Conquering the Fretboard - Part 1

This lesson shows how the guitar tuning dictates shapes we get on the guitar, and shows how we arrive at the various octave shapes, which in turn break a 12-fret block of the guitar into 5 regions. Getting to know where these regions exist is a good way to reduce the amount of learning required to navigate the fretboard.

Ultimate Guitar
This lesson shows how the guitar tuning dictates shapes we get on the guitar, and shows how we arrive at the various octave shapes, which in turn break a 12-fret block of the guitar into 5 regions. Getting to know where these regions exist is a good way to reduce the amount of learning required to navigate the fretboard. Adjacent regions can be merged to yield the "three note per string" method of navigation, and horizontal playing along one of two strings can be viewed as traversing these regions. Today we look at the region framework. Next time we look at filling it it, and how merging and so on can be done.

Every shape on guitar is a consequence of how we tune the guitar. Here I'm discussing standard tuning (E A D G B E) and its impact on everything we play, but the same principles below can be used to work out shapes in any tuning.

As a prerequisite, you need to know what we mean by pitch, semitone and octave.

I'll gradually build up the picture for you over two lessons. Today, you'll learn about how we can visualise 5 contiguous regions within any 12 fret block. These become the foundations for creating all scales, chords, and arpeggios.

Let's get started.

The neck diagram below is drawn so the (invisible) guitar body is on the right. The bass string, labelled "6" is the bottom horizontal line. The treble string, labelled "1" is the top horizontal line. The double vertical line at the left represents the nut (this is fret zero). A circle represents a pitch on some string at some fret. Same colours represent the same pitch (or octave of). The pitch of an open string is shown between the double vertical line and the string number label. Here is how we tune the guitar for standard tuning. For example, the open 5th string (yellow pitch) is adjusted to match that made at the 5th fret on the 6th string (yellow)... So both these are coloured the same.

Next, a number in a circle shows the number of semitones to that circle from a circle that is labelled 0. (Count frets from the red circle)

Below is the exact same set of relationships starting somewhere different on the guitar. Why is this a relationship? Because we are stating that the various pitches are to be located at various semitones away from the starting pitch, no matter what that starting pitch is. If we use the same relationship (such as the diagram above, and the one below), we create the same sound flavour. Try playing these to hear.

Try the following for yourself. Let's fix our start pitch (red) at fret zero on the 1st string, and then locate the other pitches at 3, 5, 6, 7 and 10 semitones above it on that same string. Check yourself with the next diagram:

Congratulations if you got this right. You've just played the minor blues scale, here starting from E. As usual, you could start it anywhere ... in terms of naming it, we'd just use the name of the chosen red pitch. So, if we slid this shape up, unmodified, to the 3rd fret on that string, we've got G minor blues scale. If you started it at the 5th fret on the 3rd string, this pitch is C, and we have C minor blues scale.

The Impact of Standard Tuning

Now I'm going to guide you through how to build a shape called an octave (which is 12 semitones). I encourage you to get very familiar with the octave. Why? If we know one pitch is named E (such as the open 6th string), and we know our octave shapes, we can easily find all the other E's. That's good news, right? Less to remember.

Technically, all the pitches related by octave belong to the same "pitch class." So, we have a pitch class of E's, a pitch class of F's and so on.

Exactly the same as above, we can then choose anywhere for our starting pitch, and so long as we maintain the appropriate distances to the other pitches, we'll find all the other octaves. This starts shrinking down the fretboard.

In fact, what we'll see below is that we end up with a block of twelve adjacent frets divided up roughly into five regions, by where the octaves fall.

I'll show this now, and then explain it. The red circles below are either octaves of each other, or are identical. They represent the locations of all members of a pitch class (E here). Here, I asked the eMuso™ software to position the start note at the open 6th string (hence the solid circle). It then produced all the pitches in that same pitch class.

And here is the exact same relationship, this time starting from the 3rd fret on the 6th string. Compare with the above. See how the string and fret spacings are maintained. Everything has simply shifted to the right by three frets.

Look carefully at just the 6th string. Notice that there is a red-rimmed circle 12 frets higher than the solid red circle. So, there is one octave.

I've then broken down this 12 fret block into 5 regions (see the blue boundaries above), based on where else the start pitch or its octaves are found. These regions are normally numbered from 1 to 5 from left to right, where region 1 has its start pitch on the 6th string, and octaves on the 4th and 1st strings. Regardless of what scale or chord we want to use, by using region 1, its shape will always have the start note of the scale or chord located relative to each other as shown.

The region I've outlined in red is where a copy of region 5 is sneaking in, an octave below the blue-outlined region 5. Compare where the red circles fall on the far right of the diagram (region 5) and in the red-outlined region. They are identical. If I dragged the start pitch even further to the right, say to the 5th fret on the 6th string, then a copy of region 4 also sneaks into the picture … it lies to the left of region 5. And so on. We just have this repetition of the 5 regions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, …) but some will fall off the end of the neck at the body, and some will fall off the guitar at the neck.

How Does This Relate to the Guitar Tuning?

Look back at the very first figure. Using colours, we can see that the pitch created at the 4th fret of the 3rd string is identical to the open 2nd string pitch (they are tuned to sound the same).

Question: How many semitones above the solid red circle is the yellow circle on that same string? (Count frets).
Answer: 5 semitones.

Question: If you look at the yellow circle on the 5th string, how many semitones above the solid red circle is it?
Answer: Must be 5 semitones, since it's the same identical pitch, just located differently.

Can you see that the red and yellow circles on the adjacent strings form a visual pattern of a short vertical line?

Question: How many semitones above the yellow circle on the 5th string is the purple circle on that same string? (Count frets).
Answer: 5 semitones.

Question: How about to the purple circle on the 4th string?
Answer: 5 semitones. Starting to get the idea?

But something different is happening on the 3rd string. How many semitones above the yellow circle is the blue circle? This time, it's 4 semitones.

Ok … we've just found that vertical line between string pairs (6, 5), (5, 4), (4, 3) and (2, 1) all represent pitches that are 5 semitones apart, whereas the vertical line for string pair (3, 2) represents pitches that are 4 semitones apart.

Here's the good news again. No matter which fret we place our vertical line at the above holds true. To see why, look at the next diagram.

Remember the labels are showing the number of semitones above the solid red circle labelled zero.

We can continue this idea, by crossing vertically over more strings. What happens if we keep going all the way across to the 1st string? We get this:

Being pedantic, the "3" should be labelled 12+3, and the "7" labelled as 12+7, and the "0" on the 1st string should be labelled 12+12, but we don't do this. Just realise these are being measured from the nearest octave (the red pitch on the 4th string). Finally, observe that the red circle on the 1st string is 24 semitones (2 octaves) above that one the 6th string. All these red circles are members of the family of pitches named "E."

Let's do the same starting from the red pitch on the 4th string, and cross a couple of strings vertically to get 9 semitones, followed by a horizontal move of 3 semitones, to get 12 semitones again.

So, here's our region 2 emerging.

Another way we could form the octave is by crossing from the 6th string to the 5th string (i.e. 5 semitones) and then moving horizontally for 7 frets (5+7 = 12):

Putting this all together, we end up with the pattern for finding members of the same pitch class (those pitches with the same name, in the same and different octaves) that I started off with (The 5th diagram). I've shown the copy of region 1 appearing on the far right as well.

I hope this starts to make things a little less mysterious for you.

Next time, we'll start filling in the regions, using intervals of 3, 4 and 7 semitones. These occur very commonly in scales and chords. We'll also examine one scale fully, and I'll show you how we can merge adjacent regions to yield another navigation system known as "three notes per string." Navigating along one or a pair of strings can also be thought of as traversing through the regions. We'll look at that also.

Good luck.

Unfortunately, I had to leave out a fair chunk of this lesson to be able to submit it. But feel free to PM me, and I'll send you a pdf. To get round the limitations of UG, I'll probably put together a video instead.

Cheers, Jerry

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I don't really understand how you managed to make a relatively simple thing this complex. This lesson with those images just made me confused.
    Of course it's simple ... but there are lots of people who have no clue how chord and scale shapes arise. This lesson is showing why things are as they are. The exact same principles arise no matter what tuning is used. There are also many players who just play from shapes without knowing what they're playing theory-wise. And they're fine with that. And it can sound great. But I'm surprised the images were confusing. What would be less confusing to you? Tab? What system do you use to navigate the guitar? 3nps? CAGED? 5 region? cheers Jerry
    Hi- thanks for doing this, but I am struggling a bit. First, in the guitar tuning section, second diagram- I can see how the math works between low E and the E on the d string, but between that and the high E , I lose you. I don't see how you get 3 or 7 or how you count back from the high E. Second, in the last diagram- all the way on the right , the last column again I am confused. Third- I do think a video would be helpful, as would repeating that first diagram at the bottom.
    Hi Ruthie. Sorry for late reply. Your confusion is arising from the labelling. In the section "How does this relate to the guitar tuning", check out the paragraph imeediately after the 2nd diagram. Essentially, each time we move into another octave, for labelling purposes , the count resets to 0 at that octave. But in terms of actual semitones, it still accumulates from wherever we originally started from. The reason the labelling resets is that, in everyday playing, we're really mainly concerned about the distance from a root to an interval in that same octave ... so if the interval occurs between the original root (e.g. E2), and a pitch (e.g. G3) in the next octave above that root, we're interested in the interval made in that next octave between that root (E3 ) and the pitch (G3). Suppose we play E triad ... a major triad has one or more representatives of the root (the E), the maj 3rd (G#), and the perfect 5th (B). (A maj 3rd is theory's name for 4 semitones. A perfect 5th is theory's name for 7 semitones) When there is more than one representative of an interval in a chord voicing, these occur in different octaves; but they still have essentially the same sound quality regardless of which octave they fall in. From that view point, the open E chord voicing (0 2 2 1 0 0) has the following intervals (r, p5, r, maj3, p5, r). If this was written out to indicate everything from the lowest E, we'd have (R, p5, R+octave, R+octave+maj3, R+octave+p5, R+octave+octave). This is accurate, but noone denotes voicings like this (and in music notation, the actual octaves involved are indicated by the notes). So, coming back round to your original confusion, if we count semitones across the same fret, starting from the bass string as our measuring point (our root), strictly we have (0, 5, 10. 15, 19, 24). One way to think about resetting the count is as follows: if the count is 12 or more, keep subtracting 12 until you get a number in the range 0 - 11. So ... (0, 5, 10 ... all good 15 - 12 = 3 19 - 12 = 7 24-12=12. 12-12 = 0 Hence (0, 5, 10, 3, 7, 0). As for counting from high to low string. Strictly speaking, you'd keep subtracting 5 or 4, depending where you are. So, from 1st string to 2nd string, on same fret, you end up 5 semitones lower (upper pitch - 5 semitones). Again, noone does this ... theory would say the lower pitch is at an interval of (e.g.) a perfect 4th below the upper pitch. Instead, we just take a pragmatic approach, and count up from the nearest root below. This is where the octave patterns are so useful, to help locate that nearest root. And once you start to associate the mechanical shapes of say 4 semitones or 7 semitones from a given point, then if that point is the root, you know where maj3rd or 5th can be found nearest that root. If you know a chord has these in it, then you then can experiment with voicings (which octaves you're going to place these in), and know safe landing points if soloing on top. Ultimately, you'd forget all about the counting (it's only useful initially tyo understand hpw to locate a pitch at any semitone distance from a root), and just know the interval shapes (there are only a handful of these). Then, as you learn new scales and chords, so long as you know their interval makeup, that's all you need remember ... and even then, typically you'd remember an entire chord shape in one go, rather than each individual interval in it. With scales, depending which string you start on, the overall shape changes ... and here knowing the individual interval shapes helps avoiding getting lost ... and more importantly you know which ones are suitable landing pitches, and which ones need more care. cheers, Jerry
    Great lesson. Some good patterns here for finding octaves. I made an app called Fret Master that helps you learn and remember the notes on the fretboard. Check it out at
    To follow up from last post, one more example may help (UG limits the size of a lesson, so I had to leave bits out!). Suppose you do want to count backwards from the treble E string. We'll use fret 0 (the nut .. the open string "fret"). Here, we get r (treble E) r -5 r - 9 r - 14 r - 19 r - 24 (bass E) Look at r - 14 ... if we want to change this to r -12 (i.e. the octave below the top E), we need to add 2 semitones. How do we do that on that string (on the D string)? Move up horizontally by 2 frets, ending up at the 2nd fret on the D string. Again, it helps to understand these principles (suppose you start with some crazy guitar tuning .. you can then work out your shapes) but once understood, park the concept in the back of your mind. Concentrate on knowing the interval shapes. A "b3" occurs in many different scale types and many diffent chord types ... its the same "b3" regardless. Then learning boils down to remembering the scale formula (e.g. 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7) or chord formula (e.g. 1, b3, 5, b7) ... and applying these intervals from your chosen root. Learning these by note names is incredibly hard work ... the names change each time you change root. But, just learning patterns without understanding the sounds in there (the intervals) is not a good idea. The name of the game is to minimise the learning to get to the musical application ASAP.
    Complex, I'm sure alot of this flew over others heads also, but thanks I did learn something..
    I'm glad! This is a whole lot easier to explainj with a guitar in hand, or by video. I am working on videos now to go with the software.