Pentatonic Power: Unwrapping the Boxes

The five pentatonic boxes are usually one of the first things most players learn. Like many things, while they’re simple to get the hang of, you can spend a great deal of time mining cool licks and ideas from those five simple boxes.

A classic basic picking exercise that has great practical application uses the “two-finger” boxes on the 1-2 (E’-B) string pair. Chances are you can play this pattern at a fair amount of speed:

Basic 2-string pentatonic box pattern

Single-string and two-string exercises are ideal for isolating any picking-hand issues and working on them before they develop into habits that might limit speed or accuracy. Start with down-up alternate picking, then work in hammer-ons and pull-offs to build legato technique, Once it sounds smooth and clear, it’s time to move it up and down the neck. Here’s the standard A minor pentatonic, all five boxes, starting at the fifth fret:

A minor pentatonic box pattern

The above exercise is a great one for synchronizing both hands, between the string-crossing and the frequent position shifts. If you drill the pattern repeatedly, it’s more rhythmic to hit the turnaround at the first beat of the second bar and start descending at that point, instead of going up to the next box at the 20th fret.

Just as important as working up and down the neck, is working across the neck in a single position. So let’s try running our four-note pattern down through the entire box in position, one step at a time:

A minor pentatonic box (Box 1)

Naturally, we’ll want to work on all five boxes in this manner, ascending and descending, and string them all together in succession when comfortable with all of them.

So far, we’ve just been working with straight 16th notes (groups of 4), but triplet and sextuplet patterns, because of the odd numbers of notes picked per string, are excellent for alternate picking. This last exercise shows the entire first Am box in sextuplets, ascending and then descending back:

Pentatonic box sextuplet pattern

Again, keep it strict down-up alternate picking until you’re comfortable with the pattern and build some speed and accuracy, then start throwing in legato dynamics, observing how those affect your picking hand dynamics as well.

Outside/Inside Picking

For many players, including myself, one of the most persistent mechanical challenges is picking from one string to another. Of course, this can mean a wide variety of combinations, but let’s start with the most basic idea of getting your picking hand from one string to an adjacent string, using standard alternate picking. When learning or refining any technique, it’s important to isolate the motion to its most basic mechanical fundamentals, and build on it.

Let’s take the middle string pair, 3rd (G) and 4th (D) strings, and break down the mechanical motion of going from one string to the other. Imagine a point halfway between those two strings. If you start on the D string with a downstroke, and then play the G string with an upstroke, then you’re going from the “outside” of the strings toward that imaginary point; if you start on the G string with a downstroke followed by an upstroke on the D string, then you’re starting from the “inside” of the strings, heading “out” away from that midpoint. So for the sake of simplicity and common terminology, we’ll just refer to those as “outside” and “inside” picking combinations, respectively. See the tab below:

(*Note:  Different players and teachers have different names for concepts such as this. I’ve seen other teachers and books refer to the “outside” one as “inside”, and vice versa. That’s fine; especially when it comes to naming things, the only rule is “whatever works”. If it makes more sense to you to call them “inside” and “outside”, “A” and “B”, or “Sid” and “Nancy”, then go for it. We’ll stick with “outside” and “inside” here just for the sake of having a common terminology.)

Try it out on all five adjacent string pairs briefly. It shouldn’t take long for it to sound fairly tedious, and more like an exercise than like actual music, so let’s come up with something. Here’s a quick progression to run through on the 3-4 string pair, that sounds more musical:

Since we’re just working with two-note figures (diads), the tonalities indicated above are just the most obvious ones within the key of A minor. For example, the first diad of A-C could also be a C6 inversion.

Fret-hand fingering should be pretty self-evident throughout; the final A-D diad can be either barred or played to set up the ending power chord. Mainly we want to focus on how the picking hand is situated throughout, maintaining a steady back-and-forth. Start with down-up picking at first, then try up-down. Also try reversing the note sequence for the diads with each picking configuration; for example, the first A-C diad would be C-A, exact same fingering, just different order.

Diads are pretty easy to develop and move around, so be sure to try out your own ideas, on as many adjacent string pairs as possible. The minor third interval tuning of the 2-3 (B-G) string pair should present some useful fingering ideas. These ideas apply to non-adjacent string groups as well, of course, but stick to adjacent string pairs until you feel like you have mastered these sequences, and you can play them smoothly and cleanly at a minimum of 120 bpm straight 16th notes. Again, focus on economizing the motion in your picking hand before bumping up your metronome.

Finally, here’s a fun and musical alternative to our diad sequence — since the overall key is Am, working in the open A string builds on the mechanical concept. Work both ideas on other string groups, further up the neck, etc.


Hello, and welcome to Purple Tiger Guitar! I’ve played guitar for about 20 years now, with bands and as a hobbyist. As I’ve accumulated lots of practice material and other cool musical ideas over the years, I’ve been updating them, replacing the old “practice binders” with newer and better tabs and diagrams to work from.

PTG was created with the goal of sharing these ideas with the guitar community around the world, things that guitarists of all levels can benefit from. Most of it is oriented toward shred and technical playing, but we’ll cover many of the essential building blocks that are part of all types of music, and hopefully show you ways you can improve your technique and musicality faster and more effectively.

I hope you find PTG enjoyable and informative. Please visit the Contact page if you’d like to drop me a line, all comments and suggestions are welcome. Thanks again. Play hard!