Learning the Whole Guitar Neck

The guitar is a strange and wonderful instrument. It comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations, and is played with a variety of techniques in many different styles. More often than not, guitarists learn the instrument with the requirements of one of these styles as their guide. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most guitar players have gathered their entire understanding of music, and how the guitar is organized, through the lens of the style they play.

This often causes problems when we attempt to annex another style or get to the next level in our playing. It’s at this point that most guitarists realize that they don’t know the guitar neck well enough.

Guitar players tend to fall into two categories: those that learned the instrument “notes first” and those that learned it “shapes first.” If you are a player working primarily from a NOTE perspective, your frame of reference will be the positions for the notes in the “Natural Scale” and its derivatives. Your relationship with shapes likely comes from recognizing repeating chord patterns in the music.

If you are SHAPE player, your frame of reference will likely be the repeating intervallic patterns on the neck and you will relate more to how the notes “work” as members of a scale or chord based on their interval relationships – root, 3rd etc. Your understanding of notes will have mostly come from knowing the note names of the roots/tonics of the chord and scale shapes you use.

In my own search to learn the neck, I found, and occasionally studied with, guitarists who were not only great players, but great teachers.  In answer to questions like:  “Do you view the neck as a series of chord and scale shapes or in terms of note locations?”, and  “Do you tend to play vertically, (in “position”), or horizontally (up and down the neck)?, or  “What fingerings should I learn in order to do so and so?”,  they inevitably came back with  “YES” or  “ALL OF THEM”.

 Learning the whole instrument, horizontally and vertically – the note positions, the shapes, and all of the fingerings is the biggest step we take in becoming better guitar players.  This is where being SERIOUS about the guitar starts.   It’s a lot to get together, and it takes time, but it feels great once you get going.  And there are ways to frame the process that make it a far less daunting task.  Try this one on for size

TWO structures are the key to understanding the entire guitar neck – the NATURAL SCALE and the C MAJOR TRIAD.  If you know the note locations/fingerings for the Natural Scale on the neck, you know the rest.   If you know the C Major Triad in 5 shapes on the neck, you know the rest.

The “rest” are simply MODIFICATIONS of, ADDITIONS to, or the REPOSITIONING of these two simple structures.  Make sense?