Learning the fretboard is one side of the guitar playing that intrigues guitarists of all levels.
However good you get at playing, there is always a hidden part of the fretboard you don’t usually visit or new shapes to already familiar chords that you figure out after watching other advanced players.
Although it may be a never ending goal to “master” the fretboard, we prepared 5 steps to guide you in your journey from learning the first chords to being able to immediately recall all shapes for rhythm and lead.
The list is very subjective and everyone can have their own perspective of “mastering” the fretboard and how to achieve that. Also, it’s not in any particular order and it’s mostly thought out about intermediate players that might not have had an academic approach to music theory.
The steps are in no particular order. You can evaluate them depending on where you are on your guitar journey!
- Learn chord shapes
This may seem as a very basic thing, but it can also get very advanced once you add different inversions and extensions.
The best way to approach guitar playing is to first play and then find out what you are playing. Remember that music theory is a way of explaining music and organizing your thoughts and approach toward music – not music itself!
If you already know how intervals work and how chords are formed, great! If not, start anyway by learning different chord types such as open chords, barr chords, 7th chords, sus chords and other types of chord extension you might or might not be familiar.with.
Moving on you can learn about systems such as the CAGED system. This system uses 5 open chord shapes (the C, A, G, E and D chords) as a way to organize your visualization of the fretboard.
This can be taken one step further if you then start applying the minor CAGED system and major 7th, dominant 7th chords to the system.
A chord cheat sheet can be a good idea if you need a reference or a helping hand.
- Learn Scale shapes
There are two approaches to learning scales: 1) learning first how they function and then learning the shapes or 2) learning the shapes and then learning how they function.
Depending on how you approached learning you might need to either refer to the next step related to intervals or you try another practical approach – incorporate new scale tones in already familiar shapes and songs.
You might only know the major, minor and, the always handy, pentatonic scales right now. Try forming the other scales you are learning based on the ones you already know, i.e., alter the scales you know to form the new ones you are learning.
For example, if you want to learn the dorian mode, start with the pentatonic and add the “dorian notes’ in the mix to really hear and feel what the mode and scale is and make it easier to find it.
Also, a great thing to do is to play with other guitarists as you can play the chord they are playing but in a different position and shape to make the music more diverse.
To help you find scale shapes, even the most tricky ones, we have our cheat sheets to help you.
- Ear and Interval Training
The most important aspect of learning the fretboard is recognizing chords and scales by ear, not sight.
Think of the guitar and the many note combinations the fretboard gives as a tool in which to channel melodies and rhythms you develop with your inner ear and then channel that with techniques, chords and scales.
To be able to not only memorise the fretboard visually, but truly play it, ear training and getting deep into intervals is a must. You don’t have to have perfect pitch to develop a really good relative pitch.
Not only do you become faster at finding shapes, chords, the right notes and right fingerings, but you also become generally a better musician.
Think of ear training as a parallel line that goes along with theory and techniques practice and give yourself time to start from the basics exercises such as telling a 4th from a 5th and depending on where you want to go our app has a complete ear training drills section. The ultimate goal is to be able to instantly play what’s in your head on the fretboard!
- Connecting shapes
No scale shape or chord is limited to one position on the guitar–it can be played in multiple places to achieve different subtleties in tone.
The first level connecting shapes can be in playing an Am chord in different locations, for example, in all the 5 CAGED positions.
Thinking of that logic with all the more advanced shapes you know, especially if you are in the jazz world or even into prog rock/metal where some more complex shapes are the norm.
A great exercise to fill in any gaps in fretboard knowledge is playing the major triads of all the chords in the circle of 5th as a warm up exercise.
For rock and blues players there is one technique that both teaches the fretboard and entertains in the process – take one lick you already know and play in the 4 other places in the neck!
- Get in “the zone”
Fretboard mastery gives guitar players freedom. Freedom is a general way of saying that you can play, and not think, just express the melodies in your head and feel the music.
Victor Wooten in his book, “the music lesson,” gives a masterful opinion on this and says to split practice time into two parts. The conscious parts–where you learn your scales, chords and usual exercises and the unconscious part–where you just play without paying attention to techniques.
Said differently, you achieve fretboard “mastery” through the process of learning up to the point where you don’t need to think.
This “step” should be a natural part of all your fretboard learning process, and can be applied in many different ways, depending on what you prefer.
Try our web app to help lay down a solid foundation to help you practice all the above steps in one place. Sign up now and try all 19 drills free for a 7 days trial.