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10 Steps to Learn the Guitar Fretboard

for total beginners
It goes without saying that once you learn the guitar fretboard, life as a guitarist will
be easier in every way.
Yet, most guitarists never really learn the damn thing. Whether out of laziness or lack of
system, and with a heck of a lot of excuses to back them up, they just never get down to
This getting-started guide will help you lay a strong foundation. Once you go through it
thoroughly you will be miles ahead of most...
There is a lot to say about the fretboard. Truly mastering it is no mean feat. But you will
never do it if you don't start with a system that makes sense. These 10 basic steps to
learn the guitar fretboard will change your status from total beginner to beginner-with-afuture in just a few days.

Before we jump into it...

If you're starting to play guitar, then you have an awesome opportunity before you: to
start out the right way, from the beginning. Is you do this, you will save yourself years
trying to correct bad habits. If you start out in the right direction, you will learn very
quickly! But the greatest advantage you have right now is that you don't think you know
everything: you dont think you have nothing to learn...
Its also a risky moment, because there is lots and lots of information on playing guitar
out there way too much, actually. Sadly, most of it is of questionable quality, at best. It's
very easy getting lost in that jungle, and ending up starting in a way that may not be
very efficient. Its easy to fall for a learn quick pitch that leads to a dead end.
This could later cost you painful years correcting ingrained habits... habits regarding how
you understand music, and music through the guitar; muscular habits, hearing habits,
musical thought habits... (yes, you do have to think in order to be a musician!).
So it's very important to do things right from the very start! You don't have any time to
lose, and you cant really start from scratch more than once, can you?

3 key points
One thing needs to be clear from the start: when learning to play guitar or any other
instrument you need to divide your study time between three very distinct, though
interconnected aspects of your project:
the fretboard is the same regardless of style, right?
what's the most efficient way of interacting with the guitar?
what style do I want to play, and how does that relate to the first two
points? What about style-specific techniques?

These points are arranged in order of importance: 1 determines 2 and 2 determines 3; yet,
in practice, it's best to work in an integrative way. Otherwise the learning process
becomes either too practice-focused, with little understanding, or too abstract. If you find
the right balance, you will save yourself years, and enjoy yourself while youre at it!!!
The main focus of both Fretboard Essentials and this getting-started guide is point 1: if
you have a solid basic understanding of music theory as it applies to the fretboard, all
the rest will fall neatly into place when it comes time to work on it.

6 strategies
1. Know thy enemy
2. Break it down
3. Learn the rules of the game
4. The smart route
5. Its not the notes, its what you can do with them
6. Get out of the forest

Yes, learning the fretboard is hard.

No serious guitar player I know has
ever said otherwise. But dont make
it harder than it has to be by just
ignoring it.
This is what most do: they
completely ignore the principles
that underly fretboard layout,
focusing only on fingering

1. Know thy enemy

Ok, it may be a little far-fetched to call the fretboard an enemy. But you get the point.
The better you understand the fretboard, the better armed you will be. As a musician.
So dont be lazy about it!
2. Break it down
Learning the fretboard is a huge, potentially daunting project. Break it down into bitesized morsels, to the point at which you are in full control of whatever it is youre doing.
Then add one more layer. Rinse and repeat.
3. Learn the rules of the game
The fretboard is not infinite. It is a grid, just like a chessboard, with well defined rules.
Paradoxically, the best way to find freedom, on the fretboard, is to learn all the rules of
the game. You can only break or bend a rule once you know it!
4. The smart route
Most people attempt the short route: learn a few scales and patterns.
Some attempt the long route: learn all the scales and patterns (as if that were even
Few undertake the smart route: understand the rules of the game.
5. Its not the notes, its what you can do with them
Knowing the names of the notes on every fret and every string is useless. Its what you
can do with those notes that counts. For that you need to understand the relationships
between those notes.

6. Get out of the forest

If youre in the forest, all the trees will look the same to you. Try walking around a bit,
and youre likely to get lost. But if youre out of the forest for long enough, looking at
it from a mountain top, you will get to see its over-all layout.
What the hell have trees got to do with the guitar fretboard, you ask?
If you are working out your favorite song by ear, reading tab, chord diagrams, or even
sheet music, you will get lost because all the frets look just the same.
The guitar is not like the piano where you have white and black keys. Maybe that would
help, but this is not the point.
The point is that before you plunge into all the details, it is wise to take an overview of
the terrain. Think reconnaissance. Think cartography... Haphazard exploration may be
fun, and that is the way we all get started. But it is not likely to lead too far.
You have to think about notes, not just frets, simply because frets are all the same!!!
Notes, however, have very special relationships to one another. If you understand those,
you will be in a much better position when it comes to "navigating" around the
So stop looking at your chord charts, scale diagrams, tabs, staves, or whatever it is for a
second. Ok, maybe you need a few hours, or months, or years... Take some time to
reflect on notes, their relationships to one another, and how these are reflected on
the fretboard.
If you do that, I guarantee you will start spotting patterns. You will start to see
symmetry. And all of a sudden, the guitar fretboard diagram will become clear to you.
You will not need to memorize anything, or need to repeat patterns up and down the
guitar neck.

Why is learning the fretboard such a pain?

Why is the guitar fretboard so hard to memorize?
Let's take a look at the keyboard: if you think about the keyboard, and what makes it so
easy to learn, its obvious:
The farther to the right, the higher the pitch.
The farther to the left, the lower the pitch.

You only have a single rule to learn. UP, or DOWN. Learn the note names, and that's
(Ok, thats not enough to be an Oscar Peterson or an Arthur Rubinstein, but the fact
that the piano is a single axis instrument makes it easy to understand in a visual way).
One string at a time...

If the guitar only had one string, then it would be as easy to play as the piano:

The farther to the right you move, the higher the pitch
The farther to the left you move, the lower the pitch
Again, there is only one simple rule to this game: so far so good...

2 axes?!

As you well know, the guitar has 6 strings, not 1. While you could think of the guitar as
6 instruments in one, the possibilities of all 6 combined are way more interesting!!!
This means that you can go up, and you can go down on 2 different axes.
Remember plotting charts in math class? X and Y axes? Same thing...

Hold on... It gets worse!!!

Yes, you heard right... it gets worse. Learning the guitar fretboard is as hard as it is not
really because it is six instruments in one but because it's freaking asymmetrical!
Think about other stringed instruments like the violin, the viola, the cello, the doublebass, or the mandolin... violin players have never complained about how hard it is to
learn the notes on their fingerboard.
The reason is that all those instruments, along with the bass-guitar, use symmetrical
tuning systems: The interval between each pair of strings is the same.
But the guitar is the ugly duckling in the family of stringed instruments: the interval
between each pair of contiguous strings is a perfect fourth, with the exception of the
second and third strings, which are tuned a major third apart.
Down to business:
Now you know why the guitar fretboard is so hard to learn. Understanding this is a great
starting point. And believe me, I'm with you if you feel frustrated by it! I know I was, for
That is the reason I wrote Fretboard Essentials: to help you out. I want you to get
straight to the interesting things, and skip all the frustration.

The 10 Steps
1. Stop feeling confused about it: just do it!
2. Divide a string in half to get the octave
3. Only 12 tones
4. The 12 tones are a cycle
5. Intervals between strings
6. Major scales
7. Say the names of the notes you play
8. Sing everything you play
9. Visualize everything in your minds eye
10. Integrate music theory and ear training to your study of the fretboard

1. Stop feeling confused about it: just do it!

As a beginner, I always saw the guitar fretboard as a mystery. To be quite honest, years
went by before I even started thinking about it seriously: the damn thing just seemed so
My teachers were of no great help, either. From where I stood, they didn't seem to be
much better off than myself in that regard. They didn't really seem to understand the
guitar fretboard at all. And they didn't! Even though they were top notch classical
guitarists!!! (Or if they did, they never shared what they knew).
So I took it for granted that there really was no better way. Fortunately for me, my
musical curiosity went well beyond the guitar. My first instrument as a child was actually
the piano...
I later studied bowed strings: learning to play cello and violin changed my whole
perspective on stringed instruments. It showed me a whole different level of musical
understanding was indeed possible.
I decided that there had to be a better way of learning the guitar fretboard. Now I knew
that it was possible to understand one's instrument in depth. I also knew that it was
possible to understand music, through one's instrument.
So this leads us back the the matter at hand. Before getting too specific about the guitar
fretboard layout, let's talk about something a lot more basic: mood. Just stop that crappy
Im confused, this is so damn hard mood. Today!
If someone had told me this then, I would not have paid any attention. But I now know
that feeling confused is just a mood. And as with all moods, all that is required to break
out of it is decision.
By simply deciding not to feel confused about the fretboard, you will start to see changes.
Of course, this has to be reinforced through actual understanding.
And understanding is only achieved through study. But mood is the secret key to unlock
that door. The simple decision to be clear-headed about this will turn learning the
fretboard into a rewarding and exciting adventure.

2. Divide a string in half to get the octave

This is true of any stringed instrument. The ancient Greeks had heaps of fun playing
around with monochords single stringed instruments and discovered this and many
other basic facts of acoustics, which are now at the foundation of our musical system.
What is an octave, you ask? An octave is a specific interval or distance between
two notes. The way to know the name of an interval is to count the letters:

If you go up a major or a minor scale and count 8 notches, you get an octave. (More
on major and minor scales in Step 6).
Back to our string. If you halve the vibrating portion of a string, without changing its
tension or anything else, the note you get when you pluck it or bow it is an octave above
the note you get when you pluck the open string.
Guitars are handy in that they have frets: if you count up to fret 12 of any string, that
distance is exactly half the string. If this is not the case with your guitar, then feel free
to use it as firewood or as a projectile ;-)
Wait! Didnt I just say 8, not 12?! The reason for this is that the frets of a guitar are not
divided into white and black, like the keys of a piano.
If you count up using only the white keys C major, you need 8 steps to get to the
octave. If you count up using white and black keys, however, you need 12 steps before
you get to the octave. Just like a guitar!
The scale you get when you play 12 contiguous frets on a guitar, or the white and black
keys of a piano is called a chromatic scale (more on chromatic scales in Step 3).
Play and sing an open string, and then that same
string with your finger on fret 12.
Try to get a feel for what an octave is. If you cant
do it with that string, attempt the exercise with an
other one.

3. Only 12 tones
The number of possible notes is infinite. The number of tones, however, on a guitar or a
piano is limited to 12. Yes, you read right: there are only 12 different tones to choose
from when making music on a guitar or a piano.
If you find that limiting, switch to trombone, voice or violin...
These 12 tones all occur within the space of an octave:






If you play all 12 tones in order, you get what is called a chromatic scale. On a guitar,
the 12 tones of a chromatic scale are all right next to each other in any same-string
succession of 12 frets.
Take the open string you found most
comfortable in the exercise in Step 2.
Now play and sing the 12 tones going up,
fret by fret.

4. The 12 tones are a cycle

The 12 tones happen to be a cycle. If you keep going after tone 12, tone 13 will be a C,
just like tone 1, albeit a higher pitched C. To distinguish one C from another, we use a
system of index numbers.
C5 is middle C (in all countries except for America, where C4 is middle C). C6 is C one
octave above middle C, and C4 is C one octave below middle C, and so on and so forth,
ad infinitum...
Now join the exercises in Step 2 and Step
3 by going beyond the 12 tones, to
include the note one octave above the
note of the open string you chose.
This will also be true for any other scales you play: they are cycles that repeat at every

5. Intervals between strings

You now have some basic understanding of the first axis: along the strings. The next
step is to take a look at the second axis: across the strings.
In Step 2 we defined interval as the auditive distance between two notes. So lets take
a look at the intervals between the different strings:
B - c - d - E : a perfect fourth

As you can see, the interval between strings 3 and 2 just

screws everything up ;-)

: a major third

If youre not sure what I mean by everything, I mean

symmetry. If it werent for that fricking major third, every
single goddam fingering pattern you could think of would
D - e - f - G : a perfect fourth be exactly the same, all over the fretboard...
Using the standard tuning system, you have to change your
A - b - c - D : a perfect fourth fingering patterns to compensate for the different auditive
distances between the strings.
E - f - g - A : a perfect fourth

Ok, that was my rant. Lets now focus on understanding

this stuff, so that this lack of symmetry is less of an obstacle
to you...

Play and sing the notes of each pair of contiguous open strings, one at a time.
Do it going upward and also going downward, across strings, on axis 2.
If you find it hard to sing in tune at the beginning, dont despair... this comes
with time. The reason to sing, as you will find out in Step 8 is to engage
more of your senses, more deeply, in your explorations of the guitar.
Do everything you can to make this experience as intense and meaningful to
you as possible. Avoid studying guitar while checking Facebook, or while
watching TV, or whatever. It just cant be done, not with the degree of
concentration needed to take your playing where you want it to go.
If you find it hard to dedicate much time to your explorations of the guitar,
then its far better to do it for 5 minutes, in a focused way, than to do it for
hours, with something else in your head at the same time...
So far you have understood basic note layout both along each of the
strings, and across the fretboard: the 2 axes of note distribution...

6. Major scales
The scale you learned in Step 2, the chromatic scale, you practiced for one simple reason:
to understand note layout along axis 1. Its now time to take this one step further and
look at major scales...
Every single scale-type has a set distribution of tones within it. A scale is nothing but a
selection of certain tones within the octave. Each pair of neighboring tones is divided by
a specific interval. This interval pattern repeats at each octave, no matter how high or
low you go.
The most common scale-types contain either 5 or 7 tones. For now, we will focus on a
the most common of the 7-tone scales: the major scale.
Each neighboring pair of notes of the major scale is divided by either a half-tone or a
whole-tone. But lets not get too deep into the fancy names of things for now:

Lets just say that each neighboring pair of notes of the major scale are either right next
to each other, as in the first picture above, or have an empty fret between them, as in the
second picture.
Lets call the first interval 1 and the second 2. The interval pattern for the full major
scale, closing an octave above the starting note, is:
This means that if you start your scale on any open string of your choosing, these are the
frets you will have to use to play a major scale:
0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12

Play and sing a major scale starting on each of the open strings.
Dont worry too much about technique or smoothness in the
beginning. Just keep it simple and focus on the scale itself.
Play and sing going up, and going down as well... do so until you
can do it fluidly, and the sound of the major scale is ingrained into
your mind, along with its. interval pattern.
This will be the basis for most, if not all, of the music theory that
you will layer on top of your new-found knowledge of guitar
fretboard basics...

7. Say the names of the notes you play

You now have absorbed the sound of some of the basic building blocks of music. The
next step is know the names of the notes youve just used.
Of course, saying f-sharp takes too long, so these are the syllables used for sharp notes:



Do DI Re RI Mi Fa FI Sol SI La LI Ti
Likewise, saying a-flat wont do, so we say the names of flattened notes thusly:




Apply this principle to all the exercises youve done so far. In the case of chromatic
scales, use the sharp names when going upward, and the flat names when coming
back down.When singing major scales, you will need to count to figure out the names of
the notes for each string. E major, for instance, would be:



Mi Fi Si La Ti Di Ri Mi
In the case of major scales, you use the same names going up and coming down. Work
out the syllables for the major scales on the remaining open strings and practice them!
It is important not only to get it in terms of sound, but also to have a name for
every element of music that you use. Thats the importance of this step...

8. Sing everything you play

Whether you are playing an idea of your own or something you worked out by ear or
read, sing it. This will engage your sense of hearing at a far deeper level. It will help you
grasp the fretboard intuitively.
If youre shy, this might be hard, but believe me, its worth it. This tip alone will teach
you the biggest skill in music: LISTENING! If you dont listen to what you play, at the
deepest level possible, your playing will always be limited. This is the only way to really
take your playing where you want to.
This doesnt mean ALWAYS sing... just make it a habit to practice your ideas and the
music you play this way too. If you want to take this one step further, record yourself.
Then listen back and fix what needs fixing.
Another great idea is to sing everything you play using the syllables you learned in Step
7. This will further cement your knowledge of where each note is on the fretboard.

9. Visualize everything in your minds eye

Form a clear mental picture of each of these exercises and any other exercises and music
you play, and picture yourself going over all the steps. Practice this for 5 minutes a
day, until the image is sharp and clear.
This is the best way to make the fretboard and music completely yours. Once you
get real good, youll be able to practice, and invent stuff that you can play without
needing to have a guitar at hand.
This will also make your knowledge completely firm and leak-proof, galvanizing your
self-confidence when you play on-stage or record something with professional
If you find this super-hard at first, dont panic! Do it for as long as you can while keeping
the image and sound perfectly sharp in your head. Then little by little stretch that
time. The ability to concentrate you will develop will help you with everything, not just
music and the guitar.
You may soon find yourself playing guitar in your dreams. This is really cool! It means
all this info is really seeping down to where it has to go: your subconscious mind. Then,
it will be second nature with you to create awesome music, just like that!

10. Integrate music theory & ear training

Youre probably dying to take all of this one step further. If you liked this approach,
and find that it helps you, I recommend you check out my book, Fretboard Essentials,
a practical guitar theory and ear training guide for beginners.
Fretboard Essentials is just like this 10 step guide, except that it goes deeper: it has
heaps of unique diagrams and tons of exercises... so that you can take it all in, one step
at a time.

Click here to purchase Fretboard Essentials

10 Steps to Learn the Guitar Fretboard

2011 Alexander Corts
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The author, Alexander Corts has made his best effort to
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