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3 Easy Ways to Play Pentatonic Scales Up and Down the Neck

If you’re like every other guitar player, you want to know to play pentatonic scales up and down the neck. When we first learn pentatonic scales on guitar, it’s typically done position by position. We learn one pattern, then the next, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but if we don’t expand on it we’re bound to feel trapped inside the “box”.

But, there are some methods that can be used to get you out of the box and moving up and down the guitar neck. In this lesson we take a look at a few of the easy ones that can be applied right away to start opening up the fretboard.

1. Run the scale horizontally up the neck

When learning the pentatonic patterns, we typically play each position of the scale vertically across the neck from the 6th string to the 1st and back. For instance, in the diagram and tab below we see the first position of the A major pentatonic played vertically.

A major pentatonic played horizontally
Major pentatonic scale played vertically tab

When played vertically like this, you see pentatonic runs like the following:

Pentatonic vertical run lick

While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it can teach you to play in a single position.

However, since the notes for the pentatonic scale span the entire fretboard, we can move this scale horizontally up the neck as well and pass through each position of the scale.

A major pentatonic scale vertical
Pentatonic scale diagonal tab

Now we can take the same lick from the vertical example, apply it horizontally and get the following pentatonic run up the neck:

Pentatonic diagonal run lick

This method isn’t confined to a particular position. It can be applied to any position of the pentatonic and from any starting point in the scale. The very nature of it gets you moving through the pentatonic scales up and down the neck.

You can also take any of your favorite runs that are contained within a single position and turn them into runs up the neck.

2. Play pentatonic licks in octaves

Playing in octaves is probably one of the easiest ways to move between pentatonic positions. It’s as simple as taking the same lick and playing it an octave higher.

For instance, take a look at the following diagram that outlines 3 octaves of the root, 3rd, 5th notes.

A major pentatonic octave shapes

These octave shapes traverse the first 3 positions of the A major pentatonic. We can take these shapes and make a lick out of them like the following:

Pentatonic scale octave shapes lick

Another simple idea is to take the same lick in the same position and move it to the second octave (above the 12 fret) on the fretboard.

For example, take a look at the following diagram that outlines the 5th position of the A major pentatonic scale below and above the 12th fret.

A major pentatonic 5th position octaves

Using this position in both octaves we can play a lick something like the following:

A major pentatonic octave lick using same note pattern

It’s a simple concept, but it’s really useful. Not only does it get you moving out of a position on the neck, it also impacts your playing. We don’t play the same way higher up on the neck as we do lower on the neck. So while you’re using the same lick initially, likely you’ll find the way to finish it or accentuate it will be different, particularly if you switch back and forth between the two positions.

3. Use the root note to anchor position shifts

If you’ve read the lessons on using root notes to navigate the major and minor scales, you know that the root note can be used as a reference point for scale patterns. This allows you to use the root note to move between scale positions.

For instance, take a look at the following lick:

A major pentatonic root note anchor lick

This lick is based mainly in the 1st position of the scale and grabs the major 3rd from position 2 before ending on the root on the fifth fret of the 1st string.

A major pentatonic root note shift lick note diagram lick one

But, we can target the root note in a different position to allow us to move out of the 1st position box.

Fretboard diagram for an A major pentatonic lick up the neck based on the root note.

So instead of landing on the root note at the 5th fret of the first string, we can end the lick on the root note at the 14th fret of the 3rd string, putting us in position four.

A major pentatonic root note anchor lick position shift

Both licks contain the same notes, but the second lick requires a position shift up the neck, getting you out of the pentatonic box of the 1st position.

While the root note is an obvious target note, the same method can be applied to any note of the scale. In general, this method typically works well with any chord tones, so the music you’re playing over will influence which notes to target.

Wrap up

In this lesson you learned three easy ways to play pentatonic scales up and down the neck. The examples given were simple, but the concepts can be greatly expanded upon and adapted to any lick or run.

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