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Simple Fretboard Mapping

By October 7, 2019 October 11th, 2019 Lessons

It’s one thing to know about chords and harmony, and another thing to access that knowledge on an actual guitar. Unlike sight-reading approaches, which are designed for quickly locating specific pitches on the fingerboard, guitar improvisation relies on a system of shapes that work in any key.

This lets you build phrases on the fly, in a way that matches both the rhythm and harmony of the underlying tune. The way great players do this, seeming to almost preternaturally anticipate where the chords and groove are headed, is amazing to watch, and deceptively tricky to understand. But it’s done by connecting these fretboard shapes almost like Legos.

So building out your improvisational vocabulary isn’t just a musical pursuit — it’s also mechanical. In this quick tutorial, we’re going to jumpstart that process for you with a cool jazz-inspired arpeggio phrase that you can use any time you’re playing over a dominant chord.

Improvising on the guitar involves two main challenges:

  • Musical knowledge: harmony, chords, and theory
  • Mapping: fretboard locations of those notes and chords

In this free lesson, we address the second puzzle, fretboard mapping. Why the second one?

For one, you can have a strong foundation in harmony, and still not understand how to navigate the fretboard on the fly, during improvisation. So, in our experience, the mapping aspect of improvisation is less discussed and less understood. For us, this makes it an ideal subject to teach.

Do you know a lot of harmony but still hit a roadblock when trying to improvise? If that’s you: watch this video!

If you don’t have a good grasp on harmony, don’t worry about it! Work through the phrase in this lesson, and you’ll learn a bit about what 13 chords and dominant lines sound like.

Two Important Questions

Finished watching? We’d love to know what you think!

  1. Do you like the topic of fretboard mapping and how we covered it? Was the video easy to understand? Do you want to learn more?
  2. Do you feel like you need more harmony knowledge in order to understand this kind of lesson better?

Let us know what you’d like to see by clicking below to comment on the forum. If you can help us answer these questions, we’ll do our best to work on making the videos you need to understand these topics!

Top Comments

  1. In our latest video, we tackle one of the biggest challenges for fluent improvisation on the guitar: fretboard navigation.

    It’s an intro to a complex mechanical topic, by way of a cool jazzy arpeggio phrase. If you’re experienced with harmony, you may find this helpful in applying it to on-the-fly navigation. And even if you don’t have a strong harmony foundation, you’ll learn a fun phrase and hopefully come away with a better understanding of the topic:

    We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with teaching CAGED, chords and scales, etc. — we know there’s lots of material out there on harmony and theory, and definitely stuff on fretboard mapping as well, though it starts to get more specialized. But the latter topic, by our estimation less well understood, seems like something that could be particularly useful for us to teach.

    So…what do you think?

    • Are you interested in the topic of fretboard mapping?
    • Did you like how we covered it / find the video easy to understand?
    • Do you feel like you have enough harmony knowledge for this, or need more context?

    If you have any other ideas for how we can help get the fundamentals of the topic across in an approachable way, let us know, all feedback is appreciated and will help us in putting together future lessons on this sort of thing!

  2. This video is so cool. Just recently I thought it’s such a shame that there are no theory lessons here. Fretboard mapping is what I am concerned with most besides pickslanting when it comes to practicing. Maybe you guys could also look a bit into the caged system and how to practice it and how to think of it when doing it. I know that there’s a lot of stuff on Youtube about that too, but you guys have always used amazing animations in terms of picking. I wonder how awesome and incredibly helpful it would be to see something like that related to fretboard mapping.

  3. I just wanted to give a shoutout to Troy. I really appreciate branching out into the realm of note selection/what to play. I know the original idea was technique but this is a very welcome addition so thank you and please consider doing more stuff like this.

  4. Avatar for Troy Troy says:

    FYI moved this over from your other thread because we had this one going already — sorry for the switcheroo.

    As Brendan said, we don’t necessarily want to reinvent the wheel here because there’s stuff out there on these topics already. But my impression is that there is an audience out there like me, who came up more through pop and rock, and who don’t necessarily know where to begin or that subjects like mapping even really exist. If we can give you a simple statement of what the problem is, why mapping needs to be considered, and give you a “mapping for dummies”-level introduction to how great players solve it, then players go always go and seek out more sophisticated solutions as their interest dictates.

  5. @Troy you talk about there being methods out there already to do this stuff and that you guys aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel. I’d like to say that personally I studied some of the methods like CAGED, yet I still can’t apply it in a way that consistently sounds good.

    There is a big gap between knowing the method and actually making it sound good, that I feel no one explains. Even in the Martin Miller segment, even he doesn’t really know. Yet there is a definite science to it. “Playing this chord tone or sequence of notes over the V chord will ALWAYS sound like this”. If that makes sense.

    I think the key is “target notes”. It’s something frank gambale talks about and I’ve heard other players talk about. Making sure to target a specific chord tone to hit when the chord changes instead of mindlessly playing the scale.

    I’ve heard targeting the 3rd of the chord as being a “secret”. As that is the note that tells the listener that the chord has changed, and you can hear it even if no chords are playing under you.

    One exercise I’ve seen before is to take a chord progression, start simple and pick a simple pentatonic scale to play over the whole thing, but determine what the 3rd is for each chord, and when the chord changes make sure you land on that 3rd. So if the chord is G Major, the 3rd would be B, for C Major, the 3rd is E.

    Do the same thing but now target the Root of each chord, then the 5th’s, then 7th’s, then 9ths, etc.

    Frank Gambale sort of explains it here.

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