Learning The Fretboard – An Essential Guide

At some point, every guitarist has to start learning the fretboard – let’s get you started today!

In this free lesson you will learn…

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  • How to practice for better fret memorization
  • How to practice chords to better learn the fretboard
  • The chromatic scale & how to play it
  • How scales are constructed
  • What the musical alphabet is & how to learn it

Learning The Fretboard Can Feel Like An Overwhelming Task

The neck of the guitar is a musical universe all its own, and it can be difficult to navigate at first. Every guitarist arrives at the point of needing to learn the layout of the fretboard at a different stage of their journey.

For some, learning the fretboard is one of the first tasks they may accomplish – especially for those who are classically trained.

For others, this comes at a much later stage.

Whatever our skill level, we all arrive at a point where our knowledge of the frets begins to limit our playing, and we need to dive deep in order to understand more about what we’re playing and where.

Learning-the-fretboard

We’re here to tie your knowledge together and apply it to that plank of wood and metal strings we all love so much. Learning the fretboard doesn’t have to be as daunting as it initially seems.

You’re about to have some serious breakthroughs, so get stoked!

Pro Tip: We’re going to be discussing a fair bit of music theory today, so grab a pencil and paper before you dive in.

All set? Let’s go.

Learning-the-fretboard

What Is Involved In Learning The Fretboard?

This is a long process, but not an intimidating one.

A large part of understanding the layout of our fretboard is identifying the patterns that occur across it.

These patterns happen in the form of scales and chords.

The more educated we are on these concepts, the easier it will be to understand the fretboard in the long run.

A few key principles that we can take into consideration for learning the fretboard are:

  • The key of a barre chord can be moved simply by shifting the whole hand position up or down any series of frets
  • Scale shapes function the same way
  • Any riff can be ‘transposed’ (moved) up or down the fretboard into a different key

Learning-the-fretboard

When learning the fretboard, it’s important to recall everything that we have learned up until this point and apply it to the knowledge we gain in this guide.

  • Applying new concepts to old knowledge helps keep things consistent and cohesive in our brains.
  • It also helps us rationalize the musical ideas we experience at every level of musical skill.

Pro Tip: At the end of this guide, go back through old lesson sheets you might have (or other lessons on in our library) and apply these concepts to everything you know.

You’ll be surprised by how well the pieces begin to fit together.

To start with, let’s break down what we call The Musical Alphabet.

Learning-the-fretboard

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Learning The Fretboard: The Musical Alphabet

Western music as a whole primarily consists of twelve notes.

That’s right – Twelve. That’s all.

  • If it sounds like there are more than twelve notes at play on the guitar, it’s because this instrument can play these notes in multiple octaves.
  • At the end of the day however, twelve is the magic number of music.

The amount of different combinations for these twelve notes is absolutely endless, and it’s one of the many fascinating things about music.

Learning the fretboard can unlock the world of potential that lies within your instrument, and help you learn to speak the language of music theory in the process.

Learning-the-fretboard

Let’s have a look at our twelve notes:

A  A# B  C C# D  D# E F F#  G G#

Bb           Db Eb         Gb Ab

Pro Tip: Did you notice that the sharp (#) notes have another set of notes underneath them? (b)

  • This is because sharp notes have two names, and use one or the other depending upon their context.
  • This b symbol is called a Flat, and both these and the Sharps are referred to as ‘Accidentals.’
  • Accidentals are referred to this way to distinguish themselves from natural notes like A, B, C and D.

Many scales and chords contain accidentals, with C major and A minor being the only keys that do not. These distinctions are important to make when learning the fretboard practically.

Let’s talk a bit more about accidentals below.

Learning-the-fretboard

Learning The Fretboard: Sharps & Flats Are The Same!

Musical context is a very important thing to understand when learning the fretboard.

In some instances when we talk about accidentals, it may be easier to refer to them as either ‘sharps’ or ‘flats’ depending upon the scale we are discussing.

If we are speaking about the fretboard with notes in no particular way or order, we can use either ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ without preference.

In the context of scales and chords however, one is advisable over the other.

For example: When discussing a chord like Cminadd9 (C, Eb, G and D), we must use a flat symbol for the E. This is because there is already a D note within the chord, and therefore using a D# is not possible.

guitar-fretboard-lesson

You cannot have two of the same note name within a chord or a scale, and that is why sharps and flats exist together.

  • When learning scales and chords, this distinction is an important one to make.
  • Adapting this principle now will help us further down the line when learning the fretboard.

How-to-play-rhythm-guitar

Music theory can often be overlooked as an unnecessary component of the process of learning the fretboard.

The fact of the matter, however is that learning these principles of music theory can help us not only advance our playing, but our musical language as well.

  • Every principle that we learn in turn affects our musicality and the way we speak with music.
  • Learn a little bit of everything and you’ll have a well-rounded approach to your instrument.

Have a look at the fretboard below to see all the spots where ‘accidentals’ occur:

fretboard-lesson-guitar

Learning The Fretboard: Movable Chord Shapes

One of the most crucial chord formations to learn are barre chords.

These are what are known as ‘movable shapes,’ meaning their whole chord formation can be shifted into a different key simply by moving it around the fretboard.

These types of chord shapes are fantastic teachers of chord structure, and fantastic for learning the fretboard fluently.

As we move a barre chord shape into a different key (ex. From Fmajor to A major [1st fret to 5th fret]) we should take the time to explore what notes are being played.

Here are a few examples of barre chord shapes that can be moved around the fretboard:

how-to-read-a-fretboard

This same rule applies to partial barre chords – chords that require us to barre with our index finger but not across six strings.

  • These shapes can also be shifted around the fretboard.
  • Each chord type has its own set of shapes that we can play with around the fretboard.
  • Take the time to learn each different chord’s structure and play it in various positions while learning the fretboard.
  • The more we commit to learning chord shapes and structures, the more well-versed we will become not just as guitarists, but musicians as well.

what-is-a-fretboard

Learning The Fretboard: How Scales Are Built

Scales are similar to chords in that they are built out of many different combinations of notes.

When combined, these notes can create a wide variety of different tones.

The selection of notes is extremely important, and one note can make a world of difference in the tone of a scale.

For example, the natural minor scale contains seven notes and carries a dark and neutral tone. The harmonic minor scale contains all of the same notes as the natural minor scale, except the 7th note is sharpened (#).

  • This may not seem like a big change, but that one-note difference creates an entirely different tone by comparison.
  • It also creates a different 7th chord in the scale, which changes the tone of the scale once again.
  • Being aware of these tonal changes is crucial to properly learning the fretboard.

how-to-read-a-guitar-fretboard

Scales are most often built in five-note structures (called ‘pentatonic scales’) and seven-note structures (called ‘diatonic scales’).

These types of scales both have their respective uses in a variety of different genres, but each has their own distinct character in each of the twelve keys of music.

Pro Tip: When learning the fretboard, it’s important to practice scales in multiple fret positions to gain an understanding of how notes are shared throughout the keys.

  • For example: C major and G major share the exact same set of notes, apart from F.
  • In C major, the F is natural (meaning not sharp or flat). In G major, the F is sharp (#).
  • These subtle differences make learning music theory much easier, so pay attention to what notes occur where.

easy-fretboard-lesson

understanding-the-fretboard

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

Learning The Fretboard: Arpeggios

Arpeggios are one of the things that can tie our scale and chord knowledge together quite well when learning the fretboard.

An arpeggio is simply the act of playing a chord’s notes individually rather than all at once.

This helps us with a number of things:

  • Ear training (to hear the notes individually and hear the character of the chord)
  • Clarity (Arpeggios help check if we have accidentally muted any strings when playing a chord)
  • Breaking down the notes inside each chord individually

Arpeggios are great tools for learning the fretboard, as they force us to take a closer look at what we’re playing.

We’ve included a few deconstructed chords below for you to play through – Give it a shot!

guitar-fretboard-exercises

When playing barre chords, playing them as an arpeggio can also lead to some pretty cool lead guitar sounds.

Pro Tip: Arpeggios help us sound out the inner voice of each chord. As such, it’s a great idea to arpeggiate new chords as we learn them to get a better understanding of how they work.

  • Arpeggios also serve as great voicing techniques for lead guitarists. If you’re ever struggling with what to play over a chord progression, just play the arpeggios of the chords themselves!
  • One of the best approaches to learning the fretboard is playing arpeggios of every chord you know. You’d be surprised at the potential it opens up!

Click here to listen to Yngwie Malmsteen play through his “Arpeggios From Hell” guitar DVD on YouTube, and click here to watch Charlie Robbins shred through his arpeggio-fueled adventure ‘Spicy.’

National-Guitar-Academy

Practice: The Chromatic Scale

As an additional piece of practice material for learning the fretboard inside and out, we want to take a look at the Chromatic scale.

This is a scale with essentially zero natural melodic content on its own.

Translation: It doesn’t sound great.

  • The advantage that the chromatic scale gives us however, is that it shows us all of the notes in sequence, and often in one position.
  • The version of this scale that we have included below starts in the open position and uses the first four frets of the guitar.
  • Assign each of your fingers to each of the first four frets in order, and focus on alternate picking to keep the sound smooth and clear.
  • Take it slow and steady!

Pro Tip: The chromatic scale can be played anywhere on the fretboard. This isn’t typically a scale that you would use when soloing, and it technically has no root note.

This scale is used more for exercising the fingers and learning the fretboard, as well as practicing general navigation techniques across the guitar.

Getting used to the sound of all of the notes against one another also helps to improve our ear, so don’t discount this scale’s ability to improve both your playing and your ears!

musical-guitar-rhythm

Super Pro Tip: Practice the chromatic scale to a metronome.

  • This is quite possibly the best way to improve your playing and focus on learning the fretboard at once.
  • Set the metronome to 100bpm (beats per minute) and play two notes per beat.
  • This involves patience and some practice, but you’ll nail it if you keep at it.
  • Practicing this scale (and every other scale) in this way helps us pace ourselves.
  • Focusing on alternate picking here will keep us sounding smooth as ice.

Google has a metronome embedded if you search “metronome.” Easy, right?

Where Do I Go From Here?

If you aren’t yet finished learning the fretboard, here are a few other things we recommend putting into practice:

  • Pick up a copy of Fretboard Mastery by Troy Stetina
  • Practice saying the notes of the fretboard out loud as you play through the Chromatic scale.
  • Learn scales to improve your knowledge of the fretboard
  • Learn some new chords
  • Put your vast array of musical knowledge to work and write a song!

Recommended Resources

If you enjoyed reading this article about learning the fretboard as much as we enjoyed writing it, then you’ll love some of our other lessons below!

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