Guitar 101: Learning the Fretboard | Guitar Fretboard Chart
If the guitar had only one string, it would be quite easy to understand the mechanics of the guitar fretboard. It would be laid out just like a piano, where the further to the right you go, the higher the pitch and vice versa. Unfortunately, it is not that easy when it comes to understanding the traditional six-stringed guitar. With six strings, you get many options for where to play the same note, interval, chord, phrase, and even song. You are also limited to playing one note per string (giving you up to six notes at a time) and limited by how far you can stretch with the four fingers you use to fret the guitar.
But these natural limitations of the guitar don’t need to be an obstacle for your playing and creativity. The guitar uses many different techniques and there is so much variation in sound, which makes the guitar a very unique and beautiful instrument. Mastery over the fretboard, along with great ear training and technique, will give you the freedom to express yourself through the guitar without any obstacles.
Understanding the Guitar Fretboard
In order to understand the fretboard, we need to keep in mind the intervallic relationship between each string and be able to visualize all possible fingerings for all intervals. The guitar strings are tuned in intervals of 4ths, starting from the lowest pitched string. That means that the next higher string is 5 half-steps above the previous string. This is true for all sets of strings except for the relationship between the 3rd and 2nd string, which is a 3rd interval (4 half-steps) instead of a 4th interval. This lets us know that the guitar fretboard is not completely symmetrical and that we need to keep in mind the need to compensate for the 3rd interval every time we go to or come from the 2nd string.
What I would do is start by identifying and memorizing all interval fingerings within an octave that are in a practical position to play on the guitar. For example, a unison, or same note, can be played on the same fret of the same string, or you can also play it on the next higher string but 5 frets lower in pitch. As we learned from the last paragraph, the distance between strings is a 4th interval (5 half-steps), and each half-step is equal to one fret on the guitar. So you can play the same note on the next higher string simply by going down 5 frets.
When you reach the fingering of a 5th interval, you will have 3 practical shape options:
-same string / 7 frets up
-next higher string / 2 frets up
-skip a string / 3 frets down
Keep in mind to compensate for the 3rd interval tuning between the 3rd and 2nd strings whenever you use or cross over the 2nd string.
Once you feel comfortable with visualizing all possible fingerings within an octave, it’s time to explore these same intervals but in reverse. This time around, let’s start with the first note on the first string and work ourselves down in pitch using the same interval fingerings but in reverse. Remember to stick to practical fingerings that you can incorporate into your playing.
The next step would be to explore interval fingerings that are larger than an octave. You can use the next higher or lower octave note as an anchor point to help you visualize where you need to go.
This alone will take lots of patient practicing and visualizing. If you are a visual learner, looking at a guitar fretboard chart – like the one pictured in this article – can really help. You can use this chart to practice even when you don’t have a guitar around.
This system will eventually allow you to explore scales, lines and chords anywhere on the fretboard and allow you to change positions whenever you want, as opposed to staying stuck in one position. It’s also important that you get your ear used to hearing the intervals between notes in scales, chords, and lines so that you can incorporate this system into your playing and feel comfortable all over the fretboard.
I hope this system helps you in understanding the basic mechanics of the fretboard and finally lets you freely play how you’ve always wanted to play. Let me know how it goes!
Edwin I. teaches guitar, piano, songwriting, music theory and more in Hawthorne, CA. He is a professional teacher/studio musician/performer/producer with over 17 years of private teaching experience and a graduate of the University of Miami Studio Music and Jazz program in 2002 specializing in the guitar.