(A.K.A. Fretboard Certainty)
People often ask me how I know my way around the fretboard. Perhaps I should call this the “people often ask me” series. Haha. Anyway, if you want a real answer, I am no virtuoso. I am far from it. Guitar fretboard speed is not what I excel at especially when compared to the likes of, say EVH or Greg Koch. Now, there are many programs people look at to build speed: CAGED, the Guitar Grimoire, etc. For shredding and sweep picking, there are plenty of instructional videos. I myself, though, have never really desired to build up virtuosic speed. If there was anything I wanted… it was to just KNOW the fretboard–to have what I hear be one with the music I make. So I set out to understand how the fretboard works based on my foundation in music theory. And now, if I excel at anything with regard to the technical aspect, it is fretboard certainty. I realize exactly where the note I want is at all times without having to guess. How, you might ask? It is the intersection of two concepts:
- The Scale (the C Major Scale in this case)
- My guitar’s tuning (standard tuning in this case, EADGBE)
Have you ever been in a situation where you are fumbling around the fretboard, hunting for the note that sounds right? Trying to figure out a song by ear, only to have the melody confounded by clumsy movement? I hear of students who have all but given up on ever learning their way around the fretboard, turning most of the time to online tablature and tutorials. But eventually, there will come a day when that student finds a song so obscure or an online tab so inaccurate, that they must brave that cool guitar riff on their own. And they simply don’t know where to begin. I’ll explain how I do it.
Step One | Apply the scale to the guitar’s tuning.
Study the above. On the whiteboard you will notice:
The Major Scale at the top, a set of tones that, when ordered from low to high, show the relationships, Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half, from low to high, and in two forms:
the degrees of the scale, i.e.
1 _ 2 _ 3 4 _ 5 _ 6 _ 7 8,
and the corresponding note names in the key of C, i.e.
C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C.
(We use the key of C because it is the easiest; it is the only major scale where there are no sharps or flats.)
And their relevance to the six strings of the guitar, in standard tuning from low to high, or E-A-D-G-B-E.
Here it is in grid form:
Step Two | Examine the musical relationships between the strings.
Look for/observe the following:
- intervals like Octaves, Perfect 5ths, Major 9ths, Minor 6ths, etc.,
- points where strings overlap (the 5th fret for every string except from the 3G to the 2B string, in which the overlap happens at the 4th fret).
- the relationships between strings (from 6E to 5A is an interval of 5 Half-Steps or “5HS” in the image, from 5A to 4D is an interval of 5HS, and so on, and so forth),
- where the same note occurs in multiple places (take any note, move back 5 frets and up to the next thinnest string, or 5 frets over and down to the next thickest string, except over the 3G and 2B strings, in which the note is doubled over 4 frets),
- and many more ways musical relationships beckon us to look from one string across to the next or previous string. What about simple chord shapes like parallel Major and Minor 10ths (“Reckoner” by Radiohead, “Blackbird” by the Beatles, “Youth” by Daughter), to name one of almost innumerable melodic and chordal relationships.
A simple way to check to see whether you understand this is to think of a number of half steps you want to travel up/down or a musical interval you are familiar with, and play a note on a random string and a random fret, and then proceed from that note to see if you can locate the next note without guessing, but with fretboard certainty. Or an even better way (or see Step Four below): if you know a tune well enough to play on the piano or any other western instrument, try playing the same exact tune on the guitar without a wrong note (take your time!). Think of the number of half-steps, or if you can, try to figure out the scale degrees you’d be using, which are simply the much more musical ways of marking off half-steps (Do-Re-Mi is the same as 1 _ 2 _ 3).
Are you seeing where we’re going with this yet? If not, don’t worry. Take the time to read over and identify the parts above that remain unclear. This is probably the single most confusing subject for beginning guitarists and, I am convinced, the biggest reason students rely on someone else’s tabs and tutorials rather than developing their own musicianship directly. What happens when one is certain about their way around the fretboard? Well, they will be training their own ears and fingers to play what they hear. And that’s what every guitarist wants, isn’t it? To make the music they want to make?
Here’s another way to look at the overlap between strings, this time in TAB form.
The straight lines around the 5th, 5th, 5th, 4th, and 5th frets show two strings that yield the same pitch as the next open string (the corresponding pitch is named below).
And check out the pretty diagram I drew! Music Theory & Ear-Training are the “bridge” between What We Hear and The Music We Make.
Step Three | Work through the nature of the guitar’s relationship to pitch.
Guitar works in a way that really messes with the mind, but it’s for good reason. Human beings like to focus on one thing amidst a multitude of things, and organize things in a linear fashion. This is why so many students thrive when learning piano as a first instrument (beside the fact that one only has to press a key vs. fret notes which hurts one’s fingertips). But making music on the guitar, and specifically playing melodies in this case, requires us to understand the four different ways musical motion happens on the guitar.
For example, how would I ascend from one note up to another to play the first two notes of the famous melody: “Some-where…. over the rainbow?” Two ways:
- across the fretboard, or
- “up” the strings (the direction your hand moves from the 6E over towards the 1E).
For your information: “Some-where…” is an ascending octave, or a distance of 12 HS. (You’re welcome.)
How do I descend from one note down to another, like in the first two notes of the punishing bass-line on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem?” Two ways:
- across, back the way you came up initially, or
- “down” the strings (the direction your hand moves from the 1E back towards the 6E).
The first two notes of this song, which showcases one of Colin Greenwood’s finest moments, are F# and D, a descending Major 3rd, i.e. 4 HS down. That one’s for free.
Now, this is fundamentally different from the piano, which is linear: move your hand left and the notes get lower; move right and the notes get higher. Not difficult. But guitar has, again, four different physical directions for musical motion, i.e. movement in pitch. The piano only has two. It’s easier on the piano, but as I mention again below, this is the very thing that allows us access to 29 distinct chromatic notes in a minimal space.
I believe this very thing is the essence of what overwhelms and confuses beginners and intermediate players alike when they try to play what they hear by ear. Somehow, one can move “up” one string and move “back” 4 frets and still be ascending by a half step! Visually, it looks like you are moving quite a bit backwards (lower), and yet the sound is higher. Weird, but that’s exactly what we’re getting at here. Here’s another specific example you should play so you can hear it for yourself:
- play your 6E string, 7th fret, then
- play your 5A string, 3rd fret.
You just ascended by one half step, but it looked to the untrained eye as if you were dipping “lower” on your strings!
Now note the exception between the 3G and 2B strings… there is only a distance of 4 HS there:
At this point, we can pretty much agree that the person who figured out what we call Standard Tuning was pretty clever. Not only for the chords they create (we will need a little bit of chord theory to fully flesh this out), but simply because we can reach a total of, again, 29 chromatic (natural and sharp/flat notes) without moving our hand beyond the first position on the guitar (index on the 1st fret, middle finger on the 2nd fret, ring on the 3rd fret, pinky on the fourth fret). You definitely can’t do that on the piano!
Step Four | Take a simple melody and work it out.
As I mention above, all this theory is best when worked out. We can talk all day, but until we contextualize these concepts in a song on a real fretboard, it won’t take on any meaning. In this example, we’ll try to play the song “Twinkle, Twinkle” in a random key (F Major this time). Before we do that, we must process the raw soundinto scale degrees. This is a subject I will delve more deeply into in the near future. But for now, I’ll give you the answer.
The song starts on 1, or “Do.” And the first two lines go like this:
1 1 5 5 6 6 5
4 4 3 3 2 2 1
Or for you who come from a standard notation reading background,
F F C C D D C
Bb Bb A A G G F
For the record, relative pitch is better than absolute, a.k.a. “perfect” pitch. You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen.
Now you can take this simple theory representation of the melody, and work out how to play it across one string. Start with the 3rd fret 4D String for your 1 or “F.”
Where is your second note, or “C?”
If you referred to your prior knowledge of where a “C” can be found, or if you sneaked a peek back at the fretboard note-name matrix in the beginning of this post, you have failed to apply theory to the fretboard. You have only referred to something other than your own working theory knowledge.
Here’s how it’s done:
The 1 (scale degree) ascending to the 5, or “F” ascending to “C” is an interval of 7 HS. From the 3rd fret, 4D string, there are a few ways to do this. The most obvious one (though in nature more mathematical than physically efficient) is to take your third fret, add 7 half steps, and end up on the 10th fret of your 4D string. You will find that you will have moved the right amount up the string and fretboard to play the first and second twinkle. Sing along if you can. It will reinforce it!
But nobody plays the entire “Twinkle, Twinkle” on one string. It’s just inefficient if you know how the guitar works.
So try ascending 7HS by using two strings: the 4D string and the 3G string. Where do you place your finger on the 3G string?
If you said “the 5th fret,” you’d be correct! How did we do this? Simple.
The musical relationship between the 4D string and the 3G string, as I’ve mentioned several times now, is an interval of 5 HS. So when you move from the 3rd fret, 4D string to the 3rd fret, 3G string, you have ascended 5 HS. But wait, we wanted an ascent of 7 HS, didn’t we? Yes! So we move across from the 3rd fret, 3G string to the 5th fret, 3G string to complete the 7 HS the melody requires. 5 HS + 2 HS = 7 HS. The 5 is from moving from string-to-string, and the 2 is from moving across the string to the note we were looking for.
Now try to skip over a string! Instead of the 5th fret, 3G string, where else might we find the note “C,” the 5 in our key of F Major? Try the 2B string and see what you get.
If you said 1st fret, 2B string, then you win a prize. The prize is…
FRETBOARD CERTAINTY. Sorry, I don’t have any monetary prizes.
Here is the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle” in all its whiteboard glory in TAB form (note the straight lines to denote the note doubles):
Observe the different melodic “paths” you can take over your fretboard to achieve the same tones. Your brain is now making the connection between what you are hearing and the music you’re making. And that’s what it’s all about!
Now check out the second line. This should be easy by now:
Now, to really, really own it.
Step Five | Take a more difficult melody in another key and do the same.
A student and I chose “Who Knows, Who Cares?” by the band Local Natives today. Since it was a more challenging melody, I drew a line going up and down in pitch, from left to right in time to show how my mind works when I determine intervals:
Once I figured out where the 1 or “Do” was, I played the song starting on on the 3rd fret, 6E string… my “6” in the key of Bb, i.e. the note “G.” I quickly found out that it was pretty difficult to play without a capo, and that it made more sense to play with G shapes while capo’d on the 3rd fret. I haven’t looked at any footage of the band playing the original. But I’m pretty confident I’m right, unless they used some strange alternate tuning for a reason I didn’t discover (I only listend to the first 20 seconds of the song). Was I right?
P.S. — In case you didn’t know, the cool thing about taking lessons with me is you get to learn the songs YOU want to learn.
Step Six | Take five melodies, and do it five ways!
I hope this has been helpful to you! I know my fretboard, not because of rote muscle memorization or a musical map in my head, but because I have taken the time to bridge the music I hear with how my instrument actually works. I hope you can too.
Bonus homework: notice how everything we learned is, in principle, also applicable to an alternate tuning… just change the string relationships where relevant. Now nothing can stop you from connecting a melody you hear with any alternate tuning apart from your aptitude in processing a melody.
Hope that was helpful!
Add me on Skype: warrenlain. I teach via webcam, wherever you are in the world! Or watch the entire Melody Module where I break down these concepts in greater detail.