Guitar Essentials: Here's How to Put Every Note, Chord and Scale Under Your Fingers

If you really want to put every note, chord and scale directly under your fingers at all times, you need to learn fretboard navigation. In this lesson, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
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If you’ve never taken formal guitar studies, chances are you’re familiar with some basic fretboard patterns that you use over and over. While this might get you through most playing situations, the fact is that unless you can navigate all of the fretboard, you’re ignoring large sections of it. What’s more, the sections that you are using are confining.

If you really want to put every note, chord and scale directly under your fingers at all times, you need to learn fretboard navigation. In this lesson, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.


In many guitar-education programs, fretboard navigation is taught using the CAGED system.

All of the notes occur on the fretboard in a repeating pattern. The CAGED system divides the overall pattern into five smaller recurring patterns. Each of the five is named after the open-position chord it resembles.

Pattern 1 is called the C form, because if it were played in open position, the roots would match those of an open C chord. Pattern 2 is called the A form; Pattern 3 is called the G form; Pattern 4 is called the E form, and Pattern 5 is called the D form.

If an open C chord is moved up to the 2nd position (using a barre fingering to cover the open strings), it becomes a D chord. In other words, it is now a D chord based on the C form. Because there is potential for confusion in referring to this as a “C-form D,” it’s preferable to drop the open-position reference and just use the numbers 1 through 5. Instead of CAGED, we can call it the Five Pattern System. We can then call this chord “D Pattern One,” because it is a D chord based on pattern one.

To maximize fretboard understanding, group your practice of scales, arpeggios and chords together and name them all by the same pattern number. Use lots of verbal reinforcement, repeating aloud the names of all notes as you play and taking note of the roots.

This exercise should take less than 10 minutes. Repeat the exercise once or twice a day to learn Pattern One major chords, scales, and arpeggios with maximum efficiency. Again, practice this every day but only for 10 minutes at a time. Try not to miss a day, or you’ll set yourself back.


1. Play D Pattern One Roots (FIGURE 1A) on the fifth and second strings in 2nd position, using your pinkie and middle fingers.


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2. Play D Pattern One Major Scale (FIGURE 1B). Name all reachable notes by scale degree and letter name: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, root, 2nd, etc.; and F#, G, A, C#, D, E, etc.


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3. Play D Pattern One Major Triad Arpeggio (FIGURE 1C). An arpeggio is simply the notes of a chord played consecutively . Name all the notes in the arpeggio as you play: 3rd, 5th, root, 3rd, 5th, root, 3rd 5th. Also, recite the letter names: F#, A, D, F#, A, D, F#, A.


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4. Name the notes of the D Pattern One Major Triad. A triad is a chord with three unique notes. Name the notes of the triad in relationship to chord function: 5th, root, 3rd, and so on. Also recite the letter names: A, D, F#, and so on. Practice the triad pattern as four small chord shapes, each consisting of the three essential notes of the triad, as in FIGURE 1D.


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When you can play Pattern One shapes in any key without consulting the lesson page, start working on the next pattern. For reference, the roots, major scales, major triad arpeggios and three-string major triads are given in FIGURES 2A–5D. Note that some of the three-string major triads (there are three basic groups of them) cross from one pattern to the next. This is because you can play only one note per string in a chord.


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One of the first signs of advancement in a guitarist’s playing is when his or her note choices follow the chord of the moment. We can use the Five Pattern System to get this happening without jumping all over the fretboard. You’ll see that every chord, scale and arpeggio—and even every lick—is available under your fingers in any position. You just need to identify which of the five patterns you need to play it.

Our first lick (FIGURE 6A) is a real standby for embellishing rhythm parts and for soloing. It’s especially good for any song with a country flavor—though Jimi Hendrix put it to extensive R&B use in many songs, most notably “The Wind Cries Mary,” playing it backward, forward, with hammer-ons or pull-offs, and in every other conceivable variation.


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Play the root of any major chord, and then let it ring while hammering on from the 2nd to the 3rd scale degree on the next string. Letting the 3rd sustain, play the 5th on the string above that.

In FIGURE 6B, the lick is used to outline each chord in a simple I-IV-V progression in the key of A major. Employ Patterns Four, Two and One to make for minimal position shifting and smooth chord transitions.


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Following chords without shifting positions requires you to be able to quickly tell which pattern is under your finger for a given root. How do you achieve this? Make practice your friend. This is another of those “Do it for a couple of minutes a day until you’ve got it” practice exercises.


1. Put your hand down on the fingerboard in 1st position and name the pattern number for C that is closest. That will be Pattern One. Play the Pattern One roots.

2. Keeping your fretting hand in place as much as possible, identify aloud by number and play the roots of the closest patterns for each successive note in a cycle of ascending 4ths: C F Bb Eb Ab, and so forth. By the time you get back to C, your fretting hand will have crept up to the 3rd position.

3. Also practice the exercise in ascending 5ths, which is the same as descending 4ths—a backward version of the previous exercise.

4. For further exercise, apply this approach to the chord progressions for songs you know or are learning.


For the moment, let’s assume the Five Pattern System is in our minds and under our fingers. How will it affect our note choices when we’re soling over some typical progressions?

Suppose you were going to play over an A–G6–Fmaj7 progression. You can keep it simple and rock out with Pattern Four of the A minor pentatonic scale. But you can also add a little finesse by partially outlining the Pattern One F major chord, which exists in the same position at the fifth fret (FIGURE 7), à la Jimmy Page in “Stairway to Heaven.” Here, the A and F notes in measure 3 are target notes of the Fmaj7 chord. The trick is being familiar enough with your fretboard that you can automatically fit those types of moves into your solos.


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A solid method for learning how to comp (improvisation accompaniment) as well as how to improvise solos is as follows:


• Practice with the same chord progression for several weeks.

• Make a long (10 minutes) recording of the chords, playing them in strict time with a metronome at a very slow tempo—60 beats per minute is good starting point.

• Identify all key centers in the chord progression and choose scales to fit. Scale choices depend on harmonic analysis as well as the style—rock, jazz, county, etc.

•Stay in one fretboard position. Find the closest arpeggio for each chord by first finding the root and then identifying which pattern number is needed in that position. Draw diagrams of the arpeggios is necessary.

• Play the arpeggios in time with the recording until you can outline each chord smoothly.

• Improvise single-note lines, using scales to connect the chord tones as target notes.

• Improvise rhythm parts, using combinations of chord tones in the same fretboard position. Strive to connect chords smoothly.

Once you learn to navigate the Five Patterns, every note, chord and scale will be directly under your fingers at all times. Stick with it, and you’ll have fretboard knowledge before you know it.