Fretboard Mastery

This article focuses on the topic of visualization skills and how this affects your ability to jam, compose, and improvise. Have you ever found yourself having to sit and think about what to play for minutes or hours on end? If so, this article is for you!

Fretboard Mastery
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This article focuses on the topic of visualization skills and how this affects your ability to jam, compose, and improvise. Have you ever found yourself having to sit and think about what to play for minutes or hours on end? If so, this article is for you!

Visualization is the ability to see where all the notes, scales, and chords, lay on the fretboard. Most guitarists' visualization skills are underdeveloped. At best they can tell you what notes are on what frets in E standard and play all the pentatonic scales as well as the diatonic scales. 

Most players are unaware they need to know more than this! When your visualization is poor your guitar playing is affected in these areas:
  • You play strictly from your fingers rather than using your brain as well. This makes your playing dull and boring - almost mechanical.
  • Your playing lacks creativity because you rely on the same boring chord shapes, inversions and lead patterns.
  • When jamming you lack the ability to create new ideas within the same context of your former idea. Your jams become a process of repeating the same idea over and over again.
  • You have to stop for several minutes to figure out a new chord progression to play.
In order to be a GREAT guitar player you must develop mastery over the fretboard. The following shows this level of mastery:
  • Knowing where all the notes on the fretboard lay in any guitar tunings you use. 
  • Know the following: pentatonic scales, diatonic scales, harmonic minor scales, melodic minor scales, and all their modes. This is only listing the primary ones.
  • Knowing how all the scales work together and overlap so you can easily switch between them for whatever sonic effect you desire.
  • Knowing where each number position for every note in the scale lies. (Ex: Where does the third note of every scale lay in the pentatonic scale? Diatonic scale?)
  • Memorize where all the chords and their inversions lay within the scales. (Ex: where is the 5th chord 3rd inversion within the pentatonic scales?)
  • Memorize the note's roman numeral numbers for each chord. (Ex: What note numbers are used in the 1st chord? [1, 3, and 5])
  • Using the visualization technique you will be able to apply this with the chords, scales and notes. You may learn them early, but it's worthless if you cannot use them in conjunction with everything else you know.
This skill when developed will separate you from the mass of guitar players out there. You will have more control over your music and it will allow you to be creative which makes things fun.

Tips for developing visualization skills:
  • Just because these are listed in an order, doesn't mean you need to do them that way. It's actually in your best interest to do them all at the same time, or several at the same time.
  • Visualization is memorization. It will take a long time to get these mastered if you learn them in a linear fashion.
  • You don't have to be in front of the guitar to practice visualization. Pull up a picture of the fretboard and print it out. If you have spare time simply pull out the paper fretboard.
When practicing each of these categories, make sure you hit them from different angles. This means taking a different approach to memorizing each category.

For notes this means the following:
  • Spend time finding where the third note lies in the first pentatonic shape, second pentatonic, and third pentatonic. 
  • The next day spend time figuring out where the third note lies on the G string within the pentatonic scales you're using.
For chords:
  • Where's the second inversion of the fourth chord in the first pentatonic shape. 
  • Where's the fourth chord second inversion on the D string, using the pentatonic scale as a reference.
Practice applying and integrating all this material by writing chord progressions and riffs that mix these different categories. You can make progressions using different inversions and using the notes of the scale. You need to purposely target the notes do not just move your fingers.

You can spend 10 minutes a day, six days a week and go through each of these categories or you could also spend 20 minutes a day and go through all six categories in three days, if you'd like. The fastest way to learn them would be to go through all of them every day. It will take an hour of your time but if you have the time I would highly suggest it.

By Chris Glyde

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    TheGroundZero
    So basically: 1. Learn everything 2. Practice it 3. You're now a great guitarist! Gosh, if only I'd had this information 27 years ago.
    cgglyde
    eh some like it and some won't. This was more of an article to help those who haven't thought about the fretboard in this way.
    HomerSGR
    Listing a couple of 'requirements' for being a "GREAT" guitarplayer makes for a poor article. It starts out with making assumptions in general of guitarplayers like "At best they can tell you what notes are on what frets in E standard" and then it proceeds with suggesting knowing a boatload of different scales and all their modes and being able to switch between them at command. That step is HUGE. Most players would be better of masteringen ONE scale they like the sound of before moving on to others.
    Ardolino_Cool
    he is right though, in order to be a GREAT guitarist you need these things, and if you don't have greatness in your sights/dreams...then you will just end up being in a punk/grunge band.
    mp8andrade
    Pretty sure there are guitar players who don't know scales and are great players.
    t1n0t1n0
    That was anti-climactic... And I started expecting an Advert for online courses...
    cgglyde
    eh some like it and some won't. This was more of an article to help those who haven't thought about the fretboard in this way.
    cgglyde
    I am currently working on a course/ book to help people with this skill, this article was suppose to go with it, but I decided to release this separately. It's a simple matter really. I put out what I make and people are free to do with it what they will. Bash critique, it doesn't matter to be honest.
    Arthur_Frain
    The only folks downgrading this column are the ones who don't want to have to put in the work (yes work) it takes to become a great guitarist. Yes there are guys out there who don't know these things who can play a decent lead line, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that the guys who know all this stuff can play the pants off those other guys. Any day of the week.