By Kathy Unruh

Learning the guitar fretboard can seem like a daunting task to many beginning guitar students. However, if you adapt a systematic approach, it can be a fairly easy thing to do. But some of you may be wondering if it’s really necessary in the first place. Afterall, a person can get along fine these days by learning a few chords and knowing how to read tab, right? Well, maybe. But you might inadvertantly manage to limit your potential as a guitar player too. So please take just a few moments to consider what I have to say.

Having a good grasp on how your guitar fretboard works can open up new ideas and provide a greater means for creative expression. It will also help to expand your knowledge and understanding of chord structure, reading notation and using guitar scales to improvise with. If you have visited my website at ABC Learn Guitar, then you know that I like to use the musical alphabet as an introduction to teaching the guitar fretboard to my students. I do this because it makes it easier for the beginner to work with something they are already familiar with, namely, the letters of the alphabet A through G. At the same time, my students learn the important scale of A Minor without even realizing it! By the time they have learned the musical alphabet, they come to discover that they have also learned the A Minor scale in two octaves and know where all the natural tones in first position are on the fretboard! That gives them
a real sense of accomplishment and a greater feeling of confidence on the guitar because now they are more familiar with the instrument in general. This is the approach I always use with my students in order to help them establish a solid foundation on which they can build new skills.

After the student has learned all the natural tones in first position on the guitar fretboard, I begin to introduce them to the sharps and flats. The easiest way that I have found to do this is to use the Chromatic Scale. Even though my students are introduced to playing the Chromatic Scale from day one, they don’t have to memorize it, just play it. But, when they’re ready to learn where the sharps and flats are, I begin to have them say it and play it. They begin by starting on the sixth string and move forward chromatically (in half-steps) up to the first string. Then they repeat the process in reverse by moving backward chromatically from the first string down to the sixth string. The next step is to have them memorize the tones on each string one fret at a time. In other words, moving across the strings. For example the student would start on the sixth string/first fret- play and say the note F, then move to the fifth string/first fret- play and say the note A#, then move to the fourth string/first fret- play and say the note D#, etc. I would have them continue this process on up to the fifth fret. After these tones are memorized in this fashion, I do random recognition drills by having them play all the E tones in first position, then all the F tones and so forth. I also like to introduce my students to reading standard notation in first
position (without tab) during this time in order to reinforce their familiarity with this area, but it is not a necessary part of learning the guitar fretboard. In fact, I prefer that my students know where the tones are on the neck before they begin to read music. Finally, we move on to learn where the tones are on the fifth, seventh, nineth and twelveth frets across the strings in the same manner because these frets relate to other important positions on the guitar. Then all the additional frets in between these are added so that all the tones on the neck are eventually memorized.

Scales are another handy tool for learning the guitar fretboard. My students first learn how to play and say every major scale in first position in all twelve keys. Once this is accomplished, they proceed to learn the various closed fingering patterns for the major scales. Then they practice moving these scales up and down the neck, playing and saying the tones as they go. This can then be expanded to incorporate the minor scales and modes too, of course.

So, if you want to establish a systematic method for learning the guitar fretboard, why not begin by trying some of the things I’ve mentioned here. Take each suggestion one step at a time and be sure to include it as part of your regular warm up or practice routine. When you have the first five frets of the guitar fretboard memorized, move on to another step. Create some of your own ideas, mix things up a little in order to challenge yourself, but be consistent and don’t rely on short-cuts. With a little effort, you are bound to gain new insights and skills on the guitar, which will make all your hard work very worthwhile in the end.

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Kathy Unruh is a singer/songwriter and webmaster of ABC Learn Guitar. She has been writing songs and providing guitar lessons to students of all ages for over 20 years. For free guitar lessons, plus tips and resources on songwriting, recording and creating a music career, please visit:

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