Weekend Woodshed: How to Build a Mental Map of the Fretboard

Ask any musician that plays a fretless stringed instrument or a wind instrument where all the notes on their instruments are, and you’ll get a look like you just asked a college grad to recite their ABCs.

These players came up spending countless hours reading music and building muscle memory so their hands would instantly know where every natural, sharp, and flat is when they see the note on paper.

For guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele players who picked up their instrument outside of formal training — often by using tablature or learning by ear — the question often lands more like an unexpected zinger on an exam they thought they had prepared for.

Don’t think this applies to you? Pick up your instrument play every possible C# on the fretboard.

  • How many did you play? On a 22-fret guitar, there are 11 locations where C# can be played – two per string, except for the D string, where there is only one.

  • How long did it take you? If you truly have that note internalized, it should’ve taken five seconds or less.

  • Did you “find” them by counting frets? Then you don’t know where they are.

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Why Note-Mapping Matters

This is the bar you'll have to clear if you want to read charts on the spot for a session, write out arrangements for band members, or communicate with precision when talking to other musicians. All of this ultimately opens up opportunities for more or better paying gigs.

Once you know where any given note is, you can instantly jump there to build a scale or chord using it as the root.

How would you know that there are dozens of other G major chord shapes outside of the cowboy chord down at the third fret if you don’t know where the other “Gs” are on the fretboard?

What happens when the leader of the group you’re auditioning with says, “Okay, so the theme is in F# major. The second time around it’s an octave up. And the bridge is this chromatic thing starting on B…”? You don’t want to be staring down frantically counting frets while the drummer is counting off.

You must know where all notes are at all times." - Mick Goodrick

As Mick Goodrick, author of The Advancing Guitarist, once wrote: “You must know where all notes are at all times.” You can’t think about where all notes are all the time. The goal is that it’s second nature.

This takes repetition and intentional practice, but the upside is that once it’s locked in, the notes aren’t going anywhere. The fretboard will be the same in 25 years. It’s an investment of time with never–ending return.

Let’s call that investment 12 weeks. Here’s how to do it.

Mapping The Fretboard

There are 12 notes Western music. Each week you will be obsessed with one note – how it sounds, where it lives on the fretboard, which fingerings are actually the same pitch and which are octaves apart.

Let’s just start with E, since that note represents the open string “bookends” of a guitar.

Find all the fingerings on every string for E, including possible open strings. It’s best to use your ear if you can. If you must look at a chart, there are plenty online. But wean yourself off of looking at that chart as soon as possible.

Play each each E slowly, really taking in the tone and feel of each one. Look at the position and think about the feel.

If you’re weird like me, you might use a memory device by associating the positions and tones of a note with a color, place or shape. I think of perfect squares when I think of E for some reason, and I associate that image with its locations on the fretboard. I told you I was weird.

Once you know where all the E locations are:

  • Play each one on each string, starting with the lowest string, on the beat of a metronome. Start at about 72 BPM and gradually increase the tempo as you become more confident. This will simulate grabbing for a note within the constraints of a groove.

  • Keep the metronome going but play the positions in random order. Make sure you’re not neglecting some hard-to-reach positions (i.e. above the 12th fret on the lowest strings). Gradually increase tempo.

  • Play the positions grouped by pitch, not string. For example, the high open E string pitch has four other fingerings going across and up the fretboard (five if you count the natural harmonic at the 7th fret on the A string). Continue to use the metronome.

Do this each day for a whole week. By the end, E should be under your fingers without thinking. Next week do the same thing for F. The week after, F# and so on. As the weeks go on, you’ll want to go back and revisit some of the other notes.

You’ll also find that as more of the fretboard becomes known to you, the last few weeks become much easier, because you already know the neighboring notes so well. You’re not floating in the great wide open anymore.

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