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.

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