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Strength and Accuracy for the Guitarist

Your Weekly Dexterity and Stamina Exercise

Updated January 13, 2005

Playing in the Box

(Which leads to playing outside the box.)

Blues/Rock Improvisation,

a stone's throw from Metal Improv as well


You've heard the expression if you've ever picked up a $99 electric guitar at any local music store. Nowadays spoken as a diss, the expression "He's just a box player" is commonly uttered. It is the new millennium's version of "Don't play Stairway to Heaven!" Well, does this mean you should avoid the box? Is the box inartistic? Unmusical? Is it pure EVIL? NO! It is a tool -- one that should be learned, used, and ultimately moved on from. The neophyte guitarist needs to know the box, but it isn't the basis of a career. Or is it...

What is this BOX? Simply put, it is a basic pentatonic scale that falls easily under the fingers in a pattern that, when drawn, looks like a box. Look at the crudely drawn diagram to the left. The red dots indicate the root of the scale, in this case it is A (fifth fret, first finger, sixth string starts the box.) It is crucial to know where the root and fifth (the third too!) are located within any improvisational pattern. You'll need this info to plan turnarounds and to end your solo in a decent place. The easiest way to be certain of where the box 'starts' is to think of the box as directly correlating to the common barre chord (I call it the E-form, it is the barre chord that makes an F major at the first fret.)

Try playing this box from bottom to top, sixth string to first. LISTEN (I've played it slow ascending and more quickly descending. Use the first finger on all the fifth fret notes, the third finger on the seventh fret dots and your pinky for the eighth fret dots. You'll want to use this fingering and I'll show you why in just a few sentences. If you take a song with a I, IV, V7 chord progression--like an old blues tune--and spin it on your Victrola, find the key the song's in, you can play this box along with it and quickly hear that this is the basis of just about every blues and blues/rock guitar solo you've ever heard--yes, even the aforementioned Stairway to Heaven. But don't play it! (That's a joke.) Here's a basic throw-away bit using just the basic box. While dozens of fairly decent solos can be cut with this basic box, you will run out of ideas in a few decades and will want to add a few chromaticisms to 'give it some color.'

This next diagram shows some basic passing tones and color tones that can be used with the basic box to add some flavor and color. LISTEN. The blue dots are great little additions. One 'mistake' most players new to the box will make is that they will simply run up and down the fretboard with this scale and pattern, up the scale, down the scale, up the scale, down the scale and hey, presto! their solo measures are completed amd it's back to the singer. It gets old fast. Another throw-away bit of fluff done with the embellished box.

My professional performance setting is kind of unique. I play in a contemporary Christian band that is the house band at a church. Although our set list contains over 400 songs, the congregation has heard me solo at least two services a week for the past nine years! Early on, I realized that to keep any sense of freshness, I just couldn't work up a good solo for a song, memorize it and play it service after service after service... It would kill me and kill the audience. While I don't throw out the tastier bits of a good solo, I try to vary the approach, change the turnarounds, add a new 'trick lick' and basically never play any solo the same way twice. Sometimes this has ended on some fairly interesting(!) moments, but on the whole, I think I haven't put anyone to sleep. Of course, my bass player and drummer probably can tell you what notes I will play by the arch of my eyebrow, but I digress.

These additional blue dots will add color and interest to your solos. Skip around the scale, explore the possibilities of different intervals.

Most songs don't give you a clean groove on one chord over which you can solo in any direction you want. In most tunes, you will still have to play something that not only fits with the tonic chord of the song, but also follow the chord progression as well. Some progressions are relatively easy to solo over -- such as that I, IV, V7 progression mentioned earlier. It is crucial for the soloist to know what the progression of chords is and what chord/harmony is currently to the fore. Plus--is that harmony an implied harmony or is it a key chord to the progression? Some of this is intuitive--your musicality and sensibilities comes into play. Most is fairly nonbendable. Play a riff that does not fit the chord and unless you're into something really avante garde, it's gonna sound like crap. What's a soloist to do? Lemme tell ya!

The green dots in this last diagram represent a new tonic, D. When your A pentatonic solo comes off the I chord and moves to the IV chord, you might want to cover that chord with notes and riffs constructed from this modified box. I will discuss the 'major' scale box in next week's session, so I won't get deeply into this, but suffice to say that you will greatly appreciate the licks and riffs found in this last diagram when that chord change arrives in the song you're soloing in. Trust me.

That little five note block at frets ten through twelve contains a huge number of the famous speed licks that wow the crowds and give you a minute to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. Remember that--any time you hear your favorite guitar god lock onto a repeated speed-note passage and the crowd goes wild, he's just treading water!

Enjoy these sessions of technique builders! Come back next week for more.

Hey, if you feel you've benefited by these pages, please consider buying my novel LOW END through


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With the aid of a good teacher, the student will rapidly progress through The Classic Guitar Method attaining technical proficiency and musical eloquence.

This method stems from the need to incorporate a number of schools into a single cohesive curriculum. Years of honing a logical approach to the guitar and the creation of music culminate in this volume. As a self-proclaimed Disciple of Valdés-Blain , much of that famed teacher's focus can be found in Mr. Pellegrin's method.

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