Knowing The Neck

As a young guitarist I had a few fancy licks, but I always envied the freedom of movement I saw when I'd watch more experienced guitarists play. I'd see guys moving in and out of modes, up and down the neck with their eyes closed and think "how the flippidy bucking hell do you do that?"

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As a young guitarist I had a few fancy licks, but I always envied the freedom of movement I saw when I'd watch more experienced guitarists play. I'd see guys moving in and out of modes, up and down the neck with their eyes closed and think "how the flippidy bucking hell do you do that?! I never suspected that it's as easy as it is. One major step that helped me get there was to write the modes on a drawing of the guitar neck. Pick a scale and write every note of that scale on every string all the way up the neck without even playing it. You also have to be familiar with the notes, such as where to find a D on the fourth string. As an example, here is the key of C written on the fourth (G) string, the D is highlighted:
G|--|-A-|--|-B-|-C-|--|-D-|--|-E-|-F-|--|-G-|--...
If you can do one string, do them all! Take a piece of paper and draw thirteen vertical lines on it, now intersect these lines with six horizontal lines (the strings. ) Make sure that the horizontal lines extend a little to the left to account for the open strings. Now think about a scale string for string, and every note you play put an X on the appropriate fret of the diagram (a fret is the horizontal line between the vertical lines. ) The same string (G) above would look like this for the key of C:
X|-|X|-|X|X|-|X|-|X|X|-|X|-
Of course, this pattern repeats at the twelfth fret, so all that you learn about everything below that can be applied above the twelfth. A pattern should be emerging, though, if you've done it right. Lines are unplayed frets, X's are played frets. Ionian mode, Key of C:
--X-XX 
--X-XX 
-XX-X- 
-XX-X-
X-X-X- 
X-X-X-
You need not go further than this to realize the pattern. If you're in the key of C, this fretting patter will repeat at every C on the neck:
-XX 
X-X-X 
X-X-X
There is your ionian mode, which is the scale built off of the root note of your key (C). This pattern, as I mensioned, repeats itself everywhere on the neck, and the subsequent patters for Dorian, Phrygian, etc. are easy enough to deduce - they use the same notes as the Ionian scale. For dorian, start your C major scale at D, for Phrygian, start it at E, and so on. The neck is full of frets, and learning to navigate the neck can seem overwhelming, but in every key you ever play on the guitar, even the wild and fancy jazz keys, you are only playing selected notes from the chromatic scale, which includes all twelve tones from Western music theory. The chromatic scale is easiest of all, it follows:
XX 
XXXXX 
XXXXX
For any key, scale, mode - anything - you are only playing selected notes from those twelve that comprise the chromatic scale. Furthermore, for any major or minor key, you will find only three different fretting patterns on any string:
-XX-X 

-X-XX, and 

X-X-X
There are no tricks to learning the neck, you just have to know where the notes are. That's easier than it sounds. If you want to play an F, for example, and you know where it's at on the low E string:
|X| - first fret
then you also know there is one on the thirteenth fret. Likewise, you can find one at the third fret of the D string. If your octave includes or skips the B string, though, then you need to add an extra fret in between the two fingers. On the bottom four strings, octaves are two frets and two strings apart (the higher fret appears on the higher string. ) Picture a power chord. If you play a power chord, like the kind you find in Metallica, Blink 182 and Nirvana, the lowest and highest notes are the same - they are an octave apart.
---5 
---- 
(low E)-3-- ..this is a basic octave.
Play the notes one at a time or in succession. If your guitar is tuned properly, the two notes should sound the same, and they should both be G notes. Jazz players often move these octaves around the neck, which is an easy way to get a really great sound. Try plucking both strings with your fingers while moving the octaves around. If you know even a piece of the ionian scale, like the example I gave earlier, then you alread know how to take it around the neck. Ascend the scale below the twelfth fret, then descend back down the scale an octave higher. The excercise looks like this (key of G):
--------------4-5-16--------------------------
--------3-5-7-------19-17-15------------------
(low E)-3-5-7----------------------19-17-15---
or alternately:
------------------------------------ 
-----------------7-5---------------- 
---------------------7-5-4---------- 
-------------4-5-----------7-5------ 
-------3-5-7------------------------ 
-3-5-7------------------------------
You will probably find the second example much easier, but work on both, trying to make the flow of notes unbroken. The top example is tricky, but give it a shot. Octaves are just one example, though. People spend their entire lives learning new things about the guitar neck, and so I would be lying if I told you that this completes your knowledge of the neck - indeed if any of this is new to you then you're just getting started. Don't let the neck intimidate you, though, getting a basic grasp on how it's setup is a lot simpler than it looks. Good luck... and don't forget to practice!

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Onetime
    I understand, but I can understand why people get confused about you explain the three common chord positions (X-X-X, X-XX, XX-X). Maybe you can explain them with a chord relation, ex. X-X-X is an A or B, X-XX is a G,
    dh7478
    I once read an old article (Guitar Magazine around 1996) regarding how to "learn the neck" based on patterns. I do not remember all of the information in the article. But, I thought it would be a good way to learn the neck. If this makes sense to you (advaced players), please respond (post)regarding how this works (since I do not remember - and I still want to learn). These 4 or 5 patterns repeat up and down the neck and are played in a certain order - as well as the patterns repeating across the strings. The patterns represented a few basic shapes similar to the following (the shapes represent the notes you would use from any 2 strings - note how you could move each of notes (pattens) up against eachother and they would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle): 5th string X-X X-X X--X X--X 6th string X-X X--X X-X X--X
    RoxxyGurl77
    Same... it just went over my head. But it sounds like you know what you're talking about! I'll just ask my friends to show me.... o.O
    ajhmou812
    hey dude i've been playing about 4 hours a day every day for 2 years... as i'm reading your article, you include explaining what frets are, then you start talking about dorian and phrygian and ionian... what the hell is all that crap?
    Fatal1
    Pentatonic, Diotonic, Melodic and Harmonic are also scales! The object is , there are many types of scales. You all need to search them on the internet and learn them ( If ya wanna really know how to play a guitar ). I understand exactly what Colin M. Shawhan is explaining about the Note progression of the neck. Pentatonic scales are what you all should learn for starters, as well as learn the notes on the neck. Pentatonics are fairly easy to learn "Penta" meaning 5, there are Five scales to the pentatonic scale. Can't forget the Natural Minor scales either --Fatal1 Good Luck!