Fretboard Navigation – Stop Wasting Time On The Wrong Exercises 😲

I get comments on like this very often:

There are 1000s of lessons online that talk about learning the fretboard, but you only get exercises that are not in position or in all positions, and there is a huge problem with that advice, because that alone will NEVER get you there!

Instead, you need to get more practical and strategic than just mindless exercises or a theoretical way to think about the notes. I will show you a method in this video. And it doesn’t include that very famous Mick Goodrick exercise

that I don’t think works for this at all.

What Is Moving Freely Around The Neck?

Let’s start with a look at the harsh reality so that you don’t have too many illusions of 10-second fixes and hacks. All the exercises that you probably already saw in other lessons are not necessarily bad, the problem is that they don’t really get you there. Let me explain, and then I’ll show you some things that are easier to play when you are not “stuck” in a position.

I suspect you will recognize most of this next list, but never thought about why. If you want to be free to move around the neck and improvise then you need to:

  1. Be able to improvise in any position, because being free all over the neck also means being free anywhere on the neck, I’ll return to this in a bit.
  2. You want to be able to shift position freely, and in the real world that means moving from one place that you know really well to another place that you know really well: Often these are scale positions, again something I’ll expand on later
  3. You want to have a way to organize the notes in a way that makes sense for the music that you want to play. For some styles of music this is pentatonic scales,
  4. for other styles it can be other scales or even just chord tones.

B-roll (for above list)

  1. Improvising a line that moves around and then improvising in one place on the neck
  2. close-up of playing a line and then moving to a neighbor position
  3. Guitar Neck with Pentatonic scales fading in (write pentatonic) then major scales, then arpeggios

The list:

  1. Freely over the neck = Freely anywhere on the neck
  2. See notes around the place you are playing
  3. Know what notes you need to play

This next part probably feels like I am just telling you that you are already doing the right things, and I suspect that you are, just not all of them: You should spend time practicing scales in positions, whether it is pentatonic or major scales or something else, that really depends on what you want to play.

You can also see why it makes sense to practice scale positions next to each other in a key (b-roll) Because that helps you see the different areas that you have available when you play, and help you have an overview of what positions are next to each other since that stays the same in other keys.

This next part is probably tied more to Jazz than to Blues or rock, but it describes how you think of the fretboard when you play Jazz. The reason I am starting with a scale and then using that as the basic framework is that it is a practical way for me to have a hierarchy of the notes I use in a solo, and a way to understand all the notes:

Illustration: Pyramid: Chromatic, Scale, Chord Tones/Pentatonic/other arp ADD EXAMPLES FOR EACH SOUND OVER A Cmaj7 chord

For a Cmaj7 I will see the C major scale as the available “inside” notes, then the chord tones as the “important” or “foundational” notes

C Major Scale

Cmaj7 Arpeggio

but in the scale I could also focus on another subset of the scale like an Am7 arpeggio

Am7 Arpeggio

or a pentatonic scale that works over Cmaj7 like Em pentatonic

Em Pentatonic

and have this lick:
In that way, I have levels of how it relates to the chord and the music. The notes that are not in the scale are then chromatic notes and they are great to  put to use as well.

This shows you why it is nice to practice arpeggios in a scale and how to think about the notes when you are improvising,

but it is all very locked in a position, and on the guitar some things are a lot easier to play of you are not stuck in a position.

Positions Makes Some Things Difficult

This is maybe not how most people explain this, but I am sure you’ll agree that one good reason to play things out of position or along the neck is that it becomes easier to play that way.

Here’s a pentatonic pattern that sounds great and dreamy over an Fmaj7:

And that is a lot easier to play because it is a motivic melody using this way of playing a pentatonic scale across the neck in a repeating pattern:

A similar example is using several triads in a line. Moving along a set of strings makes both phrasing and technique a lot simpler:

And this is built around playing triads on the middle string set:

So exercises like these two are useful for certain types of melodies. Remember that we play exercises to be able to play music, not the other way around, but if you want to play lines like those then you also know what to practice. Let’s look at a way to develop freedom on the fretboard in a more step-by-step manner.

The Fretboard Process – Practical Knowledge

First you want to  build knowledge and make sure it is what you really need when playing. Luckily that process is a bit like earning interest on an investment,

which makes it a lot less overwhelming once you start.  After that I’ll show you how to practice moving around the neck.

If you play songs where you are used to dealing with several chords and scales, then you probably already know that it is a problem if you have one spot where you are forced to move somewhere else.

Clearly, if the goal is to improvise solos, then that needs to be a part of the process, exercises are not enough.

Start with a song you know and choose an easy position for that song. The important thing is to make sure you know EVERYTHING in that position for the entire song. Once that all feels easy and you can play solos that sound like music then you want to expand that, and here you want add a position next to the one you already have.

Mainly because you then have more places to go when you solo without having to skip around. This is  where the interest on investment parallel comes into play: The more positions you add the easier this process will be, and you will benefit from what you already learned in the positions you already checked out making it easier and easier.

But this is mostly about using positions to get an overview that works when you play, and you need to develop some other skills as well.

An Exercise That Doesn’t Work (for this)

Some exercises are not as useful for developing the ability to move around the neck as you might think. I already hinted at this in the beginning, and Mick Goodricks Unitar exercise where you solo on a single string is one of them.  To me, it is a limitation exercise that can be good for a lot of things but it is not really that practical for learning to move freely around the neck because the neck has two dimensions and we rarely play things on just one string,

in fact more than 90% of the building blocks that make up your vocabulary use more than one string. I guess this is similar to how you don’t only want to develop your ears hearing intervals on an app and also want to get used to hear things in real music.

The Exercises That Do Work (for me)

I would suggest a different approach for this, and the good thing is that you can start working on this while learning positions without having the whole neck covered. There are three variations you want to explore.

Let’s say you are working on Ladybird and have two positions covered:

This (play) and this (play)


You want to get better at moving from one to the other

so start with just the Cmaj7 chord and come up with lines that move from one position to the next. Like this where I am connecting two arpeggios across positions:

Or a descending line that uses a bit of chromaticism to go from one position to the next.

You can explore this on a part of the song or on the entire song just to get used to connecting vocabulary like arpeggios and other short phrases across positions, and you especially want to pay attention if something is easier to play like that, and example could be this way of playing arpeggios in a repeating 2-string pattern:

From this, you can start to do the same in time while trying to keep playing lines that move from one position to the other:

B-roll example solo ladybird back and forth

And as you become more and more comfortable in several positions you can expand this to moving all across the neck while soloing like I am doing on this F Blues

If you want to become better at moving around the neck freely when you solo then that is what you should practice: soloing while moving around the neck. It is similar to how you don’t learn to play great Jazz solos by only practicing scale exercises. There are skills involved that require you actually to practice playing solos.

Practical Exercises For Chords and Comping

This is also true for chords, you don’t get anywhere just practicing inversions and chord voicings, instead, you can check out this video where I cover some of the essential exercises that help you develop the real skills that you need for comping, and luckily these exercises are also a lot more fun and musical than inversions! Check it out!

Learn Jazz Make Music.

3 Basic Jazz Chord Exercises That Will Change Your Playing in 2024


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