Guitar Fretboard in Depth

Why should I bother trying to get the hang of the guitar fretboard, you ask?

Because regardless of what style you play —or want to play— the basic fretboard layout truths do not change.

This is true whether it's blues guitar, jazz guitar, classical guitar, rock guitar, flamenco guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, fingerstyle guitar or what-ever guitar. Unless, of course, you use alternate tunings.

This is true even if you play bass guitar! We can think of the bass fretboard as a segment of the guitar fretboard, shifted an octave down (but more on this later).

So it should go without saying that grasping the fretboard layout, knowing it in and out, truly understanding it, is the master key to playing any-style guitar!

Even so, most people use box diagrams to learn guitar chords and scales —by rote. This is not only boring, but limiting, too! At GTiD, we promote a simpler, but far more powerful way of mastering the fretboard and fretboard notes.

What happens if I don't understand the guitar fretboard?

If you don't understand the fretboard, you will have to live with:

  • Very poor sight-reading skills

  • Having to learn scales & chords by rote, instead of understanding them. This results in choppy, uninteresting improvisation

  • Uninteresting voice leading (choppy chords and harmony)

  • Having to learn pieces only by rote (much slower than through understanding). No steadfast knowledge of what you are playing

  • Poor, uninteresting (not to mention, slow and painful) composition

  • Plus all and any other problems arising from bad musicianship. The list goes on...

    figure out the fretboard

    Figuring out the fretboard, step by step...

    If you are to succeed at this, you will need to "disentangle" the guitar fretboard, step by step.

    This article is an overview of the full section: please click on the links below for complete explanations. If you need any of the musical terms explained, click here for the GTiD glossary. (It opens in a new window so you can use it for reference while reading).

    The first point is that the guitar, like the piano, is based on the standard 12 tone equal-tempered system. This means that we have only 12 tones to choose from. These tones may repeat an octave higher or lower, giving us a different note, but those 12 tones are all we have. The only exception is when we bend a string, or use a tremolo bar.

    On a guitar, if you play two adjacent frets on the same string, you'll hear the interval of a semitone (or minor second). If you skip one fret, the interval is a whole tone (major second).
    Once we know this, we can start exploring our first view of the fretboard —along the each string:

    chromatic scale

    Then, we can start looking at scales and modes, and eventually melody:

    guitar fretboard diagram

    After we have understood the way the fretboard works along the strings, we need to connect them up by looking across the fretboard, at the relationship between the strings:

    minor pentatonic scale

    Connecting this view -across the fretboard- with the way each string is divided into 12 tones -along the fretboard- gives us a full view —the complete guitar fretboard chart!

    guitar fretboard chart

    Click on the images above to see them in full size, with explanations

    guitar chords

    Chords and Harmony on the Fretboard

    Guitar Fretboard Series:

    1. Guitar Fretboard in Depth: section overview

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

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

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

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

    6. Fretboard Map: connect the dots!

    7. 24 Frets: The full diagram

    If you are starting out, go to Beginner Guitar for a step-by-step tutorial to learn the fretboard or the bass fretboard, as well as extra thoughts on fretboard notes and the fretboard map.

    Want more? Pat Martino, one of the best guitarists in Jazzdom developed a very interesting way of looking at the guitar fretboard which he called "The Nature of the Guitar".

    He completely disregards all the facts discussed here concluding that the guitar is by nature a non-tonal instrument! But in spite of that his system is well worth studying.

  • Fretboard Essentials

    Fretboard Essentials

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