The guitar fretboard is hard to decipher. It seems to have little rhyme or reason to where the notes are placed and therefore learning the notes (and the alternate places to play the same notes) can be a long process with a steep learning curve. Before you get too excited, know that there is no golden key to understanding the guitar fingerboard. There are, however, several ways to understand it so it becomes more manageable.
To start off with, let’s have alook at why the guitar fingerboard is such a maze to start off with:
1. This is an imaginary fingerboard. You don’t have to study it, just have a quick look. On the left, we have a six string fingerboard that is tuned in 4ths. The dots you see are all the notes that are in a C Major chord, that is to say, C E & G. If you look you will see that the layout of these notes is quite regular and there are patterns that start to go diagonally across the fingerboard. On the right of figure 1, I have drawn a fingerboard that extends out to many strings, but still tuned in 4ths. This way you can start to see that the patterns repeat as you go up the fretboard.
2. In Figure 2 we have taken this imaginary fretboard and placed a six string major chord shape on it. As you can see, because of the first and second string, this chord is pretty impossible to play. The barre that we would normally use to go across the fret doesn’t work. However, in Figures 3, 4 and 5 you will see that if we had this tuning of 4ths, we could shift this shape across the strings and still maintain the same chord voicing! Much like we can shift a shape up and down the fretboard and maintain a chord (a diminished chord for example) in this 4ths fretboard we could potentially shift the shape across the strings too making the shape very regular.
In figure 6 you have a summary of what these imaginary chords would look like going across the fretboard. Very simple, just maintain the same arrangement of fingers, and you will get the same chord voicing!
Unfortunately, because of that impossible 6 string shape, we have a tuning that is not all in fourths. There is one string that is tuned with the interval of a third and that is the 2nd string. The note B is a third away from G (the third string) and this B send the fretboard into all sorts of irregular patterns. Figure 7 has our imaginary fingerboard on the left, in the middle all of the red dots show you the notes that move around because of that third tuning of the second string, and on the left we see the same C major triad as it appears on our “real” fingerboard of the guitar.
Figure 8 Takes that same six string shape and moves it across the strings as before. But, now that the tuning is different we cannot simply move the shape across, rather some notes need to be moved to compensate for the tuning. So, we get the three shapes as seen in figure 8. They all have an open fifth between the lowest two notes.
Figure 9 shows these three chord voicings as we use them on the standard guitar. You may look at these shapes and recognize them from playing. The left is the E major shape, the middle is the A major shape and the right is the D major shape.
Now, as I stated before, these three shapes have an open fifth between the lowest two notes. This means that, in root position (with the C as the lowest note in this case) there is another voicing possible with an interval of a third in the lower two voices. These voicings are written in green in figure 10. Have a look and see if you can identify them as C major and G major shapes.
Figure 11 is an important one to study. It shows that these five major chord shapes interlink and span the twelve frets of the fingerboard (and then proceed to repeat). The usefulness of this knowledge allows us to see the fingerboard not in individual notes but as five units that act as pillars for us to understand the arrangement of the fingerboard. You will also see that the order of these interlinking shapes is actually spelled out by the word CAGED. The C shape connects to the A shape, connects to the G then E then D shape. Playing all of these shapes one after another will have the same chord (C major in this instance) but with different voicings that cover the fretboard.
These examples all used the chord of C Major (with the notes C, E, and G) but the principle applies to any major chord. The CAGED system can be applied to both chords and scales (in fact I built my entire scale book around the CAGED system) and the principle can be used on any type of chord (minor, seventh etc.) however they do not link up as neatly as the major chords.
In the next look at the CAGED system we will start to look at implementing these shapes in the repertoire and find some examples of where it occurs. I find that by thinking with these shapes, I can quickly bring together groups of notes as a unit rather than piecing them together one note at a time.