Fretboard Roadmaps

All guitarists need fretboard roadmaps -- ways to find their way quickly and easily around the fretboard. The word "roadmap" suggests that these should be visual; that's partly because the guitar lends itself to visual learning methods in ways that the sax, say, doesn't.

So what does a fretboard roadmap look like? Well, the unhelpful answer is "anything you like". There isn't one correct way to visualize the fretboard, and having multiple ways can be very useful indeed.

I like to split the various "roadmaps" into three distinct types:

  • Roadmaps for the whole fretboard
  • Roadmaps that are relative in space
  • Roadmaps that are relative in time

In this post I'll explain what these different types mean, and we'll see lots of examples of all three types of fretboard roadmap in later posts.

Roadmaps for the Whole Fretboard

These are ways to visualise the whole thing at a glance. The phrase "fretboard roadmap" was coined (as far as I know) by Frank Sokolow in his excellent book of the same name, and early on he gives one roadmap every guitarists needs to know: the C Major scale over 12 frets.

Why is this so important? Because it gives you the positions of all the "natural" notes (that is, notes that aren't sharp or flat). It helps enormously with music reading and gets you 90% of the way towards learning all the notes on the neck. This is crucial for locating patterns you've learned and playing them in the right key for the accompaniment.

Sokolow also does a good job of the other major whole-fretboard roadmap, the triad arpeggios. I use his implicit approach of building up the whole CAGED structure slowly, starting with E and A, then adding C, G and D as "linking" patterns, only I tend to make it explicit that that's what we're doing.

Sokolow only gives you the major triads, and in theory they're sufficient (as we'll see below), but learning the minor triads early on is usualyl helpful. The important thing here is to join these fingerings up so that they cover the whole neck, enabling you to move wherever you choose and continue playing the same notes.

Roadmaps that are Relative in Space

By "relative in space" I mean in fretboard-space: a roadmap that tells me that from position X how to shift to position Y. There are lots of these. This is how you start learning any scale, but especially the early ones: learn two fingerings, then learn a spatial roadmap that joins them together, and repeat until you have the whole thing.

My approach to teaching fretboard mastery is, then, to begin with small patterns and use local spatial roadmaps to join them up until they cover the whole fingerboard. This works for beginners, who get to play something cool-sounding right away without compromising or taking short cuts (the cool-sounding individual pattern will contribute to the solid foundation we're building). It also works for advanced players who want to learn new scales, chord types or any other kind of pattern.

Roadmaps that are Relative in Time

Now we get more advanced. By time-relative roadmaps I mean those that tell you how to play more than one thing in a given position. I mean, if you're playing an A major chord at the 5th fret, can you find G major in the same position? Space-relative roadmaps show you how to move positions, and can be visualized or drawn out all at once. Time-relative roadmaps involve changes within the same fingerboard position, and are more advanced.

A great application of this is playing through chord changes. When learning a new tune with complicated changes, I like to play through them without moving my hand from a particular fret (give or take one fret), and to do this at various frets until I'm comfortable on the whole fretboard. Why? Because when I come to solo over it, I don't want to have to keep moving my hand all over the place going "hunting" for the next chord -- I want it right there under my fingers.

Time-relative roadmaps can be simpler than this, though. The old I-IV-V shapes that you learn as a beginner (or I hope you do!) are a good example. It's fun to look at the major scale modes as the major and minor pentatonics with added notes, and that too is a time-relative roadmap, showing you how to get from one to the other without changing position.