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Breaking Out of the Box Method

When I was in my first high school band, I was clueless how to solo. I mostly just slid up and down the guitar strings with little sense of what

When I was in my first high school band, I was clueless how to solo. I mostly just slid up and down the guitar strings with little sense of what to do. Then a friend showed me how to solo with the box method—you know, 1st fret, 4th fret, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, etc., with the box anchored to the root note on the E string.

The box worked great for basic guitar stuff, since my solos now had more of the right notes. I even bought a book that added two more boxes up the neck. That was better, but ultimately, still confining—I was a prisoner of that box.

When I switched to electric bass, a variation of the box method moved with me. It served its purpose of helping find the one, four, five in whatever key I was playing in. Add in some scale movement and the box makes bass playing easier. And again, it enhances the likelihood of hitting the right notes.

Don’t Fence Me In!
The box method, however, hits its limits when it comes time to read music. And it’s of little help for music that has a bigger range than its narrow four-fret confines. These problems really reared their ugly heads recently when I started working with The Latin Bass Book (by Stagnara and Sher). The music in this book covers quite a bit of the neck within just one tune, from the lower regions on the E string clear up to the octave on the G string. You have to read pretty quickly and with a lot of accuracy or the musicians on the play-along CD leave you in the dust.

So what’s the solution? Time to break out of the box!

When I play string bass, there are clear landmarks to help find my way around —D on the G string is right over the curve of the neck heel, for example. In between there and the nut, my left hand acts a little bit like a measuring caliper to find all the other notes. Likewise, I can move upward from the D to the octave through some calculated stretches.

Think about the electric bass, though—it’s a big, long stick with lots of dots along its whole length. And when you get to the octave, you’re still not up to the neck heel. In other words, the electric bass lacks the physical landmarks of the string bass and there isn’t much time to find all the dots on the neck while reading all the dots on the page.

Gonna Take You Higher…
To start playing in the higher regions, start with the octave, which is easy to find on most necks because of the double dot markers. That’s your key landmark and you can find the octave G pretty easily. From there, it’s not much trouble to use your left hand to measure down a couple of frets to F, and then another fret down to E. When you can locate those notes predictably, you’re on your way.

That’s when a knowledge of basic intervals comes in handy. Using the notes near the octave as a guide, you can easily find the 5th one string below. The 4th is just a couple of frets farther down, and then the root sits on the same fret one more string below. If you’ve stuck with me, you probably are able to read music at least a little, but even if you don’t read, thinking about the fingerboard this way will help you stretch your range.

Building a Better Box
In a way, you’re still in a box with this method. But while the usual box method would keep you stuck down near the nut within a fairly narrow range that anchors on the E and A strings, starting with octaves helps you cope with both range and reading. Essentially, you’re anchoring from above rather than from below.

Here’s another example of this approach. Consider a bass line that starts on an F inside the bass clef staff and works up an octave— that’s two frets below the octave on the G string. Playing within the old box method, you would automatically guide off of F on the E string, and then jump up an octave to start this bass line on the third fret of the D string. But doing this would create a precarious skip up to the high F.

It would be easier instead to start the first F on the eighth fret of the A string, but nearly as precarious to find your way by moving up. That’s where using the octave as a guide comes in. Because the octave is easier to find quickly, anchor from the high F—two frets below the octave G—and you’ll automatically land on the F on the A string, two strings and two frets away.

And, of course, you can find the 5 easily along the way, right between the two F notes as you always would—one string below the octave at the same fret.

I think you can get the idea—now it’s time to do a little woodshedding and break out of the box. Learn the names of the notes a few frets above and below the octave on the D and G strings, keep your octaves and fifths in mind as you do. You’ll have broken out of the old box and found a new way to keep your playing on target at the same time.

Dan Berkowitz
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in blues, jazz and pit settings.
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