Why Guitarists Avoid Learning the Fretboard!

Guitarists seem to have a general disdain for learning the fretboard as apposed to more technical skills like building speed or learning more licks.  But that’s not you apparently because you’re reading this and you probably  think that…

  • Learning the fretboard (in particular the note layout) is important to you as a growing guitarist.
  • It’s time to move beyond seeing the fretboard as just strings & frets & fingers.
  • Knowing more about anything regarding the guitar (and being a musician in general) is never a waste of time…right?

I congratulate you because you are moving in the right direction.

But most guitarists don’t take the task of learning the fretboard seriously because…

  1. They see it as a boring  theory challenge…to much to think about!
  2. It requires consistency and commitment…to much time to “get it”.
  3. They have to memorize  stuff until recall is automatic…to much work & not playing enough songs.
  4. They have to use this knowledge or they will loose it…to much discipline.

Of course none of this really true.  I think that guitarists simply get use to not thinking about the fretboard, so much so that when they do try to spend time understanding it, it just feels out of place compared to their “regular” practice routines.

It’s also easier (and quicker) to develop impressive chops (based on licks, scale patterns and all sorts of fretboard gymnastics) even with little to no awareness of fretboard knowledge.  You can LOOK really good and actually not know what you are doing!  This is just more initially attractive to players (which I get!).

Of course, the solution to getting your fretboard knowledge chops up to speed is simple…

Just do a little bit of it during each practice session!

If you haven’t done so yet, go and download the FRETBOARD MAP #1.  Or you can reference the image at the top of this post.

So with that said, let’s get your fretboard knowledge up to speed by starting at the beginning.

 

To Learn the Fretboard, Begin With The OPEN Strings.

This first task may seem trivial to you but you’d be surprised how many players don’t actually know the names of the open strings.  I had a new student (who previously studied elsewhere) who thought the open strings were “nothing” – just strings.  Notes where only made when your fingers pushed down on the strings…WOW!

So let’s understand that OPEN strings are sounds and those sounds have names (it’s just that the guitar is making those sounds and not your fretting hand).

From the 1st string (skinny one) to the 6th string, the strings are named:

E(1)   B(2)   G(3)   D(4)    A(5)    E(6)

And (obviously) the reverse order would be true moving from the 6th string toward the 1st string:

E(6)   A(5)   D(4)   G(3)   B(2)   E(1)

I’m “old school” so I was told to memorize the open strings.  So I did!

Today, acronyms seem to be in fashion so here is one moving from the high 1st string E (and by “high” I mean the highest “pitched” open string…not physically highest from the ground.

  • Easter
  • Bunnies
  • Give
  • Delicious
  • Ample
  • Eggs

If you are inclined to start this process from the lower pitched E (6th string)…

  • Every
  • Aardvark
  • Digs
  • Grubs
  • Before
  • Evening

Not the most exciting stuff for sure but there are some important INSIGHTS we can glean about the fretboard from knowing this stuff.

What’s Up with the Double Dots?

Most fretboards have so called “fret markers” placed at frets 3,5,7,9, 12 (see the grey dots on your Fretboard  Map).  There is some variation on this scheme but this one is fairly consistent.  But if you look carefully, the 12th fret marker is often distinguished from the others (usually two dots or double dots whereas the others have only ONE).  Again, there can be some artistic variation (like images of birds or lightning instead of dots) but usually something is done to make the 12th fret stand out.  WHY??

I’ll answer that shortly but before then, let’s explore some thing called the MUSICAL ALPHABET.

Just as the Western written alphabet contains 26 letters, music contains ONLY 7 letters.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G

Of course, we could have called them anything we like but the alphabet was already in place so…why not use that?  Seems reasonable.

These note names have been laid out on your Fretboard Map along the 5th string and starting with the OPEN 5th string A itself.  You should notice that as you move UP in pitch along the fretboard (Your fretting hand is moving toward your guts!), you will not arrive at another A note until the 12th fret (Wait a second!  That’s where the double dots are!)

A Couple of Insights Toward Learning the Fretboard.

 INSIGHT ONE

The double dots at the 12th fret represent the repetition of the open string names – in this case the note A.  But more importantly, this observation is true for ALL THE OPEN STRINGS.  See the square note markers on the Fretboard Map.

And because you have  moved a certain distance from an open string  (A in this case) to the next A note further UP the fretboard on the 12th fret, musicians call that distance (and in fact the relationship of the sound from the low A to the next higher A) an OCTAVE.

INSIGHT TWO

So the 12th fret with double dots is a visual reminder that the notes at the 12th fret are the same letter name as the open strings…an OCTAVE higher in pitch.

If you make the effort to memorize the OPEN strings, then you already know the names of the notes at the 12th fret as well.  That’s a cool connection.

In fact, play the note C at the 3rd fret of the 5th string (see image below).  It will also be located an OCTAVE (12 frets) higher on the same string…true for ANY note along one string.

Can you see how these two insights can begin to help you visualize the layout of this, otherwise, featureless fretboard?  The big scary fretboard is starting to shrink.

ACTION STEP

Begin to make a small practice HABIT by reviewing these insights during your regular daily practice.  Simple play ANY NOTE (you don’t even need to know its name at this time), and locate its OCTAVE (either higher OR lower).   This new habit can actually be a welcomed break from all the physical/technical practice we guitarists tend to focus on.

So think of this new habit as FRETBOARD MEDITATION. 

It does take time for fretboard knowledge to sink in but if you develop the habit of looking down at your fretboard with the intention of rehearsing & reviewing your growing note knowledge at every opportunity, the habit becomes NORMAL for you. 

The cool part is that growing fretboard knowledge has a built-in momentum.  The more you do it, the faster you start “getting” new fretboard concepts & connections.  So in fact it never takes as long to master as you think it might…good news right? 

Peace,

Stephen