10 Things You've Gotta Know About the Fretboard | LESSON

January 30, 2014
EVER FEEL A LITTLE OUT OF TOUCH OR just plain lost on certain parts of the guitar fingerboard? You’re certainly not alone. Consider this: A standard-tuned, 6-string guitar with a 22-fret ’board has a range just shy of four octaves and contains five middle Cs, while a full-size piano keyboard covers over seven octaves yet it has only one middle C. What’s up with that?!? It’s simply the nature of the instrument. By design, the keyboard relegates any given pitch to a single key, while the guitar fingerboard offers anywhere from one to five different string and fret locations for the same note. These multiple repetitions of the same pitch afford guitarists many options for where to play any given note, but they also cause considerable confusion for beginners or players who often feel lost above the 5th fret, particularly on the inside four strings.

Memorizing the address, (i.e., location) of each and every note on the fingerboard can take years, but there are ways to hasten the process. Wanna know how to find and maintain your bearings anywhere on the fretboard? First, you’ve gotta...


Let’s begin by reviewing some rudimentary musical knowledge. The basic units of measurement in Western music are the half-step, or semitone, which translates on the guitar to a distance of one fret, and the whole-step, or whole tone, which covers two frets. The musical alphabet consists of seven natural notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. All of these adjacent notes are spaced a whole-step apart, with two exceptions, B-to-C and E-to-F, which are half-steps. With all that in mind, it’s time to…


Compare the guitar fingerboard to a piano keyboard, the birthplace of music theory, and you’ll find that while the keyboard separates natural notes and accidentals (sharps and flats—more on those in a minute) into tidy white and black keys that lie along a horizontal plane and repeat every octave, the guitar offers no such easy path to note recognition. Many traditional beginner methods cover notes up to the 3rd or 5th fret, but above that, we are essentially left to our own devices. Placed on a full fingerboard grid, or matrix, the natural notes manifest as shown in FIGURE 1. Granted, that’s a lot of notes to memorize, but the first thing to remember is that unless you change tunings, every note’s address is permanent. They ain’t going nowhere. Now, what about all those empty spaces?


The remaining five tones within any octave (an increment of 12 half-steps) are annotated using accidentals, or sharp and flat symbols. A sharp (#) raises a note by one half-step, while a flat (b) lowers it a half-step. Enharmonic notes occur when two different accidentals are used to indicate the same pitch, i.e., A#=Bb, C#=Db, D#=Eb, F#=Gb, and G#=Ab. The grid illustrated in FIGURE 2 fills in the holes in FIGURE 1 with all of the missing accidentals, completing the “big picture.” Think of it as your universe. Now, let’s start breaking down this giant cluster***k and find out what’s really going on here.


FIGURE 3 diagrams the guitar’s five middle Cs on five different strings. (Fact: Standard guitar notation sounds an octave lower than written.) Notice how the notes on any pair of adjacent strings are equidistant (five frets apart) except between the second and third strings, where the distance is reduced by one fret. Once you realize that this relationship is always maintained regardless of what note you start with, you can find unisons on higher or lower strings by using the same formula, except in the extreme low and high registers where notes only appear once. (Lick of the Day: Pick any pitch that appears four times and play it sequentially on four adjacent strings. Repeat many times in either direction as quickly as possible.) Next, we add some octaves and…


Any given note can be found in various octaves at six locations between open position and the 12th fret. Because the fretboard repeats itself one octave higher starting at the 13th fret, so do any notes and shapes you apply to it. In FIGURE 4 we pinpoint on the matrix all Cs below the 12th fret, and connect them to form a six-point template that can be moved to any position on the fingerboard. Like a constellation, this “Big Dipper” maintains its shape as it floats around to different positions in the note matrix. As the “dipper” moves towards the nut, any points in the shape that vanish below open position reappear an octave higher below the 12th fret. Conversely, any points that rise above the 12th fret reappear starting at the 1st fret. Let’s get moving and…

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