Total Fretboard Memorization

Lately I’ve been working on total fretboard memorization. When I say total, I mean knowing exactly what a note is just by seeing the fret/string. No thought, no figuring it out based on its proximity to other areas you do have memorized, just reflex. Here’s what I’ve done that has worked for me:

Step #1: Focus solely on the natural notes.
Don’t worry about sharps or flats until you have all the natural notes fully memorized. Pretend they don’t exist. Here’s the fretboard from 0 to 12th fret comprised of only natural notes:

E A D G B E
F - - - C F
- B E A - -
G C F - D G
- - - B - -
A D G C E A
- - - - F -
B E A D - B
C F - - G C
- - B E - -
D G C F A D
- - - - - -
E A D G B E

If you were to fully memorize the exact locations of all these notes, you’d know instantly if your finger was on a fret that wasn’t– a fret that was an ‘accidental’, or, sharp/flat. And since you’d know the names of the natural notes one fret above and one fret below it, you’d know the name of the accidental. Now that we know what we’re striving towards, we’re ready for the next step:

Step #2: Eliminate what you know.
You should know the open/12th (EADGBE) by heart already, so let’s eliminate them from what we need to learn. And while we’re at it, let’s eliminate the 11th fret too, since it contains no natural notes. Here’s what we’re left with:

F - - - C F
- B E A - -
G C F - D G
- - - B - -
A D G C E A
- - - - F -
B E A D - B
C F - - G C
- - B E - -
D G C F A D

A little less daunting. Now we’re really only dealing with 10 frets. 10 frets x 6 strings = 60 locations. Minus the accidentals, thats only 36 locations we need to memorize– 36 spots comprised of only 7 (ABCDEFG) actual notes. Pretty doable. And we’re about to make it a little easier:

Step #3: Disregard the ‘high E’ string / Memorize the ‘low’ one.
Since the ‘high E’ string is of the exact same note layout as the ‘low E’ string, we’ll remove it from our chart:

F - - - C
- B E A -
G C F - D
- - - B -
A D G C E
- - - - F
B E A D -
C F - - G
- - B E -
D G C F A

Now we’re down to only 30 spaces we need to memorize! Which leaves us with our next task: memorizing the low E. This is a very easy task, and you probably have most of them memorized already because of root notes in barre chords. Before moving onto the next step, make sure you do. Here’s a good way to test yourself:

Write out a random line of letters, using only the letters ABCDEFG. Just write them out without thinking about it. Here’s an example: G A B D C G F E B D A G F E. Now put on a metronome and play one per click, using only the low E string. Play to a fairly slow click. It’ll become easily apparent which notes you know the location of as a reflex and which ones you’re a little ‘uhh’ about. Make sure you take time hammering the locations of the ‘uhh’ ones into your brain. When they’ve all become reflex, you should know where they are on the ‘high E’ string just as easily as you know it on the low one, without even doing the exercise on the ‘high E’. But if you want, you can try the exercise on the ‘high E’ as well.

Step #4: Beads and Broken Beads
Now that we have the E strings memorized, let’s take the remaining ‘low E’ string out of our diagram, except for one note. The “/” symbol denotes a note location we have memorized, whereas “-” denotes an accidental we don’t have to worry about.


/ - - - C
/ B E A -
/ C F - D
/ - - B -
/ D G C E
/ - - - F
B E A D -
/ F - - G
/ - B E -
/ G C F A

You’ll notice that using the B from the ‘low E’, the word ‘BEAD’ is spelled out from the ‘low E’ string to the G string. If you’l look up at the 2nd fret, you’ll also see that ‘BEA’ is spelled out, with a D the next string over on the 3rd fret. We’ll refer to that one as the ‘broken bead’, and the one at the 7th fret as the ‘bead’. Drill the following into your head:

2nd fret: broken bead.
7th fret: bead.

Drill it and drill it and drill it. Reinforce this by plucking each of the ‘broken bead’ notes and then each of the ‘bead’ notes. They’re the exact same notes, no octave change whatsoever. Play them backwards, play them forwards, play them jumbled up however you want but say the note they are as you play them. The trick of random letters that we used for learning the low E string works great for the two ‘bead’ areas. Just write a bunch of random letters like this: BEADEADEBABEBDEABDEAB and play it. Spend as long as you need until you know these note locations on reflex.

Step #5: Killing the Orphans

Here’s our 17 remaining notes we need to learn:

- - - C
/ / / -
C F - /
- - B -
D G C E
- - - F
/ / / -
F - - G
- B E -
G C F A

Not much left, dude. By learning the BEAD locations we’ve chipped away at a lot. Our next step now is to kill some ‘orphans’, or, notes that are the only note across a given fret. Scroll back up to our very first diagram. When we look at the 4th and 6th frets across all 6 strings, there’s only one natural note in each of those areas. For the 4th fret, it’s the B. For the 6th fret its the F.

We’re gonna throw one more into the mix as well though. As you can see in the Step #5 diagram, the C is looking pretty lonely up there on the 1st fret. Let’s hammer into our brains that the C on the 1st fret of the 2nd string while we work on the B and F.

Now we’re gonna play the random letter game with those specific C, B, and F locations. Hammer those in for as long as it takes to be reflex, and then we’re on to the next step:

Step #6: Bringing it all Back Home

Only 14 more:

- - - /
/ / / -
C F - /
- - / -
D G C E
- - - /
/ / / -
F - - G
- B E -
G C F A

We’re almost done. What we’re gonna do now is play the random letter game with the remaining strings, but we’re only gonna focus on one string until we know it perfectly before we move on to the next one. We’re gonna start from the B string and work towards the A string, since the B and G string will be easiest, as we only have 3 notes on each that we still need work learning.

Once you’ve mastered the game on all the strings and think you’re too cool for school, it’s probably because you are, but make sure you’re honest with yourself on note locations you’re still having trouble with and really drill those.

I’ll be doing a Part 2 to this lesson in the near future that has to do with memorizing the ‘accidentals’, but this should be enough work for you right now. Remember to take time with each step and only move on to the next when you’ve truly mastered it. This is not a race. Also, don’t devote too much time to these exercises during a given day. Only practice this for as long as you can stand it. What we’re striving for is reflex, not cramming for a test. In other words, we don’t want to overload our minds with information, where we know something really well for a few days, and then forget it after that. Be patient and diligent and have fun! And do re-test yourself periodically to stay sharp. (PUN ALERT!)

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