A couple weeks ago, I made the argument that the way we use shapes to understand guitar is a full-blown crisis that limits our success as musicians.
A number of people responded, saying that I was
- throwing the baby out with the bathwater,
- that choosing between note names and fretboard shapes was a false dichotomy,
- that the intervallic consistency inherent in fretboard shapes was a great asset,
- that it’s a bad idea to use any method that tries to teach an interval-centric instrument like guitar the same way we teach note-centric instruments such as piano & trumpet,
- that ignorance is frequently an asset,
- that the Beatles didn’t need fancy-ass theory to make great music,
- and lastly, that I am an idiot.
It was a wonderful exchange of ideas, and the original post clearly touched on a nerve.
(Or perhaps it’s just that I’m just an asshole with a real talent for offending people. You decide.)
In this post, I want to
1) convince you of the value of learning to see note names on your fretboard instead of only shapes, and
2) show you how to use the shapes you’re already familiar with to learn those note names.
Part One: Why
Why Bother Learning Notes?
I just finished reading the thoroughly badass book Here’s Looking At Euclid by Alex Bellos. It’s a tour through the world of math & numbers, and it’s filled to the brim with fascinating stories about the human history & experience of math.
There were some exciting parallels between math & guitar that I had never before thought of.
For instance, Euclid worked out hundreds of mathematical proofs using only a ruler, a compass, and a pencil. Math at that point in time was almost purely a visual field.
[The Greeks] had an essentially spatial understanding of mathematics.”
But there were a few problems that he was never able to solve using his visual methods.
Hundreds of years later, when algebra was invented, we were able to solve these same problems quickly and easily, simply by giving names to things that were previously unnamed.
Algebra gave us a new language to discuss previously intractable problems, and in doing so made them easy to solve.
When problems were expressed rhetorically, as in Egypt, mathematicians used ingenious, but rather haphazard, methods to solve them. These early problem solvers were like explorers stuck in a fog with few tricks to help them move about. When a problem was expressed using symbols, however, it was as though the fog lifted to reveal a precisely defined world.”
In a later chapter, there’s a brief anecdote about mathematician & juggler Colin Wright.
[Wright] also helped develop a mathematical notation for juggling, which may not sound like much, but which has electrified the international juggling community. It turns out that with a language, jugglers have been able to discover tricks that had eluded them for thousands of years. ‘Once you have a language to talk about a problem, it aids your thought process.’” (emphasis mine)
What’s This Got To Do With Guitar Playing?
Just like Euclid, we guitar players are (quite impressively) solving large, complicated problems with little more than basic geometry.
But there are limitations to what we can do with these shapes.
It’s adopting a new language (algebra for math, note names for guitar) that allows us to conceptualize the problem in new ways that make it far more tractable.
It also makes it far easier to organize the resulting information.
Fortunately for us, we don’t have to wait hundreds of years for that new language to be developed––it’s already the lingua franca of most musicians that aren’t guitarists.
I am of the opinion that greatest guitar pedagogy challenge of our time is giving guitarists the ability to engage with music theory concepts without having to first translate shapes into notes and then back into shapes.
And I’m certain that it can be done by “installing” some new “software” in guitarists’ brains in a way that is neither boring nor discouraging.
Added Benefits of Multilingualism
Ask anyone who speaks more than one language, and they’ll tell you about a completely unexpected benefit: clarity of thought.
One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” ‒Frank Smith
You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” ‒Geoffrey Willans
To have another language is to possess a second soul.” -Charlemagne
Euclid didn’t know he had a problem of illiteracy––after all, that language hadn’t been invented yet. But once algebra came onto the scene, entirely new things were not only possible, but easy.
That’s different than saying algebra is always easier or more graceful than Euclidian geometry.
Your shape-centric thinking and your note-centric thinking can (and will) combine to improve your ability to think about––and play––good music.
Euclid’s methods and shape-based guitar playing are both brilliant examples of solving complex problems with clear thinking and geometry. But if you want to get past where you’re at now, you’re going to have to replace some numbers & shapes with some letters & names.
Yes. Learning to speak the language of music not only improves your playing & understanding, it also gives you access to a higher caliber of musicians.
I can only speak from my own personal experience, but when I learned to communicate in the language that great musicians use, I began having opportunity after opportunity to play with great musicians.
And that’s improved my playing more than anything else that I’ve learned.
Part Two: How
[The rest of this post assumes that you 1) know the musical alphabet, 2) that you know the names of the natural notes (C major), and 3) that you’re reasonably proficient in finding those natural notes on the guitar fretboard. If that’s not yet the case, check out The Fun Way To Learn The Names Of The Notes On Your Guitar first.]
[Shapes] -> [Intervals]
Using Shapes To Understand Intervals
An interval is the distance between two notes.
While there are twelve basic intervals, it’s silly to treat them equally.
The most obvious and useful one to start with is the octave, or the distance between two notes of the same name.
(For example, from the note C to the next appearance of a C, or from one E to the next E.)
On some instruments, like piano, an octave only has one shape, since every C looks like every other C, and every G looks like every other G.
On guitar, there are quite a few octave shapes, but only seven and a half that you really need to know.
Seven (& A Half) Easy Pieces
[Read this with a guitar in hand, or it won’t make a damn bit of sense.]
2nd to 5th – If you play an open C chord, you’ll find our first shape under your index & ring fingers. Both of these notes are Cs. If you keep this relative shape, you can move it up and down these two strings, and the notes under your fingers will always be the same––both Cs or both Ds or whatever.
5th to 3rd – Go back to those two Cs you found hiding in your open C chord. Now take your index finger and put it where your ring finger was. Put your ring finger on the C on the 3rd string. This is the second important octave shape. Same deal as before, if you maintain this shape, the notes on these two strings will always have the same names.
3rd to 1st – Again, displace your ring finger with your index finger. Now add your pinky to the C on the first string. This is our third important octave shape.
1st to 6th – The fourth octave shape is easy. Because the 1st & 6th strings are both E strings, whatever fret you play on one will get you an octave of that note on the other. In this case, we’re seeing C on both strings.
6th to 4th – With your index finger on the C on the 6th string, play the 4th string C with your ring finger. Not only does this look like the 5th to 3rd octave shape, the notes are identical too.
4th to 1st – If you look at the two previous shapes, you’ll see that this one must be an octave too. It also looks just like the 2nd to 5th shape, only moved over.
4th to 2nd – Displace your ring finger with your index finger, then put your pinky on the C on the 2nd string. This is the sixth octave shape. It looks like our 3rd to 1st octave shape, and again the notes are identical.
+12 frets – This is the “half.” Take a look where your pinky ended up. It’s exactly 12 frets higher than the note you started with on that string. Take a look at the 12th fret of your guitar, and you’ll notice that the fret marker is different than the rest––two dots or perhaps something fancy. It’s adorned this way because the neck starts over here.
The 12th fret note will always be an octave higher than the open string. While that’s somewhat useful on its own, the most important implication of this is that the interconnected series of octave shapes (what I call the “octave ladder”) keeps going.
If your guitar neck stretched on forever and ever, these patterns would show up in the exact same ways over and over and over.
[Intervals] < – > [Note Names]
Using Intervals To Understand Note Names
Now that you can see octaves, we’re going to combine this with some basic note knowledge to greatly expand your command of the fretboard.
Start here in open position with this cowboy C chord.
What notes are in this chord?
No, seriously, take ten seconds and figure it out––me giving you the answer doesn’t help you any.
What you’ll notice when you go through it is that some notes are used redundantly. We use chords with redundant notes because it makes them easier from a strumming & picking perspective, and because it gives us a nice full sound.
But the formula for a C chord isn’t CEGCE––it’s any combination of the notes C, E, & G.
That means that just the notes on the first three strings is a C chord:
It has those three notes (and no others), so it’s a C chord.
What we’re going to do is move the note on the top of the chord to the bottom of the chord (in this case, E).
[Note: this section doesn’t have pictures or diagrams––ON PURPOSE. I want you to sit down with the guitar for a few minutes and work this out. It’s not terribly hard, and it’ll do you a world of good. Again: me giving you the answer doesn’t help you any.]
If you notice, this follows the pattern of the 4th-to-1st octave shape. Instead of E on the 1st string, now we have E on the 4th string.
It’s still a C chord, because it has the notes C, E , & G.
In other words, you can find another, somewhat overlapping C chord by either:
-searching the next string over for the note name, or
-using an octave shape to find a note with the same name,
then displacing the note.
This means that you can use shapes to find names, or you can use names to find shapes. These two methods of navigation are called dead reckoning and pilotage respectively. When you combine them, they’re crazy powerful navigational tools.
Dead Reckoning = finding something in relation to something else (eg. Puerto Rico is just East of the Dominican Republic)
Pilotage = finding something by its name (eg. my address is 652 Linden Avenue)
[This next bit makes for boring reading but exciting playing. Have your guitar handy?]
We can continue on in this way, using octave shapes to find names, and gradually shifting our C chord across the neck:
All of these are C chords. We can continue onward from here, moving that 6th string G to the 1st string, and building a new C chord:
This one may take a little bit of searching at first, but that searching is good for you.
“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.” -Ovid
Once you’ve found it, repeat the same sort of octave displacement we did in the open position example:
If, midway through that last example, you wanted to reach for the note C on the 5th string instead of the E, it’s probably because you recognized the common barre chord that has that shape.
But check it out: if you had done that, you would have gotten XCGCXX instead of XEGCXX. And since the former doesn’t have an E, it’s not really a C chord.
Ok, back to CEGXXX. We’re going to move the C from the 6th string to the 1st string, just like we did before with the G. So:
Again, building this new one from scratch might take you a minute to figure out, but be patient with yourself and you’ll get it.
Got it? Onward.
Again, you might have been tempted to reach for the 8th fret C instead of the 12th fret E on that last one, because it perfectly outlines the uber-common C barre chord, but CGCXXX doesn’t make a real C chord.
From here, we’re going to do our little 6th string -> 1st string maneuver again:
This one is hopefully a little easier, as it’s the same as the very first bit we did, only 12 frets up.
If we wanted to, we could continue on, just like before, making
until we run out of fretboard.
Head Check: Are You Excited Or Overwhelmed?
If you’re skimming through this without your guitar, you’re no doubt bored.
If you’re playing through it and it’s all new to you, you may be feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
If your fretboard knowledge was pretty good to begin with, you should be having little lightbulb moments.
No matter where you fall on the confusion spectrum right now, don’t stop yet. Here’s an exercise to cement this whole deal.
Getting It To Stick
What you’re going to do know is play through the whole sequence we just mapped out, saying the name of the notes out loud as you go.
This helps the shapes stick, AND it helps the names stick. Put a reminder in your calendar, an alarm on your phone, and/or a post-it note on your guitar––I want you to play through this exercise while audibly saying the note names every day for a week.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This little using-octave-shapes-to-map-out-chord-spellings trick is only so useful on its own. After all, what good is knowing 16 ways to play a C chord if you don’t have another chord to switch to?
The next logical step might be to repeat the above exercise for the F chord:
Or perhaps learning to see chords moving vertically instead of horizontally:
Notice how each note moves up the string to the next-closest chord tone, and how the shifting notes make hypnotically shifting patterns in their repetitions?
This is just one of the thousand tiny epiphanies that await you when you learn to see what’s just below the surface.
Some Other Ways You Might Use This
- once you have the C & F, practice switching between any nearby combinations of C & F
- octaves aren’t the only interval–try IDing 5ths & 3rds in chords
- learn to make major chords into minor chords by “flatting” the 3rd
- learn to see common intervals vertically along one string
- take a chord you know by shape and learn the note names in it
- figure out which of those notes is the root, then slide the chord up vertically & figure out its new name
- use a one-octave major scale shape to learn the notes in each key (C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F)
- take songs you know, identify the chords & notes, then use this to figure out which key they’re in
There’s another quote from that juggling mathematician in Here’s Looking At Euclid that applies to music theory as much as it does math:
“Math is not sums, calculations, and formulae. It is pulling things apart to understand how things work.”
This could easily have been a never-ending article.
Just like Euclid’s theorems, there’s an exciting new truth that flows ipso facto from the one that preceded it, in a nearly endless parade of beauty, wonder, & understanding.
Well, when presented in the right order it does anyway.
If your experience of music theory (and math!) has been anything like mine, it’s been a string of false starts, dead ends, confusion, & frustration––an ad hoc assemblage of non-interconnected tidbits served up lukewarm by well-meaning-but-under-equipped teachers, websites, books, magazine articles, YouTube videos, and DVDs.
This bothers the shit out of me, and I’ve decided to do something about it.
I’m making a course that takes the average intermediate guitarist (maybe that’s you?) on a journey through all the things a professional musician should know, one logical step at a time.
How do I know what these things are? Because I wasted YEARS of my life struggling to figure them out. And when I did (and as I continue to do), my playing improved & my opportunities flourished.
Almost none of it is excruciatingly difficult.
The two hardest parts are showing up everyday, and knowing what to work on next. I can help you with both.
We’re talking about building you a system for practicing consistently, then putting you through my system for understanding enough practical music theory to play better music with better musicians.
We’re talking about a daily 15 minute lesson, each one reviewing what you learned yesterday and then building upon it.
We’re talking about a year-and-a-half long process that methodically transforms you and your playing, brick by tiny brick.
And we’re talking about doing it in a way that taps into your creativity, not stifles it.
If this sounds at all interesting to you, sign up here.