‘How do I know every note on the fretboard?’ I used to suggest playing scales in all 12 keys, come out with different grouping of notes to play over etc. but what I found is, these work more in the mechanical side of playing although there’s totally nothing wrong with it because we need our hands to be able to play anyway. When it comes to fretboard coverage, I believe it has more to do with the brain than the hands alone. With that in mind, it would be much more beneficial to practice things in a musical context that stimulate our brain and ears than some pure mechanical stuff running scales up and down the fretboard.

Here’s what I found to be effective in improving fretboard awareness: pick our favorite vocal songs and transcribe the melody as well as the chords. Sing the melody (optional) and look for the notes on the fretboard one by one. Make sure to not sing out of tune though! Once that is done, move on to transcribing the chords. When it comes to chords, it might a little more difficult than the melody alone so it’s okay to compare the chords we transcribed with other sources (same goes for melody if we’re not confident).

Getting back to transcribing the melody. Since we have no evil tabs to refer to as most tabs don’t include the vocal melody anyway, we will come out with our own fingering. As most if not all vocal melodies don’t cover a huge range on the fretboard, we can practice them over different octaves and positions. Everyone has their own fingering playing over the same stuff so keep an open mind and look for the best fingering that suits. Now we throw in our transcribed chords into the mix and we should start seeing how the melody works with the chords into forming the songs as we know them which strengthens our fretboard awareness.

Let’s talk experience. I used to practice my scales up and down left and right the fretboard to rather fast speeds but when I jammed with my brothers (many years ago when I was much more horrible than I am now), I couldn’t play a thing because I had never practiced in a musical context. All I could do was scales and they sounded just like what they are, scales, not music. It’s like a chef knowing how to slice a fish in 5 seconds but don’t know what to do with it next. My chord work was even more horrible lets not get into that now. It was until I started transcribing simple pop songs I started seeing the big picture. All the years of listening to Chinese pop passively didn’t go to waste (I’m actually surprised by how many Jay Chou songs I know!)!

To conclude, fretboard awareness is a very brain thing because when we talk about a key or scale, we should be able to visualize all the relevant notes immediately instead of looking for a reference (like looking for the Db to play over a song in Db major) and let the hands to the rest. It takes time to practice this though so don’t fret and go transcribe some simple songs!

 

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