Theory Thursday: Learning the Fretboard
I’ve been playing the ukulele for 3 years and I still don’t know each note on the fretboard. I’ve realized not knowing which notes are at each fret is holding me back. I want to be able to look at my fingers as they shape a chord anywhere on the neck and know what notes I’m playing. This will help me find the notes I want when I’m improvising or composing. I’ll be able to change one chord to another by finding the root note and shifting the whole chord formation up and down the neck to the next chord I want. I’ll be able to change a major chord to a minor chord by finding the third and lowering it a half step.
Memorizing the fretboard is daunting. The piano’s white and black keys make a pattern you can see at a glance and feel by touch, but the ukulele doesn’t have an obvious map. I’ve spent the afternoon looking for ukulele fretboard patterns, and building an interactive tool so I can quiz myself. I had planned to share the quiz tool in this post, but unfortunately, my version of WordPress is stripping out all the CSS that makes it work. I’m going to look for another way to share the tool, but for now, I’ll just share my step by step process.
For this tutorial, I’ll assume you have some basic knowledge of the ukulele. Let me know in the comments if you’d like me to go into more detail about any of the terminology or topics covered here.
Before we go into memorizing the ukulele fretboard specifically, here’s some advice about memorization in general. These are the keys to memorizing anything:
- Decide you’re going to memorize and commit to it regardless of the difficulty.
- Break it into chunks your brain can handle.
- Pull the knowledge out of your brain frequently to strengthen the connections.
- Play around with adding your other senses to help strengthen your memory (singing, touch, sight).
- Invent your own system for memorization. Working with the information as if you were going to teach it to someone else will help it sink in.
- Learn the information in the context you’re going to use it. It’s one thing to memorize it on paper. It’s another to look at your actual fretboard and know what you’re looking at. Use your fretboard as often as you can, but mental visualization exercises are also a powerful memorization tool.
Here are some facts about the ukulele fretboard to help you learn:
- As you move up a string, each fret raises the pitch.
- As you move up a single string, the notes repeat in sequence in this consistent pattern: A_BC_D_EF_G. The “_” represents a skipped fret. It repeats over and over, like this: A_BC_D_EF_G_A_BC_D_EF_G_A…
- The interval between two notes separated by a single fret is called a “whole step”. (ex. A to B).
- The interval from one fret to the adjacent fret higher or lower is called a “half step” (ex. B to C).
- In between two natural (♮) notes that are a whole step apart is a sharp(♯) / flat(♭) note. Each sharp/flat note has two names. For example, A♯ and B♭ are the same note. Whether you call it a sharp or a flat depends on context.
- Fret 12 is the same as the open strings, Fret 13 is the same as fret 1. The whole sequence repeats so you only need to learn up to fret 12! Hooray!
Here’s the process I’m following. For each of these exercises, draw a fretboard and fill it in yourself. I can give you the answers, but I can’t make it stick in your brain. Just like building any muscle, you need to do your own reps!
Step 1. Learn the open notes. If you can tune your instrument, you’ve already learned this much. The open strings are GCEA. Now, learn the notes that match the open notes on the next lower string: CEA.
Step 2. Learn all the notes in first position (frets 1-4). After step 1 you already have a lot of these filled in. Chunking into groups of 3 notes with the same whole-step, half-step pattern helps to simplify the task. Break this step down into substeps like this:
Step 2.a Learn A_BC Make it easy on yourself and start with your ABC’s. Starting with the open A string, skip a whole step (fret 1), then there’s B and C. Where else can you find an A_BC sequence in first position? Right, on the G string. Fill that in. You may want to stop here for the day and just practice with A, B, and C for a while.
Step 2.b Learn D_EF Just like A_BC, D_EF has the same whole step between the first two notes, and a half between the second two notes. Let’s fill those in.
Step 2.c Learn G Look, we have almost all the natural notes in first position covered. There’s one G left. See where it goes? Nice. Let’s add it in.
Step 3. Learn all the notes in fifth position (frets 5-8). Follow the same process as in Step 2. Pay special attention to Frets 5 and 7. They have natural notes all the way across so they’re good for getting your bearings.
Step 4. Learn all the notes in 9th position (9-12) in the same way. Here’s the diagram of the completed fretboard. I’ve left out the sharps/flats to make it easier to look at.
Make your own flashcards or practice filling in a fretboard diagram on a sheet of paper. Practice using your ukulele fretboard. Expect it to take days or weeks to become fluent. Who knew that learning the alphabet could be so difficult?
Test your fluency by quizzing yourself and asking yourself questions like these:
- Point to all the A’s, B’s, etc.
- What are the notes making the C chord in first position?
- Where is the root of the G chord? (aka, where are the “G” notes when you make the G chord). Go through all the chords you know and identify the root of the chord (the one it’s named after) and all its notes.
- Point to a random spot on the fretboard and name that note. Find another instance of that same note elsewhere on the fretboard
- Pick a random note, then quickly find the octave up (or down) of that same note.
Free Ukulele Fretboard Learning Tools
I created some empty worksheets you can use to make yourself a ukulele fretboard reference card. I’ve also created an interactive quiz tool. It’s a map of the ukulele fretboard that hides and shows the notes on the fretboard as you mouse over them. Go to Ukulele Fretboard Learning Tools to access the tools.
I’d like to hear your ideas for learning the fretboard. Leave your tips in the comments!