Learning the guitar fretboard is almost like learning another language. Today, we break down some of the best shortcuts to getting the most out of your practice time.
Fretboard Hacks: Getting In The Right Positions…
If you’re a beginner guitarist, some of the scariest things to think about is notes and scales. There are 22-24 frets on most guitars, and each space between the frets represents a note. It can be downright intimidating if you really start to think about it. In fact, this is the #1 aspect of learning guitar that usually puts beginners off entirely.
Even some intermediate guitarists have limited knowledge of the fretboard, and how it works. Some people simply memorize patterns, and scale shapes without ever really knowing what they are playing when it comes to music and notes. Hell, I know some professional guitarists that do this!
Sure, you can get by without knowing every note on the fretboard, but what if I told you that it may be easier than you think to “unlock” the fretboard? If you are currently staring at your guitar and thinking “this guy is crazy” then I completely understand. But there are some simple fretboard hacks that can help you master the fretboard much faster than you may think!
Some of these may be obvious if you have been playing for a while, but others may surprise you! It is also important to note that this does not apply to Drop tunings or alternate tunings. All of these fretboard hacks are for Standard tuning only. Also, we will be going from “easy” to more complex as this list goes on. So if one of these throws you for a loop, don’t feel bad. Just keep learning!
Let’s kick it off, and see what we can learn today!
#1 The Twelfth Fret
This will already make things easier for you, and a lot less intimidating. The twelfth fret is marked with two dots for a reason, as this is where your guitar starts it’s second octave. Starting at the 12th fret, the notes start to repeat. For example, your lowest string is E, right?
If you strum your lowest string open, the note is E, but it is also E an an octave higher on the 12th fret. This means that technically, when it comes to memorizing notes, you only really have to learn 11 notes per string. They repeat in the same sequence starting at the 12th fret!
This is very important to remember when learning scales, since the scales past the 12th fret are also repeated. So if you know the A Minor scale starting down on the 5th fret of your E string, you know that it is also at the 17th fret… because both notes are A, an octave apart!
#2 E to E
Your lowest, thickest string is the E string. But your highest and thinnest string is also an E string. They are exactly the same, just octaves apart. This helps you to wrap your brain around how the fretboard works, a little easier in my opinion. The entire fretboard is repeating, a cyclical pattern that technically never ends. E to E….
Your open E on both the high and the low strings has the same pattern of notes all the way to the 12th fret as well. If you are playing on a 22 fret guitar, you are missing one high E note. On a 24 fret guitar, you have 5 different octaves of the E note.
A good way to get started learning notes, is to find where all of the E notes are, on the fretboard The E note is all over the place! Try some of these to hear the examples:
- Open first string
- Open 6th String
- 12th Fret, Low E string
- 12th Fret, High E string
- 14th Fret, D string
- 7th Fret, A string
- 2nd Fret, D string
- 5th Fret, B string
- 17th Fret, B string
So you can see the cycle of how often the E note pops up along the fretboard! This realization definitely helped me when I was learning the fretboard, as I noticed that maybe notes aren’t as complicated to learn as it seems. They just repeat in a simple pattern based on the alphabet. How hard could it be, when you break it down like that?
#3 Learn The Major Notes
This is where you really start to dig in when it comes to learning the fretboard. The major notes are essential to learn on the fretboard. This will help you not only learn scales and positions, but it will help you see how the fretboard is one big cycle, as I mentioned earlier. The major notes are:
Once you learn the position of these notes, you already know the positions of the other notes in between. How? Let me explain.
The “other” notes that are not in the major scale are sharps (#) and flats (b). These notes are found in between the major notes. But they are directly related to the note before and after. A sharp note is half a step (one fret) up. A flat note is one fret down.
So if you look at the guitar’s fretboard, and find one of the major notes, you can easily find the flat or the sharp. If you find the G note on the bottom E string, it is on the 3rd fret. If you go to the fourth fret, this is G#! All of the notes in between notes on the major scale are either sharp or flat.
#4 Learn The Pattern
The best way to start really seeing the pattern of notes on the fretboard, is to learn each note up until the 12th fret on each string. The best way to start this, is by learning the Low E string first. The low E string is very easy to memorize, and it will help you realize how the notes are positioned for the other strings, as you learn them. Up until the 12th fret on the low E string, the notes are:
- E (open)
- E (12th Fret)
When I am teaching someone the notes of the fretboard, I usually tell them to play the notes, and say the note out loud as the move up the fretboard. This pattern never changes. So if you want to do the next string, the A string… it is the same, just start with the A note.
- A (open)
And so on! If you do this with each string every day, then you will know the notes of the fretboard in no time! This is really starting to seem a lot easier than you thought, I’m sure. Guitar is complex and nuanced, but the basics are easy to pick up.
#5 The “Blues” Scale
This is one of the easiest scales to learn in the great pantheon of guitar scales. It can be used when playing Blues music for sure, but it can also be applied to just about any genre of music. You can always skip notes, or alternate the notes and make it suit just about any genre you want.
I think the Blues scale is best learned right smack dab in the middle of the guitar, at the 5th fret (A Note). The Blues scale is a minor pentatonic at heart, and we will talk about that later. But just to get you started, let’s take a look at the Blues scale in A minor, and the frets you play on the fretboard. The dots represent the notes you play:
You can play this scale backwards, forwards, and anywhere in between. While it may look and sound very simple, this scale really starts to unlock just how easy it is to compose some really cool sounding solos! This scale in my opinion is the first step to understanding the fretboard when it comes to solos.
Try learning this scale pattern with the root somewhere else also. Maybe try the 3rd fret. If you start at the third fret, this is the G minor scale. If you start on the 7th fret, this is the B minor scale. It really works all over the place. This scale remains the same if you play it above the 12th fret as well, because the 12th fret just starts over, remember?
But what do I play these scales over? You play them over chord progressions based on the fretboard notes. But how would you compose a chord progression?
#6 Learning I IV V Chord Progressions
This is another Blues based concept that often gets overlooked in modern guitar playing, but it can really help you understand the fretboard. Leaning how a I IV V (one, four, five) chord progression works, will show you which notes complement each other on the fretboard and how they relate to one another.
This is usually done, using the major notes that we talked about earlier. A B C D E F G. We are only going to use these major notes for this example, because I think it will be easier to digest.
The first note or chord is always the tonic, or “key” of the song. Let’s say that we are going to do the progression in the tonic or “key” of A. The first chord will be the A chord on the fretboard. But how do we find the other three notes/chords that complement the A chord and make our I IV V pattern?
The four chord is going to be four note counts away form the tonic of A. If you count 4 notes from A not including sharps and flats on the fretboard, you get the D note. So the IV in this “I IV V chord progression” is going to be D. This is easy to see, if you are counting properly:
- A-1st (Tonic)
- D- 4th (The IV)
- E- 5TH (The V)
Going by the list above, its easy to see where we’re going to end this I IV V progression. The 5th chord is going to be the E chord! This can be applied to any three sets of chords, and this is how many songs are written. The tonic also tells you where you would play a scale (like the Blues scale mentioned above). Since this is in the key of A, then you would want to solo with the A scale!
Try it out using another note as the Tonic note. Try it out starting with a D chord. The I IV V starting with D as the tonic would be: D, G, A. This is because the notes are a cycle, and they repeat infinitely. Thousands of songs use this formula for establishing the structure. It makes it easy for all of the musicians to find exactly where they are supposed to be on the fretboard.
#7 Finding Octaves
Finding octaves of a root note can be really easy once you break it down. An octave is the same note, but a full step up or down. The easiest way to find on a good example of an octave on the guitar fretboard is by using the 12th fret, as we mentioned earlier. The open string, and the 12th fret are always an octave apart.
But what about other places on the fretboard? To be honest, it is even easier to find the octave in other places, as long as you know where your root notes are. Let’s take the 5th fret for an example. The 5th fret’s note is A. What is the closest octave of A from the 5th fret?
It is the 7th fret, on the D string. This is a lot closer than you would think a whole octave would be, but it is right there, and part of a power chord. You can use this same pattern for the A string, and the D string. The octave is always one string, and two frets away, until you get to the B string.
Once you get to the B string, things change just a little. The octave is on the high E string, but it is 3 frets up instead. So no matter where you are on the fretboard, you will be able to find the octave easily. It’s always closer than you think!
#8 Get Your Bends Right!
leaning how to bend a note can be difficult at first. It is easy to push too hard, and be out of tune just as easily as it is to push too lightly. But you can use your fretboard to help you get the pitch right, and this is another fretboard hack that is right under your nose.
There are two main types of bends. You have a half step, and a full step. They mean exactly what they say, a half step bend goes up one semi tone. While a full step bend goes up one full tone. If you are having a hard time finding where to stop, you can always use the fretboard to help you find the note in the bend that you are trying to hit.
Let’s say that you are trying to bend an A note a full step. Let us also say that this A note is the one on the 10th fret of the B string. If you just bend the note, it can be hard to tell where the full step is. You can find the note that you are bending to on the fretboard, since you know the notes!
The note you are trying to bend that A note to, is B (one full step). The B note is on the 12th fret of the B string (remember those octaves?). Simply play the B note on the 12th fret to hear the note you are bending up to. Go back to your A note, and bend it to that pitch.
You can do this with the fretboard with all kinds of bends. Half step, full step, step and a half… Just find the note on the fretboard first!
#9 Learn Where Your Triads Are
Triads are chords that can be moved all over the neck, in any position. These are three note chords that can be played all over the fretboard. Since they can be played all over the fretboard, and only consist of three notes, triads are some of the easiest chords to find on the guitar. But if you have studied everything on this list up until this point, you can also learn to build them yourself!
Triads come in a lot of different forms. Some of them are pretty obvious. If you have ever played a E Minor chord, then you have played a triad. The same goes for power chords. But we are talking about building our own triads, based on the fretboard knowledge that we have now.
Building a triad is a lot like building a I IV V pattern of chords, like we discussed earlier. But instead of one-four-five, we are doing I III V. So if you find the F note on your fretboard, and add an A and a C… you have the I II V pattern. This is a triad!
Using numbers like I IV V, and I III V is very common in music, and once you learn this progression system, you can play just about anything on the guitar, with anyone! It’s very common in a band situation for someone to tell you ” We are playing a I IV V in the key of G”. It is up to you as the guitarist to know what the band leader means by this, and be able to figure out the chords.
#10 Basics Of The CAGED System
This is a huge guitar fretboard hack, and you can learn a lot about notes and chord shapes with just a few basic examples. The CAGED system uses the chord shapes that are in it’s name (C,A,G,E,D) to show you that those shapes work all over the fretboard. The CAGED system can get really complex, so today we will go into just one example. Today, we will look at the D shape. We know the D chord shape right?
Make the D chord on your guitar. Now, keep the same shape but move it up a full step, or two frets. You will notice that while this has become a completely different chord/note now, the structure remains the same! You can move this D chord shape up and down the fretboard and get all kinds of cool new sounds. Try this with the other chord shapes listed in the CAGED system, like the E chord. One day, we will go over the entire system in depth, but that will be a lengthy post! The shapes position changes the chord name entirely, so it can be a little complicated.
But as you see, the guitar fretboard is not only a cycle, it is full of patterns and shapes. This brings us to our final two fretboard hacks and both involve patterns and the cycle of notes!
#11 Demystifying Scales
Scales are usually seen as the big boogeyman of learning the guitar fretboard. When you look at a note chart, it seems like a lot of notes up and down the neck. But with what we have learned today, I think we can make learning scales a little easier, don’t you think?
Firstly, we know that the fretboard is a cycle, the same notes are played just in different places and they always come back to the octave. With that knowledge, looking at a scale chart should be a lot easier for you now. Let’s take a look at the E minor pentatonic scale on the fretboard.
Do you notice anything? First of all, the different octaves of E are highlighted in blue. Do you see a pattern here, that we talked about earlier when finding octaves? I definitely see the pattern, and this repeats for any note scale. If you look up an A Minor scale, you would see the same thing… the different octaves of A are everywhere.
Notice something else? If you take a hard look, you’ll notice that the same 6 notes are played over and over in the scale, just in different places. The same 6 notes repeated ad Infinium.
Are you still afraid of scales? This literally goes for every type of scale you will ever learn on the guitar. It is just the same notes, played in different places on the fretboard. All you are really learning, is the shape of the scale… because the notes are just on an infinite repeat loop. Look at it like this: If you had a guitar with 100 frets, that scale would still be same 6 notes over and over!
#12 Same Notes, Different Place!
This is one that I have just learned, and I think it is very cool! You can play a scale or a lick in the traditional place on the fretboard. But you can also find the same notes elsewhere on the fretboard, and it will give a completely different tonal quality to the exact same notes. This is because the string density is different. The G string will have a different quality than the same G note played elsewhere.
Of course, other factors come into play with how a note pattern sounds. Different strings for one. Also, different pickups can affect the overall tonality. Even the wood of the guitar has an effect….
Oh hell, let me just let Rick Beato show you what I mean. This is a very cool fretboard hack, and it can also help you learn where the note placements are on the fretboard!
Beginner Fretboard Hacks: Wrapping Up
At the end of the day, there is no fast track to becoming good at the guitar, and learning the fretboard. You can use these fretboard hacks to get ahead of the game, but you will still need to practice and memorize the notes. If being a proficient guitarist was easy, then everyone would do it!
These fretboard hacks will get you started on your journey, but they will not erase hours of practice and discipline. The purpose of this article was to show you that guitar may be a little complicated at first, but when you really break it down… it can also be a lot less intimidating than you may have thought.
It can take years to master the fretboard, or it could take months. The amount of effort you put into it is going to directly effect the payoff. But hopefully, with a little hacking knowledge, you can see that it is not as complex as you may have originally thought. Hopefully, the mystery of notes and patterns makes a little more sense now for you!
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar, bass, and piano for 28 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. Chris has toured for years with several bands and music projects across the United States. He worked in Los Angeles as a studio musician and engineer working with many genres, but mainly Pop, Rock, and Metal. In between giving private lessons, he is usually recording under his various projects. Christopher plays Schecter Guitars, BOSS Amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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