A long time ago, I enrolled in a series of workshops to get better at guitar. Many of the classes started with the teacher, quizzing us students. He would ask something like, what’s a major third of Bb? I had no idea how anyone could answer these questions … or even really WHY it would be that useful. I tried to avoid eye contact, hoping desperately I wouldn’t be called on.
Then one day I figured out a way I could use the fretboard as a kind of answer key – a cheat sheet! I imagined the fretboard in my mind, found the Bb, and then just memorized the shape of a major third from there, and then recite the answer: it’s D!
But so what? I was thrilled I could answer the questions and I like to think I became the envy of other students who were amazed how quickly I could answer correctly, but I didn’t really understand WHY it should matter…. Until later.
I realized it’s NOT important for a guitar player to know that a major third of Bb is D, but it’s INCREDIBLY USEFUL to be able to see the fretboard like a MAP!
My book, "Guitar Soloing Like a Pro" has lots more tips and tricks on how to improve your guitar soloing. If you're an intermediate level guitar player and want to be able to understand the fretboard better, improvise great solos, solo over the chord changes and more, check out the book, available on Amazon.
Download the Guitar Fretboard Map Cheat sheet here. Be sure to watch the video so you know who to use the chart.
The Guitar Fretboard as a Map
When we look at a piano keyboard – even if you didn’t know anything about it, I could tell you how simple it is. Up is one way, down the other way, and each octave looks exactly the same. But when you look at a guitar fretboard, none of that is true! The guitar is a challenging instrument because of this. But if we just think of the fretboard differently, it actually does all make sense. The fretboard is a map. We just need to learn how to read the map.
The E and A Strings
If you’ve taken lessons with me before, you’ll know I go on about memorizing the notes on the low E and A strings. And why is that? These are your landmarks for most everything you need to find on the map. So let’s say you’ve spent the time memorizing those strings and you’re pretty quick at it. So now what? If these strings have all your landmarks, how do you use them? What can you use them for?
Octaves, chords, scales, licks triads, arpeggios, and my favourite – intervals that have a certain colour or sound we might want, like thirds and minor sevens.
Let’s start with a simple one you might already know: Octave shapes. If you find A on the low E string, go two frets up and two strings up and you have another A! Now in the long run it would be even better just memorize where all the A’s are on the fretboard … but at least this is a start.
Why would this be useful? Let’s say you’re playing a solo in A Minor Pentatonic. Now you know not only where to start the scale, but using your octave shapes you know where the next root of the scale is. Roots are important to know when soloing because ending some of our licks on roots makes our phrasing sound more musical.
Here’s another one you probably already do. If you know instantly the C note at the 8th fret of the low E string, then you might know how to play a C bar chord. Or a C minor bar chord. Now if you also happened to have memorized that octave shape we just talked about, you also know exactly where the roots are in these chord shapes. Just picture the octave shape, there it is! Those are the roots in the chord. And those are the roots in C minor pentatonic. Same thing.
So fine, we can find our chords… we can find our scales. And not just the simple Minor Pentatonic scale Easy Shape. If we use this C at the 3rd from of the A string – because we have memorized the A string as well … we can use that as a landmark for C minor Pentatonic from there – it’s a different shape right? Some people call it Shape 4. I call it Funny B string shape. I know it’s there because I know how to read the map.
And hey look, there’s our octave shape again, this time starting on the A string. And it's also right there in the chord -- a basic C minor bar chord from there.
If I said to you, play a C minor arpeggio from the A string... would you be able to do it? Would you think, well C minor has a Root, Minor 3rd, Fifth and those notes are C, Eb, G, and the those are located on the fretboard … where? oh geez!
The fact is, you don't need all that information! Just read the map and it will tell you all that. Find the C root on the low E string of the A string – that’s the only landmarks we need. Then just picture the Cm chord shape from there and play a small piece of that chord.
You might even notice that the arpeggio, the chord shape, and the minor pentatonic shape all overlap – they are all right there in the map. We just need to learn how to see it.
We can also use the map to combine a chord, an arpeggio, and a lick from the pentatonic scale all in one go. Sound challenging? Nah. Just find your landmark, picture the roots, the chord shape from there, the pentatonic from there, and you have it all! Add an arpeggio to fancy it up.
Now here’s my favourite one. If I said to you, what’s the major third of A? Would you know the answer? Does it matter? To us guitar players, it doesn’t matter as much that the major third of A is C#. But it sure is useful to be able to find it quickly. Don’t worry about the note’s name, just be able to find a major third on the map quickly. That way you can seek out the sound of a major third whenever you want that sound.
What good is that? You might ask? Sure it sounds impressive to answer questions like this when your teacher asks you, but here’s why it’s my favourite way of using the map.
Different intervals have different characteristics, different sounds. For example, the major third is very colourful. And a major third is in a major chord … so whenever the song is on a major chord, you can play the major third of that chord.