The guitar is a very visual instrument. Fortunately, getting a good look at someone’s hands while they’re playing might be enough to let us know what they’re playing. The same cannot be said for many other instruments as easily.
There’s also tablature, which is a great system that uses numbers to point out which frets we should play, without having to learn how to read standard notation.
This is all great, but is it really the best method to learn and master the instrument?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply be able to call every note by their name on the spot? Wouldn’t you expect that from a proficient musician?
This guide will show you why it is a great idea to start practicing this right now!
- Introduction to Fretboard Memory: why do I need it?
- The Fretboard: Diagram and Basic Knowledge
- Useful tips that will help memorize the fretboard faster
- Exercises to help you memorize the fretboard
- Practice routine to master the fretboard
Introduction to Fretboard Memory: why do I need it?
Being familiar with the notes all over the fretboard of your instrument is something that every musician should strive for, regardless of their level.
Sure, not everyone wants to shred, tap like a true virtuoso or create lush ambient soundscapes with effect pedals. However, this is what you could call a foundation skill.
Being familiar with the notes on the neck is something you should definitely want to achieve, and in doing so, you’ll open up several new paths, since you’ll be thinking about everything from a new and improved perspective.
Here are a few examples of what this will improve:
- Your ability to learn new chords and make changes to the ones you know;
- Your communication skills with other musicians;
- Your possibilities of playing the same chords in interesting and appealing ways that complement the song;
- Your improvisation skills throughout the fretboard;
- It will complement your knowledge of other concepts, such as intervals and the relation between scales and chord shapes.
Don’t be demotivated if you think that memorizing so many notes is a herculean task – it really isn’t! And once you have solidified this knowledge, you’re set for good, you won’t forget it easily.
At first, looking at a guitar’s fretboard is almost like looking at a computer keyboard without the keys printed on it. But just as you might be able to type everything without looking at it, you can achieve the same proficiency with the guitar.
Like everything else, consistency is the key.
You don’t need to memorize all of it two days. That is not realistic.
You should divide it into smaller chunks that you can assimilate gradually, leaving you with time to develop other skills simultaneously.
Have a better understanding of how your own instrument works
By knowing which note corresponds to each fret, you can stop looking at the guitar from a perspective based almost exclusively on shapes, patterns and numbers.
Things start making more sense, and this awareness only gets better with time.
Knowing the notes and the relation between each other makes it easier to understand why some things sound particularly interesting in certain contexts.
This will help you transpose ideas to different keys or to another region of the fretboard easily.
This one is especially important if you hope to find yourself playing with other musicians.
Knowing the notes on the fretboard is a MUST if you expect to be able to communicate with people that play different instruments.
Don’t expect a pianist without a background in guitar to understand something like “next note is the one on the 5th fret of the 6th string”. However, tell him to play an A and he’ll do it.
The number system almost only works among guitar players.
Improve at building/making changes to chords and scales
When you rely exclusively on shapes, diagrams and patterns, you are limited by the fact that you only know which notes “fit in”, but you don’t know their names or functions in a given context.
This makes it impossible to expand upon what you already know. Memorizing the notes is the first and most important step in order to change this.
Take the A minor scale as an example. Its notes are A B C D E F G.
If someone tells you that you can play the A Dorian scale by simply changing F into an F#, how can you accomplish that without knowing where F is?
If you only rely on diagrams, you now need new ones for the A Dorian scale on every region of the fretboard. Doesn’t seem to be the most efficient way, right?
The same principle applies to chords.
This frees you from depending on chord diagrams and other means to learn them.
Expand your options while comping
Knowing the notes and being able to view them clearly on the fretboard saves you from falling in the pitfall of playing the same chord voicings over and over, which can get boring fast.
You will be able to find voicings that are more appropriate in the musical context you’re in.
The Fretboard: Diagram and Basic Knowledge
The fretboard diagram is going to be your little “cheat sheet” for this journey. By the end, you should not need it at all. Once you understand how it works, you can pretty much visualize it in your mind.
You can use it as you are studying to confirm whether you’re identifying the notes properly, but in some cases, you can also let your ears do that job for you.
For example, if you are trying to find the same note on every string, playing one of them a semi-tone above or below the target should trigger a small alarm in your ears – something doesn’t sound quite right!
If it is your first time seeing this kind of diagram, or if you haven’t paid much attention to it yet, it is understandable that it seems inexplicably difficult to memorize it.
However, we are going to teach you several tips to accelerate this process exponentially. You should definitely have your guitar nearby to try some of them out.
Having the diagram next to you and looking at it while you study is perfectly ok, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it, although you can think of it as training wheels on a bicycle – you don’t want to have those forever!
Just remember that the crucial part is that your hands are doing the work on the guitar, only that way you will start seeing results.
Now, as for the content of the diagram itself, here are a few basic concepts that you must know beforehand, otherwise you will have a much harder time learning this:
- Know the 7 musical notes and their order (C D E F G A B; or Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti);
- Understand sharps (#), flats (♭) and enharmonics (notes that have the same pitch but different names, such as C# and D♭)
- Be aware that each note is separated by one whole tone (two semi-tones) except for E and F, as well as B and C (only one semi-tone apart);
- Know the notes of every open string on the guitar (eBGDAE);
- Understand that moving up a fret on the neck equals moving up a semi-tone
These are the fundamentals, although knowing your intervals wouldn’t be bad either, as that awareness will help you memorize some notes faster by associating them with others that you have already mastered.
Useful tips that will help memorize the fretboard faster
Frets that are marked with dots
To start, you should begin by taking advantage of the fact that most guitar fretboards feature inlays that are supposed to help you quickly locate where you are playing at any given time. They come in several shapes and materials, but the purpose is the same.
Many guitars have them on the fretboard itself and also on the side of the neck, which is easily seen from the players’ perspective.
Most guitars have inlays on the following frets:
A convenient way to use these to your advantage would be to start making easy associations. For example, for the 6th string:
- First inlay is G
- Second inlay is A
- Third inlay is B
- C is just one fret after the third inlay
Just by knowing these three, you are already on a good starting point to begin memorizing these notes. This knowledge paired with a few other tips already allows you to move a lot more freely than before.
Try to follow the same process for the 5th string and memorize at least the first three frets marked with inlays. (Notes C, D and A).
Another thing to help you memorize more notes: the 5th fret of a string corresponds to the same note that the next open string plays (except for the G and B strings, in which the 4th fret on the G string corresponds to the same note of the open B string.
In summary, from lowest to highest string:
- E string: 5th fret plays A
- A string: 5th fret plays D
- D string: 5th fret plays G
- G string: 4th fret plays B
- B string: 5th fret plays E
The 12th fret: where it all starts over
Guitars generally have from 21 to 24 frets. That means that in the best case scenario you have to memorize the notes corresponding to 84 frets, right?
Fortunately, that could not be more incorrect!
Most guitars will have two dots or a different inlay on the 12th fret, and this is to signal that you’ve reached the octave of the open strings.
In other words, this means that you’ve gone through all the notes and you’re back to the one you started with, only an octave higher.
Check the diagram below for further clarification.
By looking at this representation of a fretboard, you can observe that all of the open string notes show up again at the 12th fret.
Any note you play can be found again by going up 12 frets (notes G and D on the 3rd and 15th frets on the diagram illustrate this).
This is one more excellent reason to start memorizing from the inlays, as these will help you find the same notes you’re memorizing on an upper octave, on the same string.
Start memorizing from the 6th and 5th strings
There are two great reasons to start memorizing the fretboard on the two lowest strings.
The first one is that it sets you up to play a lot of chords in which the root is played on those strings.
Barre chords immediately come to mind: by knowing how to play an F Major chord with the root on the first fret of the 6th string, you can automatically every major chord across the neck, you only need to be able to find the root of the chord you want to play.
Visual representation of this can be found below:
In short, by knowing any chord voicing and the root note position, you can move that shape throughout the fretboard and play different chords only by being able to identify where the root note of that chord is.
The recommendation of starting out with the two lowest strings is simply because that’s where you’ll frequently find the root of your chord, but further down the road you should apply the same logic to the other strings.
With the example pictured above, the guitarist doesn’t need to instantly know all the notes that make up a G Major chord before playing it.
After shifting the F chord shape to where the root is a G note, you can place the rest of your fingers according to the shape you already are familiar with.
The second reason why it’s recommended to make this your starting point is self-explanatory: by learning the low E string, you’re automatically learning the high E string as well, since they have the exact same note positions, only in different octaves!
Start by learning only natural notes
This tip is meant to make you focus on the most important notes first.
After memorizing all of the natural notes (any that aren’t sharps or flats, such as F# or E♭), the ones that remain can be easily deduced. Let’s start by laying it down on a diagram:
Right off the bat, you can see it looks tidier and less overwhelming than the diagram which contains all notes, but in fact, this is all you need!
If you’ve memorized every natural note, all the accidentals can be found one step higher or lower. For instance:
- After F, you’ll find F#
- Before A, you’ll find A♭)
For you to be accurate while memorizing notes this way, you absolutely can’t forget these two concepts:
- There is only one semi-tone (one fret) between the notes E – F and B – C.
- Notes such as F# and G♭ sound the same despite having different names; it’s simply relative to their adjacent notes. These are called enharmonics.
Develop a spatial awareness throughout the neck
This is one of the most important tips in order to be able to memorize and quickly find the notes you are looking for.
What we’re about to examine is the foundation of one of the exercises that you can find on this article, and it is highly recommended that you take your time with it, as it will only improve your ability to move between neck positions seamlessly and accurately.
The objective of this concept is to be able to quickly locate all the frets in which you can play a certain note. This knowledge will come in handy while moving across the neck, find reference points for your phrasing, and much more.
Let’s use the note A as an example. The following diagram will illustrate it clearly:
In the image above, you can find a great way to relate the nearby frets that correspond to the same notes. More connections could have been made, but these are just some of the most useful to be aware of.
Pick up your guitar and try to play the A note on all of these frets. Then, pick another note, such as G, and try to repeat the same exercise. Starting to notice the pattern? Let’s use another diagram to view it clearly and then take our final conclusions.
So, what can we learn from analyzing the relative positions of the same note across the fretboard?
Here’s a quick summary of what you should start internalizing:
- Any note on the 6th string has it’s octave on the 4th string, 2 frets higher.
- Any note on the 5th string has it’s octave on the 3rd string, 2 frets higher.
- Any note on the 4th string has it’s octave on the 2nd string, 3 frets higher.
- Any note on the 3rd string has it’s octave on the 1st string, 3 frets higher.
After memorizing these, start exploring other observations that can be made here.
For example, if you’re playing G on the 5th fret of the 4th string, you can also find it’s octave on the 3rd fret of the 1st string.
Being able to quickly view all the notes in real time while you’re playing will allow you to move a lot more freely.
After you memorize where all the octaves are, an excellent next step to take would be to start finding where other notes are in relation to the root, such as the minor and major thirds, perfect fourths and fifths, minor and major sevenths, etc. This is where the circle of fifths also comes in super helpful.
This will improve your phrasing and ability to visualize chords exponentially!
Exercises to help you memorize the fretboard
The following exercises are designed to accelerate the process of memorizing every note on the fretboard. If you are methodic and practice this regularly for just a few minutes per day, you’re guaranteed to see results.
To benefit from them, there’s no need to play them to exhaustion.
You’ll find that your memory will gradually develop day by day with just a few minutes of each exercise, allowing you to reach your goal at a nice pace.
You should favor a daily practice session of only 15 minutes of these exercises over three hours of consecutive practice just once a week.
Exercise Number One
The first exercise is meant for you to memorize the notes on each string individually.
To start off simply, let’s focus only on the natural notes, since a solid knowledge of their location on each string will help you memorize the adjacent notes a lot faster.
Start with the 6th string. Play all the natural notes available from the open string until the 12th fret.
Saying the notes names out loud as you play will help you memorize them more effectively.
The following tab illustrates the exercise for the 6th string, and has the note names written above the top staff:
Next, repeat the process for the 5th string:
Apply the same process to the rest of the strings.
Exercise Number Two
To start, let’s limit ourselves to frets 1 to 12.
You can repeat this later starting on fret 12, but for now it’s best to stick to the first half of the fretboard.
Pick a natural note (no sharps or flats). For the purpose of this demonstration, let’s go with A.
The goal is to find and play A on every string, from the lowest to the highest, and then back again.
You can refer to the diagram about spatial awareness to check which frets you must target.
Here’s a tab of this particular case for clarification (try not to use it while practicing in order to work on your memory).
You can disregard the tempo for now, just pay attention to the location of each note.
While you’re going through this exercise, don’t try to identify any patterns between the notes such as the ones we’ve seen on the spatial awareness section.
Take your time with the note you’ve picked, and try to repeat this exercise at least three times without making a mistake. If you do, start over!
Once you’re finished with all the natural notes, start experimenting with sharps and flats, which will be slightly trickier.
Exercise Number Three
Number three is almost the exact same exercise as the previous one, with an added element which every musician should know dearly – the metronome.
After you become comfortable with finding the notes on the fretboard in a relaxed manner, start by setting a metronome at a low tempo such as 45bpm.
Now, play one note per beat.
It might seem irrelevant at first, but this small added pressure is brilliant to make you work harder. You still get a good amount of time with 45bpm, but knowing that the next beat is coming pushes you to find the next note quicker.
Ultimately this will make you memorize every note efficiently.
Exercise Number Four
This one is another variation of the previous exercises.
Instead of picking one note, pick two.
Let’s say you’ve chosen A and C.
Your objective is now to play A on every string from the 6th to the 1st, and then play C from the 1st to the 6th string.
Here’s a tab to demonstrate:
This way, you are forcing your fingers to adapt quicker to changes by having to recall the locations of a different note halfway through the exercise.
You could start by practicing this without tempo, but try to add the metronome as soon as you can.
Exercise Number Five
To make practicing notes a bit more fun, you can incorporate simple song melodies and play them on only one string, while calling out their names as you play.
A few good melodies and riffs you can use to practice these exercises are:
- Seven Nation Army (main riff)
- Sunshine of Your Love (main riff)
- We Will Rock You (chorus)
- Smoke On The Water (main riff)
The main point of this exercise is to find all the notes on just one string, not to play the melody with the most accurate, so don’t pay too much attention to that.
You can also transpose these melodies to different keys and practice the remaining notes.
Remember to say the notes out loud as you play, it will make a difference in how fast you memorize their places!
Practice routine to master the fretboard
Although you should try to adapt your practice routine to your level, objectives and the time you have available to study, here is a suggestion of how you could organize yourself.
The exercises mentioned in this practice routine are the ones from the previous section. Review them as necessary.
Also, keep a fretboard diagram handy to consult if you need to.
Exercise number one is a good starting point. It is a lighter task since you’re focusing on only one string at a time.
Start by going through the 3 lowest strings (EAD), playing only natural notes, from the open string up to the 12th fret.
Don’t worry about the speed at which you’re going, simply allow yourself to slowly familiarize yourself with every notes location, especially in the neck regions where you are less comfortable.
On day two, start by reviewing the previous day’s materials slowly.
After you’re done, repeat the process for the three highest strings (GBE). Play only natural notes from the open string up to the 12th fret.
This half is easier since you’ve already studied the low E string previously.
By now you should have gone back and forth through the strings a few times.
Set a metronome at 50bpm, and try to go through all of the strings, playing one note per beat, and calling it out loud as you go.
If you are able to do this fluidly on all strings, you’ve already made big progress.
At this point, introducing the next exercises would be a good idea, as they are more challenging to perform at a certain tempo.
Start with exercise number two.
Try to play the notes F, A and G on every string, going from the 6th to the 1st and then in reverse.
Go slowly, you can introduce the metronome later.
Start by reviewing the three notes you’ve already studied.
Then, apply the same process to C and E.
Once again, review the notes you’ve studied before.
Afterwards, apply the same logic to the remaining notes, B and D.
Now that you’ve gone through the 7 natural notes, try to go through the same exercise for every note again, but this time, with a metronome at 50bpm, playing one note per beat.
Repeat the ones that you feel the least comfortable with until you’re satisfied with the results.
In order to test yourself, attempt exercise number four with a metronome.
Set it at about 50bpm, and pick random two note combinations.
Then, go from strings 6 to 1 while playing the first note in each one, and then come back while playing the second note.
This exercise is considerably more demanding than the previous ones, so feel free to practice those for a longer period of time first, you can only benefit from it!
Now that you’ve worked hard on every natural note, it is a good opportunity to start practicing the accidentals (sharps and flats).
Since your fretboard knowledge should be much better at this stage, you could start immediately with the last exercises, but feel free to start all over again, it is up to you.
After a few days of practicing with these exercises, you should already have a good idea of your strong and weak points regarding fretboard memory.
At this point, you can invent other variations of these exercises, and come up with a personal schedule that allows you to make steady progress!
In summary, having a high level of fretboard knowledge is beneficial in so many ways that it is almost impossible to deny that it is an essential skill to have as a guitarist.
There are many more ways of approaching this topic, you just need to find the ones that suit you best.
Once you reach a considerable level, you will surely agree that you’d be missing out if you hadn’t put in the hours into memorizing the fretboard!