Learn the Guitar Fretboard Like a Pro

Learn the Guitar Fretboard

Today we’re going to talk about one of the steps on the road from beginner to expert: learning how to use the whole guitar fretboard. Once you master this, you will be well on your way to play the guitar like a pro.

A lot of guitarists never do this. They learn a pattern for each scale – but each pattern is four or five frets wide, so they only cover a part of the neck. By expanding your scale knowledge so you have multiple patterns covering the neck, you unlock new sonic possibilities and new relationships between the notes which you can exploit in your licks

There are lots of ways to do this. One very popular choice is the so-called CAGED system, based on various chord shapes. While I think that system has merit, I actually learned on a slightly simpler system, which requires only two scale shapes (although it works better if you have three).

Guitar Fretboard

I’m going to use the key of C in this example, remember that you can use any key simply by moving these patterns up or down the fretboard such that the root notes are on the key you want to be in.

So most of us first learned the major scale with this pattern, low to high.

  • x8x10
  • 78×10
  • 7×910
  • 7×910
  • x8x10
  • 78×10

That’s a C major scale, pretty straightforward, right? Take special notice of the C notes: 6th (low) string, 8th fret. Fourth string, 10th fret. And first string, 8th fret. Those are your roots.  Let’s call this scale shape the major shape.

Since C-major is also A-minor, just with a different tonic, we have these same notes in a minor-scale shape. This is also the notes of a C-major scale:

  • 5×78
  • 5×78
  • 5x7x
  • 45x7x
  • 56×8
  • 5×78

Again, your roots (for c-major) are the 8th fret on both e-strings, as well as the fifth fret on the g-string.

Before we continue, notice how both of these scales fit together. The high-end of the minor shape scale are the same frets as the low notes of the major shape scale.

All we really need is one more shape to cover the lowest part of the neck, and we’re golden. I’m going to call this the C-shape:

  • 01×3
  • 0×23
  • 0×23
  • 0x2x
  • 01×3
  • 01×3

Note that the roots here are third fret of the a-string and second fret of the b-string. Do you see how this shape contains your standard c major chord? That can help you remember it. Find a note on the a-string, build out a c-shape chord, and viola.

The whole guitar fretboard. It’s that simple. But if that’s too much, you’ll notice that you can connect your minor shape with your c-shape, not by using the whole major-shape, but rather by just using these additional frets on the three high strings:

  • G  9
  • B  10
  • e  10

This is useful to know because many musicians find the C-shape and minor shape scales easier to solo in than the major-scale shape – using those three notes to transition, you can bounce up and down the fretboard, staying in key. (Note, of course, that the cycle just repeats after the 12th fret).

So start today by soloing using the minor shape, and transitioning, using those three extra frets, to the C-shape further up the neck. As you get more comfortable with those two shapes, start to fill in the rest of the major shape. Before you know it, you’ll have command of your whole guitar fretboard!

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