The guitar fretboard can be elusive.

But why is the guitar fretboard so taxing? This is an actual quote from our research:

"I can visualize myself playing. I can hear the music, the layered details of the songs. I even wake up with entire scores in my head. Then I sit down to play and all I can muster up is a lick or two, a pentatonic scale, some chords, some bends and pulloffs."

A chain is only as good as its weakest link. You could be Mozart, in fact, and yet achieve nothing on guitar:

"I have trouble remembering scale patterns and naming complex chords, or playing them once named, because I have trouble translating what I hear to the fretboard. I can't visualize the relationships between the various chord tones and the scale lines easily. So building a solo by 'thinking about the chord tones while playing the scale' remains beyond me."

guitar fretboard

In this fretboard note chart you can see why they've failed so hard. The good news is that the map is not the territory. These diagrams, these maps are not the actual fretboard. There are other ways to navigate it.

These people obviously know a lot of music. Boy, have they tried to get the guitar. One is evidently gifted. But somehow, it all comes crashing down when it comes time to actually put it on the fretboard:

"I have moments where I have this amazing song in my head, but I know that my current skills aren't up to snuff so I go out and try to find a system that allows me to transfer what's in my head to the guitar fretboard. I get frustrated because I don't know if I'm making progress or just spinning my wheels and I never get any better. I just end up in a never ending cycle."

Now, this doesn't just apply to improvisation, songwriting, composition or arranging. A thing as basic as reading music on the fretboard too, for flip's sake:

"I get discouraged because I know the notes when I'm just thinking about the fretboard, but that knowledge doesn't transfer quickly enough when I'm reading music and want to play notes in different positions."

It would seem that just knowing how to read music isn't enough:

"I can read music, but applying that to the guitar hasn't happened. I can read the notes, and I know where they go on the guitar, but my brain hasn't connected the pieces."

In fact, it's universal. Improvising, composing and reading on guitar all need that crucial step called grokking the fretboard:

"I can't seem to apply all the knowledge I have on an informational level to the guitar fretboard during play."

If someone said to you "I play piano but I don't know the keyboard" that would strike you as odd. Yet, somehow, with us guitar people it's normal. "I play guitar, but remain absolutely fucking clueless about the guitar fretboard" is just a normal day at any music school or conservatory, at any level. Except that they couldn't admit to it. No no no. Too much at stake!

But I digress. The fact that people have trouble remembering things on the fretboard — a process key to anything you do in improvisation, composition or playing — confirms this:

"I still don't know the fretboard and I get frustrated when I try to practice. Cognitively, I just struggle to remember stuff. I play by ear but when it comes to Jazz I can't hear the different notes."

Who would expect to remember the Odyssey without first learning ancient Greek? Yet people have the expectation that they should somehow magically be able to remember songs and pieces although they don't even understand the fretboard (never mind know how to use it). HOW IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT?!

"I can play songs from notation and some tab, but not really feeling it: I'm still not really able to use the fretboard. I can't memorize a song, not even one. I can't jam with anyone."

If you wanted to learn the Odyssey, you would begin by getting some comprehension skills and slowly learn to speak, only to find you need to study Hellenic culture to get all the references. Then you could start memorizing.

But that sounds too much like hard work, so people turn to fingering formulas, but it's just as bad:

"I have a poor memory. I did manage to memorize the pentatonic shapes and the notes on the 5th & 6th strings. Some instructors want you to memorize so many other scales that I think if I tried to I would forget more than I would remember."

The workarounds don't work and the problem compounds. Now you're stuck trying to solve the workaround that doesn't solve the thing you wanted in the first place: the guitar fretboard. It's so bad, in fact, that this fretboard illiteracy undermines your confidence to do anything:

"I am unable to read the fretboard fluently, so I find that I don't have the confidence to pick up the instrument and play."


Now, these are people who play all kinds of music. R&B, Country, Jazz, Rock, Pop, Flamenco, Mariachi... yes, even Classical. You name it. That's what's really, really sad. It's universal.

Why should you bother with the guitar fretboard? Because without it you can't do anything, you're a cripple: can't improvise, can't read, can't write. Nothing. WAIT. POWERCHORDS. Kill me.


How much time do you spend every day on improving your fretboard skills? Not technique, not blues or jazz or learning songs and pieces or any other genre specific things... the fretboard itself?

Nothing? A little bit? Lots? Think about it.

Be honest with yourself. Make it specific.

Now, how effective is it?

How do you expect to make any progress on the guitar fretboard if you don't actively take it on? How do you expect to make any progress if you continually put it off, work around it and later try to fill in the gaps with senseless repetition? How do you expect to make any progress if you don't give it any time?

How much difference could one minute a day of consistent focused fretboard drills make for your playing in just a few weeks? Long term?

Try it out for yourself! You have nothing to lose:

→ Enough theory, I'm ready for action!

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One more thing...

How much money do you spend on mastering the fretboard?

Now, how much do you spend on gear you try once and never use again? How much on books full of 'tips and tricks' that never really work? How much on theory books you never read, dvds that stand on your shelf and cause you shame to even look at?

If you say you want to get the guitar fretboard but you a) give it zero time b) put all your money on things that don't matter... boy, you'd better check your list of priorities.

Fretboard Addicts offers you a full 7 week test-drive so you can make up your mind whether or not to invest your time and money there. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

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Guitar Fretboard in Depth

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.

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

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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.

Fretboard Essentials

Fretboard Essentials

→ Start Fretboard Addicts | guitar theory in depth

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