Know Your Fretboard

BB King

As a competent musician, you will be expected to know the way around your chosen instrument with ease and familiarity. Players who cringe embarrassingly when they are asked to play a run of notes given by name (because they don't know where they are) will not inspire confidence in their fellow musicians. But apart from this reason, the working method outlined in this method demands that you know the location of the notes on the fretboard well.

Achieving this on your own can be a painstaking process to undertake and at first can seem like wading through treacle, but help is at hand. The method I suggest below will not only help you learn faster and more efficiently, it will also provide you with an invaluable tool that will aid you in ways you may not yet realise. It is the key to unlocking creativity and understanding harmony.

I like to think of each guitar string as a piano keyboard arranged side by side in such a way as to allow the fingers to form complex chord shapes with minimal movement. The development of the guitar in western music has produced a layout where the fundamental intervals in the diatonic scale are situated closely together, and for convenient access. All we need to do to use this to our advantage is to map them out in such a way as to easliy identify the relationship between them at a glance.

By using the most fundamental of these intervals, the octave, and applying some basic music principles, much of the hard work needed to learn the fretboard is taken away.

Step 1

Learning the notes on the 6th and 5th strings should be the first step in mapping out the fretboard. This will give you the frame of reference needed to work out the other strings and fully exploit the principles that dictate the use of barre chords, transposition, arpeggios, and chord substitution.

Fret No 01 23 45 67 89 1011 12
6thStringE FF# G G#AA#B CC#D D#E
5th StringAA# BCC# DD#EF F#GG# A

I recommend concentrating on learning the # (sharp) names of the en-harmonic notes as opposed to the b (flat) names to avoid confusion at this stage. Later, when the locations of these notes are known, we can apply the en-harmonic principle to convert them (i.e., G# is also Ab). The important thing is to know the positions of the natural notes - E, F, G, A, B, C and D. Use the fret markings on the neck as a guide to help you visualise fret positions.

These markings typically found at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th fret positions will give you a greater number of reference points to work from. Make full use of the fret markings by learning that all but one of the natural notes are located on them. You can then use these as "home areas" from which to visualise the locations of the other notes.

Note Note: Once you have learnt the notes on the 6th string, you will have automatically learnt the 1st string also, as they both begin with an open E and follow the same note pattern along the neck . . . that's 33% of the fretboard covered already!

Step 2

By using the octave fingering shown in fig.1.1 and using the 6th string as the root, you are quickly able to identify the notes on the 4th string - the 3rd finger is playing the same note as the first finger, only an octave higher. The same shape can also be applied to the 5th string to give the location of notes on the 3rd string (fig 1.2).

You do not have to spend time learning the 4th and 3rd strings individually (although in time this will happen without your realizing it) as you can use the 6th and 5th strings as the point of reference for them. All that needs to be done is to learn the octave shape and your 6th and 5th string notes. You now have the knowledge to map out 85% of the fretboard!


fig 1.1           fig 1.2

Step 3

Because of the way the guitar is tuned (i.e., in imperfect intervals), we can not use the same shape and principle and apply it to the 4th and 2nd strings. There are, however, several ways to make the 2nd string just as easy to learn as the others, but we will need to apply ourselves a little more.

The interval relationship between the 1st and 2nd string is that of a perfect fifth, and we can use this knowledge to our advantage. At any fret position, the 2nd string is always a perfect fifth away from the 1st string. As you know the notes on the 1st string and should know the interval relationship of fifths, it should be relatively easy to work out the notes this way.


fig 1.3

Alternatively, you could use a different pattern for playing octaves from the 5th string to the 2nd string (fig 1.3), where the 1st finger is playing the octave to the the 3rd finger. This method relies on the fact that you know the 5th string notes well as discussed in Step One.

Copyright Dale Churchett © 1995. All Rights Reserved.