How to navigate the fretboard

11 guitar teachers share their fretboard navigation tricks

fretboard navigation Q&A series Welcome to the last part of this Questions & Answers series. Now it's time to talk about the fretboard. There exist different systems to help us moving among the frets, and it's very interesting seeing different approaches. So read these answers with care and see how our guitar experts manage the complexity of the fingerboard (for the other questions of this series, check What is your favorite unusual chord progression? and In your guitar learning path, what is your greatest 'aha' moment?)

'How do you manage the fretboard? (CAGED? note name memorization? shapes?) '

CAGED is definitely a good starting point when thinking about solos and improvisation. But most of the time, I'm thinking of chord shapes and the extensions/connections inherent in a chord progression.

Jesse Paliotto - theguitarjournal.com

I really have to think about this one! You get to the point where you're drawing from numerous different systems and methods almost unconsciously.

When teaching, I have to spend some time compartmentalising my own interpretation of the fretboard to figure out from where the apparent intuition arises. I'd say it's a grand combination - absolute note positions (A-G), yes, but also spatially relative concepts, such as intervals, which give rise to movable patterns (such as scales) and shapes (such as chords).

If you truly want to know the fretboard like the back of your hand, explore several methods. CAGED is valuable for beginners. But also get to know intervals - minor and major 3rds, 5ths, 7ths etc. - the building blocks of music. From this, common, movable patterns start to emerge on the neck, and you can start to associate what you hear with a kind of spatial familiarity, whether it be chord shapes, arpeggios or scale patterns. For example, a minor 7th is always just two frets below the root, no matter where it's played. And it has a specific sound. So it's making this connection between what you hear and how that is replicable in various areas of the neck, based on the spatial awareness of how notes relate to one another. Playing guitar is about both listening intently and visual cues. These two elements must be connected to fully dominate the fretboard. Train your ears and train your eyes.

Mike Beatham - fretjam.com

Step by step I have learned the fretboard by starting with reference notes and finally get the “puzzle” together. Things like CAGED System is certainly good for some, but for me, it's more about visualizing and playing often including much lead playing.

For example, learning one string from fret 1 to 12 at a time and when go on to the next. Not just by looking at the string and trying to memorize, but playing only on that string for a while by using simple scales.

Using barre chords and other moveable chords has also been helpful to learn parts of the fretboard. The typical barre chords have the bass notes on one of the two lowest strings and since I'm not playing lead guitar so much on these strings, learning the positions of bass notes from barre chords is a great complement.

Oscar Steen - guitar-chord.org

All of the above, but mostly I see it through "three lenses":

-Horizontal (individual strings or two-string combinations -- mostly adjacent)
-Vertical (positions --> either caged or Berklee seven positions system)
-"Ice Skating", like described by Mick Goodrick in the Advancing Guitarist.
Generally, I encourage student to study the different approaches in the order presented above.

Marc-Andre Seguin - jazzguitarlessons.net

I am pretty much self taught (I only had a few jazz guitar lessons) and as a result I am very much a visual player. I tend to view each chord as a shape on the fretboard, and visualise the arpeggio as a framework around that. I also use the CAGED system, although I was using it myself before I knew it actually had a name!

Tim Robinson - timrobinsonguitar.com

Understanding the fretboard completely equals total freedom of expression, the only limitation being purely physical; the ability to technically execute the musical ideas that form in your mind.

It was many years before I became educated musically. And while my technique was good, and getting better, I found I was “fishing” for the sounds I wanted to put together. I would often be in the middle of an intricate solo and, taking a leap of faith, “hope” I would land on the right notes to carry on. It was stifling.

Then I studied music theory - and the lights came on big time.

As a Berklee grad once said to me, “patterns patterns patterns”...

My method was to mentally organize one complete key across the fretboard, For example, G major from 3rd fret position to 15th position. Plus keep track of how the notes within that key populated in each pattern.

Once I had G memorized, any other key was simply the exact same series of patterns, only shifted on the fretboard laterally to coincide with the chosen tonic.

To visualize the complete key across the fretboard, I primarily used the caged system to compliment the root chord for any given interval. Once the pieces were together, it was on to further understanding target interval distances and shapes. The essential major/minor relationship, thirds, fifths, sevenths, I IV V patterns, inversions etc. But most importantly, identifying a note and it's relevance within a key family - not just an arbitrary fret on a string that sounded like it fit!

Combining the visual methods with an understanding of the right notes within a given key gave me the 20,000 foot musical view.

That process ultimately produced immense musical power, and guitar playing freedom.

Steve Blundon - guitarniche.com

I tend to use 6th and 5th string scale shapes mixed with single-string scales to connect the dots.

Matt Warnock - mattwarnockguitar.com

I use every approach I can all together. I'm always trying to memorize the notes even better. I used the CAGED shapes everywhere, especially for arpeggios and pentatonic playing. I use 3-note-per-string shapes for some fast pattern-based runs. I also make sure I know my scales fluidly on single strings, not just patterns over all the strings.

Joe Walker - deftdigits.com

To navigate the fingerboard I use a combination of chord shapes, arpeggios (which is very similar) and scale patterns. For the past few years I've really focused on chord shapes and connecting these shapes up and down the fingerboard. I find this approach is very musical and efficient. Sometimes, thinking in terms of scales can lead to too many notes and scrambling for the right tensions and resolutions. When the chord shapes are approached there is very little wasted movement and it's easier to play what I hear.

John Gorbe - elmore-music.com

All of the above! Note names help me find chord shapes, chord shapes help me find arpeggios, arpeggios help me find scales. Like the piano, the guitar is great for visualizing the relationship between chords and melody.

But that's also a liability—humans are visual creatures, and we sometimes lean on our eyes when we should be using our ears.

So I try to keep the visual aspect in the practice room. Onstage I'm trying to get out of my own way and hear something compelling to play. I'm mostly using my eyes to find a place to begin, or to reorient myself when I've painted myself into a corner with what I've played so far.

Joshua Skaja - fretboardanatomy.com

In my opinion, the goal of learning the fretboard is instant recall because you can't find a note in time if you need to figure out where it is located. A layered approach usually works best. I will start with a true beginner then ramp it up to an advanced level.

Almost all guitarists start by memorizing open chords, also known as the CAGED chords. The next step is to move them, but you need to know the root notes for that task. Therefore, learning the notes on the 6th and 5th strings is an obvious next step. Now you have a guitarist who can play chords along the fretboard. From here you can branch off and learn a lot of chord variations and play along the entire fretboard.

Most guitarists also want to learn to improvise and solo well. They will almost always start with box patterns. Usually, this is taught by telling a guitarist to find a root and play anything in the box. This is very exciting for a beginner. They sound good using this shortcut, and it can be a lot of fun! This is great, but they don't really know the notes they are playing yet. They don't know why they sound good. More importantly, they don't know how to sound different than the other thousands of guitarists who are just playing in the box. Eventually, they start to sound the same every time, get into a rut, and lose interest. This is where music theory comes in if they want to become a better guitarist.

I like to teach a combination of scales, chord construction, and instant recall exercises to break this rut. Here are a few tips. Know the relationship between the key and the scales. Know the intervals in your chords and how they relate to the scale. For example, C major chords are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of a C major scale. In your pattern, you know the chord tones by starting at the root and skipping notes. That's powerful. If you learn octave patterns on top of that, you can move around the fretboard utilizing those notes. Before you know it, you're learning notes all over the fretboard. These techniques help improve instant recall of notes. You can find free lessons on chord constructions, scales, and learning the fretboard, at my site, Guitar Lesson World, www.guitarlessonworld.com.

Patrick MacFarlane - guitarlessonworld.com

Updates:

I always say, "the one who can see the fretboard in the most ways wins." I use them all in various ways and they've really just morphed together into my overall mental model of the fretboard.

Griff Hamlin - bluesguitarunleashed.com/

How To Learn The Fretboard

Being able to move freely on the fretboard is one of the most important skills for a guitar player, and I'm sure you've got precious insights and intuitions by reading these answers. For more resources on the fretboard (tutorials, exercises, online games), click here. And don't forget to check out the other parts of this Questions & Answer series:

And now, what about you? Share in the comments the strategies that you use to deal with the fretboard!

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