sThere are levels of fretboard visualization that all guitarists go through along their journey of totaling understanding the guitar. Important to know, this list is not the END ALL of lists, it is a guide. When I work with guitar players that want to improve their improvisation, song writing, chord knowledge and ear training, we inevitably come across the idea of “seeing” the guitar. Many guitarists want to see how it all connects on the fretboard. This is where the serious guitarists have to raise their hand and say to themselves, I’m willing to put in the time. Some guitarists learn in a different order. some skip certain sections entirely and let their ears and hands do all the work. However, the best guitarists, the pros, know this stuff, and they know it COLD.
How come your favorite guitar players seem to just “KNOW” where to when playing chord progressions or soloing. When I first learned guitar, I only had tablature. Learning a song or scale was nothing but memorizing finger movements. This helped me produce the desired sound, but because I didn’t know the “why”, I was always left wanting more, to understand “why”. I only knew the “what”.
This is a list of 5 levels that guitarists must learn to master to improve their fretboard visualization.
1. The Root Note
Jamming to a chord progression with friends, or playing along to backing tracks (link), is one of the most fun things a guitar player can do when they are first learning guitar scales. A common complaint amongst guitar players when they first learn scales; “it doesn’t sound like music, I’m just going up and down.” This is because they are going up and down, with no target. The first target note any guitar player should aim for is the root note of the chord. This is also known as the “1” of the chord. The simplest way of understanding this is what is the “letter name” of the chord.
C chord = C is the root
E flat minor chord= E flat is the root
G7#5#9 = G is the root.
Why? The root note is the strongest most stable sounding note. It gives any scale run a sense of closure, it is the period at the end of a musical sentence. This allows the listener and the player to know, this sounds like a finished idea. Also, this is the first step in ear training. It’s crucial to hear a chord and hum the root note. In addition, this forces a guitarist to KNOW the notes on the guitar. For any serious guitarist, this is an absolute must. The sooner you commit to learning the notes, the better you’ll understand the guitar.
The next level of fretboard visualization involves the triad that you are playing on. What does this mean? If you are on a major chord, then you are searching for the major arpeggio, or major triad. While playing a minor chord, you want the minor arpeggio/triad. A triad is a 3 note chord. There are many types of triads but the most prominent in most styles of music are major and minor triads, because major and minor chords are the most common chords found in most music. Deeper study is a requirement to master this level.
Watch this video to understand the major scale to help understand how triads are made.
Major chords= 1 3 5
Minor chords= 1 b3 5
In level 1, we talked about memorizing the root note. When you play a major chord, you have a root note, a major third, and a perfect 5th. The two new notes are the next most stable and consonant notes to play on a major chord, because they are in fact IN the chord.
If you are jamming along to a C major chord, the notes in that chord are the best ones to hit if you are soloing. It does not mean that other notes won’t work, it just means that when you get to finish your musical sentence, landing on the notes on the chord is a guaranteed way to sound like you know what you are doing, and can play melodically.
There is more to say about this one topic than I could possibly write in one paragraph so be sure to check out more of my articles in the future about this.
3. Pentatonic Scales
The pentatonic scales is the next step in the levels of fretboard visualization. This is often where most guitar players begin their fretboard visualization and with good reason.
Because it sounds awesome, is easy to see on the guitar, and is the origin of the vast majority of great blues and rock solos over the past 60 years. When you learn pentatonic scales. pay attention to the fact that the first two levels are in the pentatonic scale.
There are TONS of pentatonic scales (5 note scales), but the most commonly used are the minor pentatonic and major pentatonic scales. For example: dominant pentatonic, hirojoshi pentatonic, byzantine scale etc.
The formula for the scales are the following:
Major Pentatonic : 1 2 3 5 6
Minor Pentatonic : 1 b3 4 5 b7.
Notice how each scale inherently has a triad built into it. The major pentatonic has the 1 3 5, and the minor 1 b3 5. What we’re doing now is adding more notes. Because we have new notes available, we have more colors we can add while soloing or playing chords.
The next steps in levels of fretboard visualization is understanding the modes. At this level, we are adding more notes to the two pentatonic scales above. The modes that are MOST COMMONLY used fall into two categories.
The first are major modes, and the second are minor modes. There are MANY MORE modes available to use. Focus on the most commonly used modes first.
The major modes contain the major pentatonic scale with the addition of two MORE scale tones giving us a total of 7 notes.
They are Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian.
Lydian scale: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Ionian (Major scale): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Notice how all of these modes contain the major pentatonic, the only difference is how you use 4th note, or the 7th note. If you remember, the major pentatonic did not have a 4th or 7th note in it.
The minor modes contain minor triads and the minor pentatonic scale but add flavor with an additional 2 and 6 to the scale.
Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Phrygian: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Keep an eye out for future courses on the study of the modes and how to learn them in an efficient way across the entire fretboard.
What’s left? Well, every other scale tone that we did not mention. This topic alone is the subject of endless instructional methods, youtube videos and more. The most important thing to understand at this point is this; the first 4 levels are mandatory to be able to play melodically, with conviction, and really know what you are doing.
Mastering the “rules” of the first 4 levels allows you to begin stepping into outside territory, with notes that “break the rules”, but as long as you can find you way back into the first 4 levels, you will be able to make your improvising sound intentional and melodic.
The levels of fretboard visualization go well beyond the article mentioned here, but this is a starting point for the serious studying guitar player who wants to really GET IT.
It hope you got a lot of this article and remember that learning the guitar is a journey. Focus on enjoying the learning process, and over time, it’ll all fall into place.
Josh Beetler is the also the owner of Taunton Guitar Lessons, where he trains his students in person in Massachusetts to master their guitar playing.