Melodic Alchemy: Improvising Outside The Box

This article is designed for aspiring improvisers who are keen to break out of the Pentatonic Scale. First we will learn how to step out of the box and then we will introduce some new colors to mix it up.

Here is the Minor Pentatonic Scale played from 6E-5 (A root) that we know and love.


It's a great way of getting into improvising because all the notes sound just right all the time. The problem is that over time they can also become a little predictable...

Breaking out of the box

If we are confident jamming with this box of notes then all we need to do is find them in different positions all over the neck. This will enable you to jam confidently around the board. We can achieve this is by inverting the box. First we take its notes A C D E G A and rearrange them as follows: C D E G A C, D E G A C D, E G A C D E and G A C D E G (same notes, slightly different order). Then we create a set of interlocking shapes based on these notes:


Now we repeat boxes on both sides of the board i.e. pick up the 6E-5 shape and repeat from 6E-17. Also repeat the 6E-12 shape from 6E-0, the 6E-15 from 6E-3 and the 6E-10 from 6E-22. You have now covered the entire fretboard with the original box notes!

For improvisation purposes, it is now down to you to learn these shapes so well that you can visualize them all from any angle.

The colorful outsiders

The outsiders are the notes in and around the shapes. They are often called chromatic (or colorful) notes because if used cleverly they are like a splash of color on a dull canvas.

The first outside note I have chosen is called the flat 2nd (b2nd or minor 2nd). The b2nds occur one fret above the root (A). The first instance is at fret 6 (Bv). Now insert the Bb wherever you come across it in all of the shapes. As an illustration, I have added it in three locations in the box below (you can also see the Bb chromatic note from the b sign that appears within the treble clef notation above the tab):


Grab your fretboard diagram and add the Bb in and around each of the five inversions. Practice with intent to memorize both the new shape and overall sound.

The trick to treating outside notes is to hit them with cunning technique and phrasing. Don't expect to land on them like you do with the regular box notes. You need to tease the listener by using the chromatic note in ways that disguise its outsiderdom. In this case, a subtle bend here and a deft slide there should reveal the b2nd to be a shade of Spain, Egypt or Eastern Europe. Here are some phrases to get you started:


If you treat every note outside the box as a chromatic note you will find there are six more to play with, each with there own peculiar sound. Target them all in turn, learn the shapes and improvise fearlessly.

Guy Pople is a music, education and multimedia specialist based in the UK`s North-West. He plays guitars, studies theory and runs St Annes Music in Lytham St. Annes, a one-stop shop for musicians on the Fylde coast of Lancashire. St Annes Music offers professional instruments, recording, tuition and accessories.

His live band Nomad is currently building up their original music. You can catch him
on Virtual Strangers.

Guy Pople

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