Why is learning the guitar fretboard chart so damn hard?

"All the notes are there on my guitar fretboard chart. I don't know why I can't get it. It is frustrating feeling that there is sound inside me that I want to get out, but I don't know how to do it. So, after a while, I stop trying."
guitar fretboard chart
Guitar Fretboard Chart from Classical guitar for dummies

What people really mean when they say "learn the fretboard" is memorize every note on every fret on every string. Sounds simple enough.

As you might, on piano, learn every note on every key. Except that on piano it's all just there. People try this and then complain:

"I have trouble translating what I hear to the fretboard: I can't visualize the relationships and my musical brain shuts down. I fall back to playing scales and tunes I've played a million times without ever breaking any new ground. I can't sight-read and it takes forever to learn anything. I don't have a direction that will move me forward."

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We always feel like we're trying to fix something:

  • •If I just get this fingering pattern down and learn how to transpose it around the fretboard, I can then play anything I want.

  • •If I just buy this chord bible, I can finally crack all the voicings that I want to play.

  • •If I get that new overdrive pedal with the haunting midrange that everyone is raving about on GearSlutz, I'll finally sound like me.

There are a million ways we run away from what's actually important to making progress on the fretboard. And then we feel bad about ourselves and our abilities when none of it works. I'm ready to kill myself.

Then, realizing that we need to fix something, we get sold on one of those “play-quick” schemes only to find it just doesn't work. Now it's even worse. We feel stupid to have fallen prey to some online marketer. Nobody likes to feel stupid.

Piano thinking blinds us to our own instrument

piano note chart

The root of the problem is this: we insist on wanting the fretboard to be a keyboard. Piano chart, guitar fretboard chart, done. Search the internet and you'll find advice like this:

"Just think in terms of black and white keys, like, you know, a keyboard."

And then you get this:

guitar fretboard chart

Instant blindspot. In the same breath that they admit that they've been trying this for decades AND IT HASN'T WORKED people say:

"However, in theory this shouldn't be that difficult. If we talk only about the “white” notes and concentrate on the frets between 1 and 12, there are only 5 places where, for example..."

Shoot me! In theory my aunt should fly and we should all be living in some amazing utopia:

"I learned all the notes on the fretboard once, spent hours on my iPod app drilling myself stupid in doctors offices, etc. Still didn't click and not sure how much of that I've retained."

This is real, folks, real quotes from years of research. According to Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and yet expecting different results.

We make assumptions we don't even notice, much less question. Whether you realize it or not, you've been hit hard on the head with the idea that piano is the fixed point of reference. Piano is king. This dogma is what kills genuine fretboard thinking, along with the music that's inside you.

"I feel like no matter what I try I'll never be able to see the fretboard clearly like I see the layout of a piano. That major third between the G and B strings ruins my flow / life."

Now it's time for some legitimate fretboard thinking

You see, it's not just about thinking: it's about making music on the fretboard knowing exactly what you're doing, in the moment, as you do it. It's time to revamp / kickstart your fretboard skills: challenge yourself with a new approach that has been tested to work, for just one minute a day for 7 weeks. If it works, you can continue after the test-drive. You've got nothing to lose: it's free and the drills last for one minute a day.

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 I was always overwhelmed and completely intimidated by this fretboard and all the diagrams in the world didn't make it any easier. I'd taken a fretboard theory class at a local music school a couple of times only to be further confused and thinking myself an even bigger fool…

Each week I've been floored to discover that in all the twenty years of playing this guitar, I haven't learned as much as I have learned these past 7 weeks. And in such a short time every day. This process has blown my mind.

You have given me something I cannot repay you for… ever. The audacity to think I can play this instrument well… wow! Something I thought was reserved for only the truly gifted… Yes, you've made it accessible and fun again… The small chunks; the brevity of the drills makes it all possible. I don't feel overwhelmed… it's just enough… just enough to get locked in there.

This system has made the impossible possible for me 20 years down the road. I am just floored that the fretboard is finally making sense. It no longer looks like an endless diagram of meaningless dots, it's actually intervals and easily manageable information…

Muchas Gracias Alex!!!!

Aracely Bock, singer-songwriter, Chicago

The fretboard is our instrument. Approach it like this and pentatonic scales, diatonic scales and modes, chords and harmony, everything fits. It all falls neatly into place.

I just want my Guitar Fretboard Chart!

This article is an excerpt from Fretboard Essentials.

In order to fully understand the guitar fretboard chart, you need to grasp three things first:

  • basic note layout along the fretboard

  • scale layout along the fretboard

  • note layout across strings: the way the strings of the guitar are tuned

  • These points are introduced in the previous articles of this series.

    Most guitar methods start with a guitar fretboard diagram that looks pretty much like this:

    • guitar fretboard chart
    • white notes fretboard chart
    Guitar Fretboard Chart 1:
    This shows fret by fret note correlation for each string:
    The whole thing repeats, one octave up, after fret 12

    Or you might find a guitar fretboard chart that looks like this (exact same thing, but with less information, since it says nothing of specific pitch height):

    • note names on guitar fretboard
    • white notes on guitar
    Guitar Fretboard Chart 2:
    Same thing, replacing the staves for note names

    This is not new. You'll find many versions of this guitar fretboard chart on the web, even software that will help you learn where each note is —again— by rote. This information has been available since the early 1800s, but on its own, it has never really helped anybody.

    There are a myriad variations, but assumption is always the same: if you can see all the notes on this "guitar fretboard map", now you just get it... right?

    Probably not. Let's put it this way: if you don't understand the underlying relationships within that fretboard diagram, you won't be able to use it for anything meaningful.

    Where to begin: break it down

    Approach 1: String by string. Learn scale patterns on each individual string and improvise on them.

    Approach 2: Remove the top strings

    guitar fretboard chart
    Guitar Fretboard Chart 3:
    "White keys" only.

    Even without sharps or flats, there is too much information. The real trouble starts with strings 2 and 3, which introduce a myriad variants to fingering patterns. To simplify things even further, get rid of strings 1 and 2, which is the same as a bass guitar fretboard:

    bass guitar fretboard chart
    Guitar Fretboard Chart 4:
    Bass guitar fretboard.

    Even if you don't play bass guitar, it's a really good idea to study the bass guitar fretboard chart. It is exactly the same as strings 6 to 3 on guitar. All patterns within that string set retain their symmetry. Playing everything only on those four strings is a great starting point. (Click here for more specifically on the Bass Fretboard.)

    This removes any exceptions to fingering patterns due to strings 2 and 3. Practice exhaustively on these four strings until you're completely confident with what you're doing. Then you'll have the muscle to start looking at all the complexities that come into play when you look at the whole guitar fretboard chart.

    This article is an excerpt from Fretboard Essentials.

    Guitar Fretboard Series:

    1. Guitar Fretboard in Depth: Back from Guitar Fretboard Chart to section overview

    2.Guitar Notes: A view along the Fretboard, and other important points

    3. Guitar Fretboard Diagram- string by string: still looking along the fretboard, scales and modes this time

    4. Guitar Tuning and the Fretboard: a view across the guitar fretboard

    5. The Guitar Fretboard Chart explained afresh —also for Bass players

    6. Fretboard Map: connect the dots!

    7. 24 Frets: The full diagram

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