If you’ve done any amount of traveling in your life, chances are you’ve felt the difference between spending time in a completely unfamiliar city vs. a city where you know one of the locals. Obviously, having a relationship with a resident of a particular place makes navigating said place way easier than if you were going at it alone. Residents of a city know where the local attractions are, how to get from A to B quickly, and where to find things like cheap gas in different parts of their town, and they leverage their knowledge to make your trip easier.
Often times, guitarists tend to look at the fretboard like the map of an unfamiliar town. They might have some idea of how things are oriented, but without the comfort that comes from years of experience, certain areas of the fretboard can seem less like a familiar neighborhood, and more like a foreign municipality where you don’t speak the native language. Thus, I hope that the following tips will help alleviate some of the uncertainty of navigating the fretboard, allowing you to find notes and shapes all over the neck with the same ease as a local finding the cheapest gas around.
Beware The B String
In standard tuning, a 6 string guitar is mostly tuned in what we call “fourths,” meaning that the distance in frequency from the E string to the A string is the same as starting a major scale on E and going up four steps (“Do, Re, Mi, Fa”). However, when we get to the B string, the pattern changes, and the distance between G and B is actually a “major third” (“Do, Re, Mi”), and goes back to a fourth for the high E string. This will mean that any scheme of locating notes will get thrown off a little at the B string, but with practice, you should get the hang of it. Remembering that an A5 or A Power Chord looks one way on the D and G strings (orange dots) and another way on the G and B strings (green dots), for example, will help you get over the change in interval spacing.
North One, West Five
You know how there seems to be the same coffee shop chain at every intersection in some cities? Walk a couple blocks in any direction, and you’ll find it. The same is true for notes on the fretboard. If you’ve got an E note at the 12th fret of the low E string (blue dots), you can go up to the A string and back 5 frets to the 7th fret to find the exact same E not, and repeating the process lets you locate the same note again on the second fret of the D string! We can apply this process to any note across all applicable strings (keeping the change at the B string in mind, of course), which is important for two reasons:
It means that we can find the same chords, lines, and shapes at several locations on the fretboard, which is the main advantage that stringed instruments have over keyboard and wind instruments whose notes are only in one location. This lets us decide how to fret things things from an ergonomic perspective. Don’t want to slide up a bunch of frets to grab that 14th fret F#? Grab it on the 9th fret of the A string instead.
- It means that we can voice the same note with different timbres. Ever notice how the change in mass between the strings makes the notes sound a little different? Lower, thicker strings have a rounder, meatier tone, while the higher strings sound a little thinner, but have more presence. The repetition of the same note across the fretboard allows you the agency of deciding between various timbres at the exact same frequency, giving you far more textural control, and thus, more expressive capabilities.
North Two, East Two
When we attempt to decide which range of notes our part should occupy, it can be helpful to know how to place it in different octave ranges, allowing us to pinpoint the right sonic real estate to fill. In the case of any note (like E on the 7th fret of the A string) its important to know that the major scale will land on that note again in a higher register two strings up, and two frets towards the body of the instrument (like the E on the 9th fret of the G string). Knowing where the octaves are across the fretboard (keeping the change at the B string in mind, of course) allows us to place the same chords, lines, and shapes in different octave ranges with ease.
I hope that these tips have been helpful for those players looking to feel more at home on the fretboard. Let me know if you have any tips to add in the comments, and keep making your music say what you mean!