by jeff covey

two notes:

  1. this is an article i wrote which i give out to my students. please excuse the fact that capital letters are used here; i once submitted this to a magazine. 🙂
  2. a couple of people have pointed out that it might be even more useful to play these games with the many-sided dice that come with role playing games like dungeons & dragons. a twelve-sided die would give a more random result, and other dice with a smaller number of sides could be used to progressively move further up the fretboard.

introduction

When I was first told that I needed to know the name and location of every note on the guitar fretboard, the advice given to me was to go up and down the neck in my mind, saying all the notes that occur on each fret. As I did this, I found myself having two problems. The first was that I always seemed to fall asleep about halfway up. The other was that the means by which I was locating notes wasn’t random enough to ensure that I could find or identify a note out of context (I was just learning each note in relation to those on the adjacent strings). Now that I’ve been teaching for some time, I’m always trying to devise ways to help my students avoid some of the time-consuming tedium through which I’ve gone. To help with this current problem, I’ve developed a series of games involving the rolling of dice. These keep the process of learning the fretboard more consistently interesting and challenging, and bring it more in line with the useful practice of finding notes quickly in any position (a skill invaluable to playing any piece with even one large shift).

helpful hints

While playing these games, keeping in mind the following shortcuts will greatly improve the speed with which you can locate a given note. Hints 6 and 7 are for the more advanced games, and can be passed over for now if you’re not familiar with harmonics.

  1. Each fret represents a half step in our scale system, and two frets represent a whole step. Among natural notes (those without sharps or flats, or the notes of the C major scale), halfsteps occur naturally between E and F, and B and C. The intervals between all other natural notes are whole steps. The notes on the frets between these whole steps may be named as the sharped version of the lower natural note or the flatted version of the higher. For example, the fret between G and A may be named G-sharp or A-flat. As you learn other intervals, determine the number of frets occupied by each. For example, a minor third stretches three frets above the lower note, and a perfect fifth stretches seven frets.
  2. The outer two strings are tuned to the same note two octaves apart (both are Es). Therefore, their notes share the same letter name at each fret. If you know that the third fret of the sixth string houses a G, you also know there’s a G at the third fret of the first string.
  3. At the seventh fret, strings 6 to 2 spell the word “BEAD”. The second string has an F-sharp, and you should now know that the first string has a B (see hint #2 ). Remember: VII = B E A D F# B.
  4. There are only 12 pitches in our chromatic scale (seven natural notes + the five accidental ones), so any note can be found an octave higher by going up twelve frets.

    Therefore:

    • Notes at XII (where the body of the guitar meets the neck) are the same as the open strings, E A D G B E.
    • Notes At XIX (the last fret on most classical guitars) are the same as at VII, B E A D F# B.
  5. Frets XIII through XIX are the same as I through VII. Once you know the first position, think of XII as the nut (the open strings), and you should feel right at home on the other side of it.
  6. The harmonics at XII and XIX are the same notes as the regular notes at those same frets. The natural harmonics at VII are the same notes, only an octave higher, and so are the same as the harmonics at XIX. The natural harmonics at V are two octaves above the open string (one octave above XII)
  7. To find the node for an artificial harmonic, position your first finger above the node an equal number of frets above XII, VII, or V as the stopped note is above the open strings. For example: To find the octave harmonic above the F# at IV of the fourth string, add 4 to XII to get XVI. To find the octave-plus-fifth harmonic A# above the D# at VI of the fifth string, add 6 to VII to get XIII. With the octave and octave-plus-fifth harmonics, the natural note at the fret beneath the node will have the same letter name as the harmonic, which is also a helpful way to find it.

Refer back to these guidelines as you play, and you’ll save a great deal of time. For example, when identifying a note at the eighth fret, rather than counting up all the way from the open string, determine what note is on the seventh fret and go up one half step. To find a note at the seventeenth fret, determine what note is at XIX (same as at VII), and go down one whole step.

the basic games

There are two basic games, each of which comes at the problem from the opposite direction. The first enables you to find a note at a given fret, and the other lets you find a fret given a note.

Game 1: Finding a note.

  1. Roll a die to name a string, 1 to 6.
  2. Roll two dice (or one twice) to name a fret on that string, I to XII.
  3. As quickly as you can, name the note at that fret. (Use the hints!) Name it by sharp and flat (if not natural), with letter name and solfege syllable.
  4. Write the note on staff paper to get used to what it looks like. Write first the circled number of the string, then the roman numeral of the fret, then the note itself (count up to it from the note representing the open string). Write it both sharp and flat, if applicable.
  5. Devise a system for finding the note (if you have dots on your guitar as guides to the frets, pretend you don’t — you may someday have to play one that doesn’t!). If it lies among the lower frets, learn to count up to it by twos or by the natural notes. For example, to find the G at V on the fourth string, think up “II, IV, V” or “E (II), F (III), G (V)”. If it lies among the upper frets, learn to count down from XII.
  6. Pick up your guitar, and find a play the note as quickly as you can using the system you devised in step V. Look at each fret you previously thought of and learn how to scan the fretboard to measure a certain number of frets up from the open string or down from XII. This is how you can find a position while you are playing a piece, and guide your hand to it with your eye when you have a large shift. (On shifts, you will have to learn to look at the fret to which you’re shifting before you make the shift.)
  7. If the fret is between I and VII, add 12 to find the corresponding note on the other side of the twelfth fret. Write this note on staff paper also, and find and play it, counting up from XII or down from XIX.

Game 2: Finding a fret.

  1. Roll one die to name a string.
  2. Roll two dice to select a note from the following chart:
    1. =C, do
    2. =C-sharp/D-flat, di/ra
    3. =D, re
    4. =D-sharp/E-flat, ri/me
    5. =E, mi
    6. =F, fa
    7. =F-sharp/G-flat, fi/se
    8. =G, so
    9. =G-sharp/A-flat, si/le
    10. =A, la
    11. =A-sharp/B-flat, li/te
    12. =B, ti
  3. Find the note with this letter name within the first twelve frets of the given string by measuring from the nearest known note (at VII, XII, or the open string). For example, to find an F-sharp/G-flat on the fifth string: You know there’s an A at XII. A whole step down from that is G, and a half step down from the G is G-flat, so the note is three frets below XII, at IX. (Alternately, it could be found as a whol
    e step or two frets above the E at VII.)

  4. Devise your strategy, and find and play this note.
  5. Write the note on staff paper, both as sharp and flat, if applicable.
  6. If it lies within the first seven frets, find its counterpart on the other side of XII, write it, devise your strategy, and play it.

more advanced games

  1. If you’ve been playing the guitar for some time, but like many guitarists are intimately familiar with the first 5 frets and terrified of the unfamiliar “no man’s land” of VI-XI, play game 1 rolling one die only and adding 5 to the result. Similarly, to get to know the other side of XII, roll one die and add 12 to the result.
  2. Play game 1 and find all other occurrences of the same note in the same octave on other strings. From string 2 to string 3, add 4 to the fret number to find the next occurrence of the note. Between any other adjacent strings, add 5. Find and play every occurrence of the note.
  3. Play game 2 without selecting a string, and find and play every occurrence of the note in every octave, noting where the note appears in the same octave on different strings.
  4. Play game 1, and determine whether you can play a natural or artificial harmonic of the note, in one or more positions on one or more strings. Remember hint #6 for this, and remember that artificial harmonics can be played at the octave (12 frets above the stopped note), the octave-plus-fifth (7 frets above the stopped note), or even the double octave (5 frets above the stopped note). Also remember, however, that nodes past XIX can be almost impossible to find conistently on the first try.
  5. Play game 2 without selecting a string, and find every natural and/or artificial harmonic for the given note.
  6. Locate a note using either of the games, and play a scale:
    • With the given note (at the given fret) as root.
    • Or as the second degree of the scale.
    • Or as the third.
    • Etc.

    Play as many different scales as you know (major, minor, whole tone, blues…), choosing a new one for each game or each roll of the dice. Solfege the notes as you play them (sometimes in sharps, sometimes in flats), and visualize how they would look on a staff.

  7. Locate a note using either game, and choose a chord to play with the given note as root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth.
  8. Name a chord or scale and use the chart of game 2 to name a note. Play the scale up and down the neck or the chord everywhere it can be found.

These last few advanced games make it clear that this system can be used imaginatively to tackle just about any problem of unfamiliarity you have with the guitar. The main idea behind it is to establish a flashcard-like way of naming notes and frets which destroys the tedium of going fret by fret or key by key, and helps develop the facility of going to a note, a chord, or a scale quickly and without a pre-established context. As your speed develops, and the time between stating the problem and finding the answer grows shorter and shorter, your understanding of the fretboard will grow by leaps and bounds. In addition, this is a way of working that needn’t be tied down to the practice room. Carry a die in your pocket, and you can be learning about the guitar whenever you have a free moment — at the doctor’s waiting room, the subway station, when you really should be working but don’t feel like it… Carry a die in the car and roll it at each stoplight. By the time you get to the next light, you’ll know the guitar a little bit better. Learn to visualize away from the instrument, and your mind will better know what to tell your hands to do when you get back to it. May your enjoyment of the guitar grow with your understanding.

Good luck!

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