Breaking Out of The Box

August 14, 2019 4 min read

Breaking Out of The Box

Have scale box patterns gotten you in a rut? These 4 licks will help you break out of box shapes and roam the fretboard more freely during your lead playing.

When we first take up lead playing, we learn both licks and scale shapes that we try to employ in new and interesting ways. We master a scale shape, like the Pentatonic scale or Major and Minor scales, and usually think it sounds great, but then we use it over and over again in exactly the same way, and soon we feel trapped in a particular 3 or 4 fret box on the neck.

Guitarists can get trapped in a scale box like this for years, playing the same old licks in the same neck positions over and over again. A great way to breathe new life into your lead playing is to learn new licks that break out of the same old tired box shapes and move you into new musical territory.

In these licks, we’ve taken a variety of musical materials, scale shapes, and techniques to create licks that will help you navigate your favorite scale shapes in new and interesting ways. Remember, most of these will take some time and practice to master, but learning them can help broaden your musical options as a lead player.

Example # 1 - Repeat Figure 1 octave up (or down) 

Playing in pentatonic, it’s easy to get bogged down in the classic pentatonic box shape, playing the same old pentatonic phrases that have been around since the dawn of popular music. To change things up, we’ve created a lick that moves through all of the Pentatonic positions in an easy to remember pattern that you can master quickly.

This is a variation on a well known country lick in Major Pentatonic, designed to help you glide effortlessly from the third position all the way to the 15th. To do this we employ a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs and strategically placed slides that put your hand in perfect position for the next grouping or whatever you want to play next. 

The entire lick can be played using only the index and ring fingers on the fret hand until the very last bar where it is easier to fret the notes on the 15th and 17th frets of the B string with your middle and pinky fingers.

Example 2 - Break Out of the Box With Octaves


Octaves have been used in lead and rhythm playing by every modern guitarist in recent memory, and for good reason -- they sound awesome. They allow you to take flight from a given position, moving up and down the fretboard at will. In example number 2 we’ve put together a series of octave shapes that are ‘chicken-picked’ so to speak, which means that they are played using hybrid picking to ensure that they are executed cleanly. 

The notes on the G string are being picked while the notes an octave higher, on the E string, are being plucked using the ring finger of the pick hand (you can use your middle finger or pinky, whichever is most comfortable for you). The octave shapes are then slid up and down the fretboard in an ascending and descending A minor scale pattern. The slides occur on the G string, which you can think of as anchoring the octave shape.

Whenever you start to feel yourself being bogged down in a box shape, dust off an octave lick like this to move with ease to new positions on the fretboard, where your lead playing can soar to new heights!

Example 3 - Use Arpeggios to Move Through Positions

A great way to break out of scale patterns is to employ arpeggios. But the problem is that when we are first starting to play leads well enough to learn arpeggio patterns, we tend to learn one typical arpeggio pattern and ‘sweep it to death’ playing it over and over and over in the same exact way. This arpeggio pattern runs from the 3rd to the 15th positions or all the way along the fretboard, and can be used as a transit into all kinds of new lead-playing territory.

Arpeggios or broken chords take the notes in a chord and play them in linear fashion, one at a time. This example takes a G Major arpeggio (made up of the notes G, B, and D) and puts them into a series of ascending and descending cascades with slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and sweeps to give it an interesting, varied sound. 

We’ve laid the arpeggio out this way to illustrate how arpeggio patterns actually move along the entire length of the fretboard in repetitive patterns that you can take advantage of in your playing. You can alter this pattern however you wish, adding additional tones (7ths and 9ths) to suit your musical style. 

Example #4 - Incremental Repetition

Example number 4 is a rather shreddy lick in E minor that employs a technique called incremental repetition, which is when a musical figure is partially repeated with a slight change again and again. In this case a scale pattern that is incrementally repeated in a descending pattern that repeats four times, taking you halfway across the fretboard to a melodic resolution on the tonic note (E in this case). The incremental repetition has an intentionally meandering sound, taking us through several scale positions until it finally comes to rest on 12th fret of the low E string.

Using incremental repetition allows you to move through scale positions without getting lost. Simply keep repeating the musical figure until it is convenient to resolve it on a scale tone. When practicing this example, be sure to move your hand into each new position with the first note of the repeated figure.

Like all of the examples in this article, this pattern employs slides as a way to move fluidly from one position on the neck to another. I would recommend practicing the first two examples for some time before moving on to the more difficult musical figures in examples 3 and 4. Also, don’t be afraid to alter these licks and experiment with them, inverting them, playing them backwards, or in different tonalities. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can do in your lead playing!


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