Fretboard Fire Drills: 10 Tips for Blazing Speed and Fretboard Freedom

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Stuck in a rut in open position?

How about when you solo in A minor—do you find yourself locked at the 5th fret?

Are you at loss for how to find chord voicings up and down the neck?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” it might be time to take a fresh approach to the fretboard. Here are 10 tips that can help you in your ongoing quest toward fretboard freedom.

1. Moveable Chord Forms
Are you an open-position player desperate to break into the upper regions of the fretboard? Don’t be discouraged. It’s simpler than you might think.

You’re undoubtedly familiar with barre chords, but did you know that most of them are derived from open-position chords? Take a look at the common open-position voicings in FIGURE 1 and their barre-chord counterparts. Notice that the first finger becomes the substitute nut, or “human capo,” allowing the chord voicing to be transposed a half-step higher. The beauty of the barre chord is that once you’ve learned one, it’s a cinch to move it around the neck, transposing it to any key.


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Since almost any open-position chord can be transposed up the neck using this method, review the open voicings you already know and experiment by transforming them into barre chord forms. The ones shown in FIGURE 2 might give you some ideas.


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2. Octave Shapes

One of the secrets to unlocking the mysteries of the neck is understanding octave shapes. May experienced guitarists use a system like the one in FIGURE 3 as a point of reference for locating the roots of scale patterns of chord voicings up and down the neck.


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Here, the note E is laid out in every location on the freeboard, but practice memorizing the shapes using other notes too. A good routine is to start at the lowest area of the neck and work your way up to the highest.

And remember, the shapes repeat themselves 12 frets up from the starting point. In other words, the first E octave shape reappears at the 12th fret, the second octave shape reappears at the 14th fret, and so on.

Octave shapes are also an excellent way to memorize all of the notes on the neck. FIGURE 4A and 4B illustrate a step-by-step process. You first need to memorize all of the notes on the low E and A strings. With this knowledge, you can easily memorize the notes on the remaining four strings.


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Notice that by memorizing the notes on the low E string, you are simultaneously learning the ones on the high E. Once this is achieved, the D string can easily be memorized: just move two frets up the neck from a note on either E string and you are playing the same note an octave away on the D string. The same octave shape on the A string gives you the notes on the G string, and two frets down from the A string gives you the notes on the B string.

3. Connecting Scales Across the Neck
Many players find themselves locked in certain positions when they solo. For example, the A minor pentatonic scale in 5th position is a popular resting place for guitarists.

A good way to “spread” your playing out over the neck is to picture a scale pattern as a puzzle piece that fits on the fretboard. Like any puzzle piece, it connects to its neighbor to form a bigger picture. The entire A minor pentatonic scale can be laid out like this on the neck using a system of five puzzle pieces that fit together in consecutive order.

FIGURE 5 shows five patterns of the minor pentatonic scale and how they fit together on the neck in the key of A.


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No matter what key, these patterns always lay out in the same order on the neck. A good way to get started using these puzzle pieces is to play pattern 1, occasionally dropping down to the neighboring pattern and back again. They try it with the pattern above, and so on, until you can jump freely from pattern to pattern, or puzzle piece to puzzle piece. Once you are comfortable in the key of A, try another key, like E for instance (FIGURE 6).


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4. Visualizing the Entire Neck as One Key

One of the most powerful assets a guitarist can have is the ability to “see” the entire fretboard as one key. This can be achieved by applying the “puzzle piece” concept to the major scale.

FIGURE 7 shows five major scale patterns and how they lay out on the fretboard in the key of G . (As in the minor pentatonic patterns, this order of patterns remains consistent in any key.)


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To create order in this seemingly jumbled array of dots, it helps to “see” the underlying G major chords in each pattern (FIGURE 8). These chord fragments contain the notes of the I (one) chord in the key of G major, and are the pivot points around which you weave your melodies to give the scale its G major flavor.


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But this is just where the fun begins. Like the children’s books where you hunt for pictures within a picture, seek out some of the other chords from the G major scale. FIGURE 9 shows some examples to get you started. The ability to visualize chord shapes beneath your scale patterns will guide you to the chord tones, and that is the key to melodic soloing,


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5. Chord Substitutions
Tired of using the same old chord voicings? Here are some substitution ideas that might get you thinking of chords in a different way.

FIGURE 10 demonstrates how a C6 chord contains the same notes as an Am7 chord. In essence, these are dual-functioning chords. In other words the C6 voicing can also be thought of as an inverted Am7 chord. This means you can play any Am7 chord as a substitute for C6, or vice versa. Many advanced players learn to recognize these types of chordal similarities and are able to quickly interchange them when necessary.


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Check out FIGURE 11 for some of the most common and useful examples.


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6. Two-String Patterns
Here are some lick ideas that will get you climbing the neck with lightning speed.

The first uses the G major pentatonic scale spelled out on the low E and A strings (FIGURE 12).


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Notice that the pattern repeats itself two frets up on the D and G strings and again three frets up on the B and E. This allows you to use the same two-string shape up the neck in three octaves! You can pick every note if you wish to, but the suggested legato style might allow for greater speed. FIGURE 13 shows the same concept using the G minor pentatonic scale, starting on the b7 (F).


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This adjacent-string concept scan also be used for arpeggios, as in FIGURE 14. These notes spell out an inverted Cmaj7 arpeggio. Practice these examples and try to come up with some of your own. Incidentally, they can work equally as well descending the neck from the high E and B strings.


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7. Linear Scale Patterns

Single-string scales, or “linear scale patterns,” are an excellent device for getting you fluidly up and down the neck from one position to the next. If the concept is new to you, start by practicing pentatonic scales up and down each string in different keys, then graduate to major and minor scales. FIGURE 15 employs the E natural minor scale for a descending pull-off/slide lick down the high E string.


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Many guitarists use the linear scale method to create harmonized intervals of 3rd and 6ths up and down the fretboard. For example, FIGURE 16 shows the C major scale harmonized in 3rds on the high E and B stings. Look at the notes on the B string. They spell out the C major scale starting on the root. The notes on the high E string also ascend the C major scale, but they start a diatonic 3rd (two scale steps) away from the root.


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FIGURE 17 employs 6ths from the E minor scale. Both strings ascend the E minor scale with the notes on the high E starting on the root and the G string notes starting a diatonic 6th (five scale steps) below. Sixths and 3rds offer a very pleasing “guitaristic” sound. Practice them in various keys and on difference sets of strings.


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8. Symmetrical Shapes
With most chords and scales, playing them up and down the neck requires that you be familiar with a number of different shapes. But this is not the case with symmetrical chords and scales. These require just a single pattern, which can be applied to multiple positions along the neck.

For instance, the diminished 7th chord is made up of stacked minor 3rd intervals (which are thus symmetrical) and can be named by any of its chord tones This means a diminished 7th chord voicing can be “plugged into” any of four different spots along the fretboard (FIGURE 18).


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The augmented chord consists of stacked major 3rd intervals and can be played in three different places (FIGURE 19).


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The diminished 7th arpeggio and the whole tone scale can likewise be moved in this very visual manner. Check out the slippery licks in FIGURE 20A and 20B.


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9. Relative Scales
When two scales share the same notes but begin and end at different points, they are said to be “relative” scales. For instance, A minor and C major each have no sharps or flats, but one scale starts on A and the other scale starts on C (FIGURE 21). Knowing this, guitarists often borrow from one scale or the other to expand their improvisational palette. Not only will doing this get you around the fretboard, it will also give you multiple opportunities to use the licks you may have developed in other scale and mode positions.


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Let’s use the key of E minor as an example. Say you are using the E natural minor scale (or E Aeolian) to solo over an E minor chord. You can also use the notes from the relative major scale of G. This will probably put you in another position on the neck, offering different pull-off and bending situations. Try some 3rd and 6th double-stops in G. If you have some cool Dorian licks, check out A Dorian, as it is the second mode of G major. The B minor pentatonic scale also works well over the E minor chord because it uses selected notes from the E minor scale that give the chord an E9sys4 sound.

Stay alert to the fact that you are soloing in an E minor tonality (play a lot of E notes!), and the choices are limitless (FIGURE 22). Chose the one that works best for you, develop it and then move to another.


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10. Single-Octave Fragments
Ironically, the entire neck can be mastered by absorbing it in small, single-octave sections. An excellent practice routine is to take a scale, say C major for instance, and play it in a one-octave pattern, ascending and descending, from every C note on the guitar (FIGURE 23). Practice this routine regularly and you will notice it forces you to rely on your ear more than on patterns, thus lessening your chances of getting lost on the neck.


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