The mark of a professional, in any context, is a distinct comfort with the task at hand.
If you're not comfortable with your tools - if they make you nervous, uncertain or uneasy - than your trade still has mastery over you.
For guitarists, the most immediate and obvious tool at hand is the fretboard.
Those who master the fretboard, who can command and control it, without being intimidated, are the ones who are truly professional musicians. Mastering the fretboard means you can move with a distinct level of comfort and fluidity.
And how do we develop "fluid" fretboard movement?
How do we get comfortable?
The easiest path to mastering the fretboard is by way of root note memorization, and I don't just mean memorizing the notes of all the frets on each string. That's an important first step, but I want to go a step further and show you how to anchor root notes in your memory based on chord progressions.
Here's the process I'll follow in this advanced guitar lesson:
- Identify a common key.
- Locate the most convenient fretboard positions for that root.
- Memorize the chord progressions that expand from those roots.
The Process: Keys, Scales and Common Chord Progression Roots
Every key has an accompanying list of chords and "common" chord progressions.
For example, let's assume we're trying to establish an anchor position on the fretboard in the key of C. We would first identify the C major scale.
Now, let's take a look at the chords in the key of C, resulting from these scale notes.
Now that we have a key, a scale and the chords resulting from that scale, let's establish a few common chord progressions that we can use to "plot" the root notes on the fretboard and begin memorizing a pattern.
First, in any scale, I, IV and V is the most common sequence of degrees (meaning the first, fourth and fifth degree of the scale provide the chords).
We should also highlight I, V and ii, since that gives us C, G and D roots, creating another extremely common progression.
Now that we've got our progressions, we need to plot each chord's root note position on the fretboard, wherever they occur.
My preferred method is to plot and label in a diagram like this one:
The C, F and G Example
With just these seven notes, we've established two clear structures for playing in the key of C, with this particular chord progression.
These two "grids" at the third and eighths frets now apply in the following context:
- Key of C
- I, IV and V chord progression
Moreover, each one can be easily expanded. See the arrow connecting the two C notes on the eighth and 10th fret? We can repeat that interval for the other notes in the graphic as well.
Expanding on Our C, F and G Root Notes
As you can see, the interval we're using to tie the green notes to the original blue notes are separated by one octave.
When you have a root note on either of the bottom two strings (the sixth and the fifth) you can easily find the octave by moving up two frets and two strings, which allows you to effectively double your real estate for any one progression of roots.
The goal, is to give yourself a kind of musical data structure to work from, so that if you know the key, you can easily find roots, progressions and notes to work with.
The Memorization Process
You need to compartmentalize all this information in the proper order, based on the key you're playing in.
For example, knowing the key of C should remind you of the C, F and G chord progression, which should in turn remind you of the aforementioned spots on the fretboard.
It all happens in a split-second, but it's extremely helpful if you can tie it all together.
What do I memorize first?
The first thing that should cross your mind, when you know what key you're playing in, is where those notes exist at a root position on the fretboard.
For the key of C, we've established that the two primary locations for a root C note are the third and eighth frets on the fifth and sixth strings respectively.
Once you've memorized this, you should begin to associate those positions with the chord progressions most often utilized in the key of C. For example, just knowing that you're playing in the key of C should invoke an expectation of the C, F and G progression, since the I, IV and V scale sequence is so commonly used.
Now, obviously you won't always be playing this progression, given the key of C. However, it's going to happen a lot and if you've memorized where to go under those circumstances, you'll easily be able to think through the following:
- Key you're playing in
- Root fretboard positions
- Chord progression roots from those positions
Even if the chord progression is slightly different, you'll know the location of the notes in that grid, meaning you can more easily navigate the fretboard to move to different chords or create some kind of melodic compliment.
Will I have to memorize all the progressions for each key?
Some of you might be noticing that there can be a lot of different chord progressions for a given key and, as a result, wondering if you need to memorize all of them. Keep in mind that we're only targeting what would be considered "common" chord progressions, for the purpose of getting familiar with patterns.
You don't have to memorize a lot of progressions for each key, rather just a few. However, as you move through keys and chord progressions, it gets easier and more intuitive than you might think.
Here's a good graph that shows you the memorization process from a high-level view.
Whatever key you're dealing with, you'll want to make sure and memorize at least the two root positions which stem from the sixth and fifth strings.
Once you get to the chord progression stage, I would advise memorizing the one that you're already most familiar with and tend to use in that key. For example, the key of E will probably remind you of something like a 12-bar blues progression in E, A and B.
You're going a step beyond simply memorizing them in a chronological fret-by-fret order and instead memorizing based on a pattern that you will commonly use.
If you lookup the E major scale, you'll see that it's once again the I, IV and V sequence. Take the roots of that progression and memorize their locations at each of the original root positions we which, in the key of E, would be the open sixth and the seventh fret.
If you need help idenetifying chord progressions for the key in question, I'd recommend using guitar-chords.org as a quick reference.
To finish up, you can memorize the octaves of each root in the progression.
Here's how your graph might fill in.
As you can see, the two progressions we've listed run together, sharing two out of the three roots. This gives you a total of four root notes for memorizing at both the open and seventh fret position.
What you'll find is that knowing where one note is helps you find other notes in relation to the one you already know, which is the point of the entire exercise. You're going a step beyond simply memorizing them in a chronological fret-by-fret order and instead memorizing based on a pattern that you will commonly use.
Thus, simply memorizing the location of the root E will help you intuitively recall where the other notes are.
The 4th, 5th and major 2nd tags all indicate the interval spacing between the root and the additional note. Again, keep in mind that all these notes are pulled from the same scale, in this case the E major.
Now that we have an idea of the method and process, let's work it out on an actual tab sheet.
Making it Concrete: Tabs and Audio
Now we need to take this out of the theoretical realm and get into some practical application.
Since we've already used the keys of C and E for our examples, I'll use a couple different keys here to come show you how we might use and tab out something like this.
Key of D Example
We'll use the key of D first, which positions our roots at the fifth and 10th frets. In this example we'll only use one chord progression.
- Root Positions: Sixth String | 10th fret & Fifth String | Fifth fret
- Chord Progression: D, G and A
The position of all roots in the progression can be tabbed on both the fifth and sixth strings.
Now, we can fill out the additional octaves, which I've added underneath each root to create a dyadic chord.
These are the fretboard notes you'll want to memorize, in relation to one another.
You should be able to quickly remember where these notes are if and when you're playing in the key of D.
For a little cheat sheet, here's the aforementioned tab with each root labeled.
Key of A Example
Let's go through the same process, setting up tabs and audio examples for a chord progression in the key of A.
- Root Positions: 6th String | 5th fret & 5th String | open
- A, D, E & Bm, E, A
Notice that I've taken the roots from two chord progressions, where there's some overlap with the E and A chord showing up in both. That leaves us with A, E, Bm and D in no particular order.
In this case I've tabbed out the location of those four notes at both root anchor points, instead of the individual progressions themselves. Either way is helpful, but since the order of chords can change, it's not a bad idea to generalize your progressions a bit. Remember, we're trying to memorize these notes and fretboard positions in relation to one another.
This leaves room for rearrangements and variances in the order they occur.
Using the Fretboard Dots to Assist Memorization
Now that we have a method and theory to back it up, we can look at improving our memorization strategy. While said strategy will vary from person to person, there is a simple tactic that might help you visualize everything and remember progressions quicker.
Keep in mind, we're essentially trying to create isolated fretboard grids.
Each progression, being a grouping of three or four root notes, will be placed over a specific grouping of frets. This means your first and best memorization tactic will be to focus on these groupings in relation to fretboard dots.
Take the following diagram.
Your C, F and G progression can be most easily identified in relation to the dot at the third fret, where the root C is located.
The same tactic can be applied for other progressions as well, depending on where you're placing the root.
For the E, A and B progression, your point of reference would fall on either the fifth or seventh fret. A good way to apply this tactic is to associate the root of your progression (in this case, E) with a certain dotted fret (in this case, the seventh fret).
Your memorization process would follow this pattern:
- Identify the root of the progression.
- Identify and memorize the dotted fret closest to that root (usually the third, fifth or seventh fret).
- Memorize the other roots in the progression in relation to the dotted fret that marks the root.
It's a simple concept, though often easy to forget when you're trying to remember notes in relation to one another.
The dots on the fretboard are just an anchor to help you move more quickly to spots where your root notes will most commonly be located.
Concluding and Following Up
Keep in mind, this tactic is mostly agnostic of skill level. It's also not something you're likely to "master" in total. Because there are always more chord progressions you can learn and fretboard patterns you can memorize.
However, looking at keys and the most common progressions within those keys give you structures that you'll reuse a lot.
The idea is to optimize the time you spend memorizing.
Think about it...
If you know exactly where the C, G and D progression falls on the fretboard and you can move to, from and within it quickly, the time you spent memorizing it will benefit you thousands of times over, whenever you play a G, C or D chord or any variation thereof.
My advice to you is to take the time to memorize the right things in the right way.
You'll be faster and a better overall musician, as a result.
"Scale Degrees." MusicTheory.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.
Sandercoe, Justin. "How to Use Octaves." Justin Guitar. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.
"Chords in the Key of C." Chords In The Key Of C. GuitarChords.org, n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.
"E Major." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 May 2017.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron