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Memorizing the Fretboard: A Checklist for Bass Players

Bass fretboard

Q: I’m just starting out and was wondering if you had any tips for memorizing the fingerboard?

A: This is one of those columns where I need to preface my answer by saying “your mileage may vary.”

Personally, I was lucky. I started working on reading notation from day one. I still think that reading music is the best way to learn your fretboard. It forces you to find the notes and also to find them in relation to where you are, which means that you’ll learn more than one place to play an “F”, for example.

It’s unrealistic to expect that every bassist of every level and level of aspiration should learn to read notation (although I encourage it!) so here are some other things to explore:

1. Learn one note at a time.

Pick a note and try to find where that note is on each string. You will have that note at least once on each string and sometimes twice.

2. Memorize various intervals.

Work on them one-by-one. You can use the major scale as your guide.

In other words, a 5th would be the 5th note of the major scale. A 3rd would be the 3rd note of the major scale. You can start by playing the root and then the appropriate interval. I always worked best with shapes and then slowly internalized the relationships in a number of different ways. Work in the way that works best for you.

Start with the box shape of an octave and now you only really have to find the note on your lower two strings. Then you should be able to “see” where it lands on the upper strings as well.

I would suggest learning intervals in this order (totally subjective):

  1. Octave
  2. Perfect 5th – (think power chord)
  3. Perfect 4th – same fret but one string higher
  4. Major 2nd – whole step up
  5. Major 3rd
  6. Major 7th – one fret below your root and octave
  7. Major 6th

I’m not sure why it works this way but when thinking about the notes above the root and how they relate to the same note below the root, they will add up to 9. Aside from the two “perfect” intervals, the major/minor relationship will flip as well. If this seems confusing, don’t worry about it for now, but this is what I mean:

  • A perfect 5th up is the same note a perfect 4th down.
  • A major 7th up is the same note as a minor 2nd down
  • A major 3rd up is the same as a minor 6th down.

Etc…

That’s just something you can keep for reference. A tidbit.

3. Call out the notes as you play them when you play any exercises.

This includes scales or simply when you are running intervallic relationships (practicing playing octaves, 5ths, etc…)

4. Run through the notes of the scale mentally sporadically throughout the day.

Try and visualize the fretboard and name the notes of scales or intervals.

Each note may take a bit to really internalize, but with each note learned, the next one comes more quickly. Just be patient and keep working through them. Always pay attention to what notes you are playing when playing anything. Try to always play with intention and never play anything without knowing what you are playing (be it notes, scale runs, licks, etc… just try to be aware of what you are doing it and why).

And, as I mentioned, both reading and writing notation is likely the quickest way to internalize all of this information. It can be tedious and requires that you be diligent and work at it a little bit every day, but ultimately it leads to better retention and awareness as well as just making it easier to learn from books, teach or learn licks, songs and ideas, retain materials from the shed, catalogue tunes you’ve learned or transcribed, and so on.

Now we need to hear from everybody else. I’m sure everybody has a slightly different path they’ve taken to fretboard awareness. Let’s hear it from you, readers! How did you learn your fretboard? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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Share your thoughts

John C. Boukis

I am a guitar player and some of my thoughts below reflect such perspective.

I think that this short article is extremely comprehensive and very powerful. Every single point should be worked tenaciously.

I like your interval list and agree that learning many of these intervals first will help one tremendously in understanding the fingerboard or fretboard. Most people already know the octave, (even if they do not know that it is called an “interval”) the perfect fourth represents the tuning of many strings on these instruments, and rockers like me are always playing power chords which are formally called the perfect fifth.

I understand that there is a great deal of comping in major in jazz. As a classic rocker, a change I might make for my kind is to insert the minor seventh into this short list. For everyone, I would next work with the minor third. I stress to the reader, as soon you know both the major and minor thirds, you will take a significant leap in understanding both major and minor chords all over the neck.

Regarding the point, “Try to always play with intention,” try to sing what you intend to play. Doing so is the ultimate expression of knowing exactly what one is playing at all times. I am a guitar player, and I can only suppose that a bassist would sing an octave higher than their instrument; unless their voice is similar to that of D. J. Sumner.

Reading guitar music where there may be 6 notes played simultaneously is quite a challenge. For every bassist reading this, you should know that you may read a huge catalog of music that consists of playing one note at a time. So take to heart the above advice on learning to read standard music notation. Learning to read music sounds like a scary task for so many. But once you have learned the notes on the instrument, you are half way there! Performing single-note reading studies will probably come to you much faster than you ever anticipated.