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Learn the Fretboard

The guitar fretboard can seem daunting at first. If you have a guitar that is playable up to the fourteenth fret, then you have 90 seemingly random notes to learn. Some notes are repeated in different locations. There seems to be no indication what note is where. Even more challenging, If you have a guitar with a fretboard that is playable up to the twenty-second fret, you have 138 notes to learn. Compare this to a piano which has only 88 well-organized keys, some black some white, none of them duplicates. In effect, the piano really has only 12 notes to learn since it repeats the same linear arrangement of keys for each octave. This organization of the keyboard makes the piano possible, if not down right easy, to learn. Without this organization playing the piano would be like putting a jigsaw puzzle together with your eyes closed. Learning the guitar can be a puzzle if you are not aware of the patterns that organize it. These patterns are not as obvious as the arrangement of the piano, but once you know them, it simplifies everything on the guitar.

Natural Pateerns
The F.I.N. System takes advantage of the natural patterns that occur in music and on the fretboard. These patterns permeate so much of jazz, blues, rock, country, folk and metal, that not learning them severely limits what you can do musically.

1-4-5-1 Pattern
One of these pattern refers to a set of musical intervals that is fundamental to music theory. In numerical form this pattern is 1-4-5-1. It is used in chord progressions and also in the arrangement of the strings and markings on the guitar. If you are familiar with the circle of fifths, you will recognize this pattern instantly.

1-3-6-2-5-1 Pattern
The second pattern is similar to the first. It refers to a set of musical intervals that create a natural cadence. That means the intervals “fall” from one to the other. This pattern ap- pears most often in jazz chord progressions. It also occurs in the organization of the strings on the guitar. The numerical form of this pattern is 1-3-6-2-5-1.

Fretboard Octave Pattern
The third pattern is the pattern of notes as they occur on the guitar. Unlike the piano with its repeating black and white keys, there is no such obvious pattern on the guitar. This is, in part, due to its evolution and its greater tonal flexibility. Since it is possible to tune the strings of a guitar to nearly any note, arranging the fretboard with static, black and white markers makes less sense.

Octave patterns, however, can be applied to the guitar fretboard to organize the notes just like a piano. The difference is these patterns will reside in your mind and ears, not on the fretboard itself.

Strings Names
You’ll want to learn the string names as soon as possible. Each string is known by the note sounded in its open position (no finger on the string). The 5th string is the A string. The 2nd string is the B string, an so forth. The 1st string is often called the high E sting while the 6th string is called the low E. If you know the names of the strings, you can identify any other note on the guitar.

guitar tuning

Guitar Tuning
The most common tuning for the guitar follows this diagram to the right. The letters inside the circles are the notes that the strings are tuned to in their open position. That is, when the strings are not depressed they will sound these notes when plucked.

This common tuning reveals an occurrence of the 1-3-6-2-5-1 pattern. If the third string (G) is taken as the first note of the G Major scale whose notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, you will notice that the sixth string is the 6th note of this scale. Similarly, the 5th string is the 2nd note of the scale. The 4th string is the 5th note and so on.

In fact, these notes create a G6/9 chord, a nice mellow jazz chord. Technically, since the E is the lowest note of the chord this chord is said to be inverted. Normally, the root note is the lowest.

Fifth Fret Tuning Trick
One way to tune your guitar to the standard tuning is to use the fifth fret to give you the tone you need to tune to. For instance, to tune the 5th string play the note that is on the 5th fret of the 6th string. This note is an A, the same note as the 5th string. You can use this trick to tune all the strings on the guitar except the 2nd string. This string is tuned differently and so you need to use the tone that comes from the 4th fret of the G string (3rd string).

The Fretboard
On guitars with 22 frets there are 138 notes. The diagram below show the locations of the natural notes, ones that aren’t sharp of flat. These correspond to the white keys on the piano.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the placement of notes on a guitar. The the dark bands on some of the frets of this diagram correspond to the fret markers you see inlaid on guitar necks. However, the meaning of these markers is not obvious. It’s not like white and black notes on a piano. However, if we look at the fretboard a little differently some patterns do emerge.

the fretboard

Scaler View of the Fretboard
Instead of looking at natural notes let’s look at how a major scale fits on the fretboard in the diagram below. The open note of each string becomes the first note of the scale. The remaining notes of that scale go up the string then repeat after the first octave. Now we can see a bit of a pattern developing. The intervals known as 4th, 5th, 6th, and octave of the scale fall on these fretboard markers.

scaler view of the fretboard

Fretboard Markers
Fretboard markers are those inlayed dots on the fretboard. Sometimes the markers are more than dots depending on the brand of guitar or the imagination of the luthier. Sometimes markers appear on the top of the neck (almost always dots). Some guitars, usually classical guitars, don’t have any. The pattern on the diagram on the previous page is the most common, though some variation exists.

These markers are landmarks that help you navigate around the fretboard. The common markers are on the 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th fret. Markers above the twelfth fret repeat the pattern. The 15th fret would is a repeat of the the marker on the 3rd fret, though not all guitars have a marker on the third fret. The 3rd fret is not commonly marked but it there is no law against it. In fact, the interplay between function and design have resulted in enough variation that switching between guitars with different patters can be confusing. So, watch out.

If you don’t have a guitar that is marked like the diagram above, don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with a guitar with different markings. Just be aware of it. I have a classical guitar that has no markings on it at all, so I put a dab of white nail polish on the top of the neck that matches the pattern discussed here. Feel free to mark or unmark your guitar as you see fit.