Fretboard Knowledge

Q: I have wanted to really get to know the fretboard inside out for a long time but have always struggled with visualizing a scale or the notes of a chord over the full range of my instrument. So I often find I’m playing in the same familiar patterns and am not really able to move freely over the fretboard. How would you suggest learning to do this and are there any exercises that you use to really internalize this information so that you can use it unconsciously as you play.

A: There are many things that go into really knowing your fretboard inside and out. Many of us also learn differently and retain knowledge in different ways, so I would encourage you to not only experiment with the ideas presented here, but also take them and come up with your own exercises and challenges in order to really discover which method of learning works best for you.

I’m a very visual person. I tend to think of shapes and patterns more easily than I do remembering which note values are inherent to any scale. That said, I’ve also been playing long enough that I can quickly rattle off what notes are in any scale (but for some of them, I’ll be visualizing my fretboard in my minds eye as I do it). As I’ve experimented with the different shapes contained within each scale my fingerboard has really begun to “light up” for me when playing over changes. When I’m in the zone, my fretboard lights up with all of the appropriate notes to a given chord or set of changes and it’s more a matter of connecting the dots, in a sense. I can think more about phrasing and melody using both the “right notes” for consonance, and the in between notes for flavor.

There is much more that goes into it than that, but that is one example of where experimenting with the shapes (scale, chord, arpeggio, etc.) has opened up the fretboard for me.

It is very important to know what you are doing. You can’t just play shapes and make it sound great!

With that in mind, here are some exercises to help you get out of your box and really explore the fretboard.

First, take any set of changes from the real book and work through the changes playing an arpeggio for each chord (a full 1, 3, 5, 7).

(The numbers will refer to the notes in reference to the major scale. 1=root, 3=3rd scale degree, and so on.)

Here’s what each symbol means:

  • Maj7 (or ?7) = 1 3 5 7
  • Dom (or no symbol, just the 7. like a D7) = 1 3 5 b7
  • min (or -7) = 1 b3 5 b7
  • ø (or -7b5) = 1 b3 b5 b7
  • sus4 = play the 4th degree instead of the 3rd
  • 6 = play the 6th degree instead of the 7th

Any numbers above 7 are tensions (also called extensions). They are numbered above 7 because they are in the higher register of the chord when played by pianist or guitarist. Chords are built in 3rds. If we keep that going over two octaves, we play every note of the scale

1 3 5 7 9 11 13

8 being the octave, 9 is really the 2nd degree of the scale.

1 3 5 7 9 11 13 = 1 3 5 7 2 4 6

A simple way to think about it is to simply subtract 7 from any number you see above a 7, and you’ll get the scale degree the chord is referencing.

9 = 2
11 = 4
13 = 6

So, arpeggiate through all of chords: 1 3 5 7. Get comfortable enough at it that you can do it in time at a moderate pace with a metronome (feel free to give each chord 4 beats. We’re using the song as a tool right now, it doesn’t have to be true to the form). For now, don’t worry about tensions. Just focus on the basic chord tones.

Now, do it in all inversions. That means:

Root position = 1 3 5 7

1st inversion = 3 5 7 1

2nd inversion = 5 7 1 3

3rd inversion = 7 1 3 5

This is much tougher than it sounds because it gets you thinking about the chords from a place other than the root (the start of seeing more frets light up when you look at a chord).

An important part of practicing this type of thing is also to do it in more than one spot on the neck. If you only ever practice in the first 5 or 7 frets of the bass, you’ll never really learn the rest of the fretboard. Do these in the middle of the neck as well.

Second, do the same exercise, but playing chord shapes for each chord.

Find chord shapes that work for you over every chord type.

I play a 6 string bass quite often, so I’ve worked out a number of different shapes for every chord type and for different spans of string n the instrument (shapes that span 3 strings, 4 strings, 5 strings, 6 strings). That doesn’t mean that you have to play 5 note chords, it just means that you can play a shape containing notes that work over that chord. I find 3 note chords to be both harmonically effective and not too thick sounding on a bass. Find a teacher or get a good book to get you going if you’re not sure how to do this.

Building Chords

Since I like 3 note chords a lot and the 5th degree of the chord is most often constant (power chord) with a few exceptions, I tend to build my basic chords using the root, 3rd and 7th. This is a good place to start. Eventually, I’ll write about exercises to get you away from thinking like a bass player and get rid of the root all together and come up with hipper chord shapes, like a guitarist.

But, for now, build your chords using the root, 3rd and 7th.

Practice playing chords over the changes in root position. Again, once you can do it well, move on to 1st inversion and 3rd inversion (or 2nd).

Working chords like this over changes is great for a number of reasons but primarily, for the purposes here, gets you thinking about more than one note at a time (the shape of the chord) and when you can look at a G-7b5 chord and see all of your possible chord shapes in your minds eye, you have really taken a leap forward with visualizing the notes on your neck.

One more exercise:

I’m also a fan of reductive practice. In other words, once I decide to work on X, I try and reduce the amount of variables so that I can really focus on X.

For example, if I’m working on time and locking with a click, I might reduce what I’m doing to just rhythm and one note.

Here, we want to focus on getting you to play something outside of the box of what you always play so limit the notes you allow yourself to play.

There are a number of ways to do this. Here are my two favorites:

  1. Pick a span of four frets over two or three strings (say frets 5-8 on the A, D and G string). Now only allow yourself to play notes contained there. Play over a tune. This really forces you to think about what notes are available to you, what notes you are playing and also removes your ability to rely on shapes. It gets you thinking about doing more with less. I find myself phrasing better and playing less (a good thing)
  2. Pick a small set of intervals (Say 2, 3, 4, 5 or 2, 3, 5, 7 or 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on.)

Play over a tune out of the real book and only allow yourself to play those scale degrees for each chord.

This, again, is much harder than it sounds but it really is a good workout and challenges your knowledge of the fretboard, harmony and trains your brain to think in real time.

There are countless other exercises, philosophies, concepts that you can employ. Drill some of this stuff and then take the ideas behind each and invent some of your own.

Remember to have fun, and don’t forget that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not really practicing. Don’t get frustrated as it’s the moments when we are working through the problem that we are really learning.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Awesome thanks guys.

    You guys should have a print option on these pages

  2. Larry Perlstein

    Wow, talk about “be careful what you ask for”! A great, comprehensive answer and one that makes my feel wholly inadequate! :-)

  3. Clifton

    WOW!! This is well put together! I really like this:
    “Also take them and come up with your own exercises and challenges in order to really discover which method of learning works best for you.”
    I’m going to work on this during the weekend!
    Thanks a Bunch!!

  4. This is *awesome*! I’ll be working through this for rest of my life….Thanks!

  5. copying and pasting this – awesome lesson.

  6. Great info! It gives me something new to focus on in practice. Thanks.

  7. Just come back to this lesson and read through it again. Realised I have 113 articles from notreble open at once. Finding it really interesting to jump in on a random one and repeat the thoughts behind the lessons. Good fun and great lessons. Cheers Damian