Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Fretboard Workshop: Pentatonic Box Breakout

Arpeggios are the musical equivalent of greeting someone by name—it’s the most direct way you can communicate with a chord and it’s going to take your playing up a notch.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Advanced Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to apply arpeggios directly to a blues progression.
• Break out of only playing pentatonic scales.
• Easily combine different arpeggios in the same position.

Have you ever wanted to break out of the pentatonic scale when playing blues? While there is nothing as universally accepted, used, taught, and beloved as the minor-pentatonic scale for playing over a blues progression, it’s not your only option. The pentatonic scale works well over blues changes because it contains enough of the notes from the underlying I–IV–V progression to match up and work well. Plus, there’s something about the pentatonic scale that just works.

Here’s an analogy that might help: Using the pentatonic scale is akin to walking into a room and saying, “Hey everyone!” It’s more general than greeting someone by name, but it almost always works. Arpeggios are the musical equivalent of greeting someone by name—it’s the most direct way you can communicate with a chord and it’s going to take your playing up a notch. Let’s take a look at a 12-bar blues in A to understand what our chord progression is in Fig. 1.

As you can see, there are only three chords, A7, D7, and E7—the I7, IV7, and V7, respectively. The pentatonic scale works just fine for all three chords because it contains just enough notes to talk to each chord and sound inside. Take a look at the notes in the chords as they relate to the notes in the scales:
A minor pentatonic = A–C–D–E–G
A7 = AC#EG
D7 = DF#AC
E7 = EG#BD

The notes in the chords that also appear in the pentatonic are shown in bold. As you can see, the scale talks to each chord in some way, but it does leave out a bunch of nice tones. For example, the A minor-pentatonic scale doesn’t give you the 3rd of any of the chords, and the 3rd is the tone that defines whether a chord is major or minor. It’s amazing that we’ve gotten away without proper 3rds in our pentatonic-based blues playing this long. Arpeggios are going to help us fill in the missing gaps, and when combined with pentatonic scales, they’re going to elevate your playing.

Let’s start mapping out these arpeggios in and around the 5th position. Check out the A7, D7, and E7 arpeggios in Fig. 2. By themselves, they sound like exercises, but when you break them up and combine them with some notes from the A minorpentatonic scale, you can end up with Fig. 3, a phrase that outlines the A7 and D7 in the first four measures of our progression. In this example, I’m leaning on C# and F#—the 3rds of A7 and D7, respectively— because the pentatonic scale omits them and I love the way they sound. Combine that with some simple phrasing, and you have a nice lick that breaks you out of the pentatonic rut, while still sounding bluesy.

To take the idea further, check out Fig. 4 and Fig. 5, which are two examples of playing over E7 and D7 in measures 9 and 10 of the progression.

In both examples, I’m keeping it as simple and melodic as I can, while still picking notes directly from the arpeggios. To stop them from sounding like exercises, I’m focusing on the top two or three strings of the arpeggios and throwing in notes from the pentatonic scale whenever possible to help ground me in the blues language. Just because you have arpeggios spanning multiple octaves at your disposal doesn’t mean you need to play more than a note or two from each in order to connect with your chord progression. As you learn to incorporate these arpeggios into your playing, I’m sure you’ll discover that a few of the notes you were already playing outside of the pentatonic box are actually from the arpeggios—you just didn’t know it yet! There’s clearly a lot more you can do with arpeggios, and hopefully this gets your creative juices flowing to create some licks of your own.

Marc Schonbrun graduated magna cum laude from the Crane School of Music in New York. He is an active educator, writer, and performer in the San Francisco area, and has an eclectic performing background that includes classical concertos, jazz trios, and rock bands. An active lecturer, Schonbrun frequently tours the country explaining music technology to players and teachers. Visit for more info.