Friday, October 28, 2011

Understanding the fretboard

Anyone who has played guitar for any length of time comes to appreciate the power of movable shapes; the shapes your hands form when you move up and down the neck when playing power or barre chords.

Maybe you haven't formally expanded on what this truly means, or how powerful that little bit of information can be. So this post is designed to investigate this further and help you see the neck in a whole new way.

The Shapes of Things
The guitar, because of its tuning, lends itself perfectly to repeating shapes. If you take any finger pattern and move it up the neck, the notes change, but it won't change the type of chord or scale or arpeggio etc. (i.e.: Major, minor, etc).  So a CMaj chord, slid up one fret, becomes a C#Maj chord. If you move it again, it becomes a DMaj form. If you are playing an F diminished arpeggio and you move it, it is still a diminished arpeggio. It is now F# diminished... blah, blah, blah. You get it, right? Good.

Let's take a look at the chart at the top of this post. Click the image to download it as a pdf. At the top of the chart, I show the pentatonic minor scale form, neck-wide. It shows all five fingerings, ending back at the first fingering. In the second diagram, I want to focus on the first form, and is highlighted so you can see it clearly. On the bottom diagram, I use the first four notes of the scale and colour-code them. I have removed all the other notes of the scale for added clarity. Notice that no matter which root note you begin on, the shape is unchanged. You can continue on up the scale from that point and all the associated fingerings remain right where they should be.

Liar!! Liar!!
I hope you notice that the shape seems to change as you cross the B string. In truth, the shape doesn't change; it just gets adjusted for that pesky B string. If the guitar was tuned consistently across the 5th fret, then it wouldn't change at all. My previous entry was designed to help explain why that happens. Read over that if this aspect confuses you. The B string is one of the instrument's little hiccups. The sooner you understand how it affects you, the better.

So as you can see, if you know any pattern for any specific chord, scale, arpeggio etc, all you need to do is find the closest root and apply it. Try practicing this with a major scale form, then a minor, then try some altered stuff like the melodic minor; whatever your taste. Wander up and down the neck to hook into the next root pattern and riff your brains out.

Extra Credit Reading
Pick up the masterful Jon Finn's book,  "Advanced Modern Rock Guitar Improvisation".  He does a wonderful job explaining this concept in greater detail.


  1. Nice diagrams and explanation. Thanks.

  2. This is quite an eye opener for me. I have memorized all of the patterns of the Major Scale and most of the Minor Pentatonic but this will really help when applied to these and other scales. I just need to get my guitar now and play around with it. thanks for this!

  3. Jeremy, I am having trouble with this now that I have tried to apply to my guitar. The B string shift makes sense but sometimes the high E string is shifted as well and the pattern is broken. Also, when moving backwards down the scale the patterns don't always hold up. Does with work beyond the first 4 notes? Can you expand on it, another diagram with all the notes would be very helpful. thanks,

  4. Hey Mark,

    You need to remember that these string are all tuned relatively to each other. So the patterns should hold up anywhere above the G string. Where it "breaks down" is crossing the G string to the B string. As you cross that threshold the pattern slides up one fret then carries on. Imagine it like a conveyor belt, the top two strings simply slide up one fret.

    It is straight math really. If every string is tuned at the fifth fret on the string above - then all shapes should work relative to one another. The B is tuned at the 4th fret... So this leads to the break. The it returns to the 5th again for the high E.

    Take another look at the diagram at the top and really think about it. Because it is relative, where it shifts is always in the same place... Going from the G to the B string.

  5. I see what you are saying but in pattern #2 for example the notes on the e string are moves as well. I guess this is to accomodate the G root not on the same string.

  6. You must be doing something wrong... The patterns are fixed - for any scale or sequence. If you look at my top diagram you see that all the coloured shapes are the same... EXCEPT the grey group - the ones that cross from the G string to the B string.

    I could do this with pattern 2 and the result would be the same - it has to be the same. It is straight math. If the intervals between the strings is constant (which it is - a 4th for all - except the G & B which are a 3rd), then all patterns must work on all 4th tunes sets of strings.

    I suspect you may have a wrong note in there or something.

    There is a fantastic book that lays this out in much more detail. It is Jon Finn's "Advanced modern Rock Guitar Improvisation". I would highly recommend you grab that as he fleshes out this concept in much greater detail.

    Hope this helped.

  7. I purchased the book, working through it now. thanks.