the 18 notes in the pattern.

In combination, these two ideas should get you out of that rut without having to learn anything new or ‘break out’ of any boxes.