One of the great challenges of learning the guitar is that the logic of the notes on the neck isn’t easily apparent. By contrast, think of the layout of a piano keyboard. Low notes are on the left, high notes on the right. Move from one white key to the next and move up or down through the musical alphabet. Skip a key and you skip a letter. To find a sharp or flat, replace a white key with the adjacent black one. It’s very clear and simple, strictly linear.
On the other hand, a scale fingering on guitar seems arbitrary and random. How many notes per string? When do you change strings? Why do the fingerings change so much from one scale to another, and why are there so many of them? The challenges this presents are enough to intimidate some people away from learning to play melody or “lead”. But fortunately, there IS logic to the guitar neck. It’s more complex than the layout of a keyboard, but there’s actually a direct relationship.
The notes on every string of the guitar are linear, in the sense that we progress through the scale as we move along the string.
So moving from an open string up the neck is like moving along a keyboard from left to right. Note that “up” in this sense means rising in pitch, moving away from the headstock. The frets divide the string up into a series of half-steps, just like the white and black keys of the keyboard. To play a chromatic scale, start with the open string and simply move along the string from one fret to the next. This is like striking every key of the keyboard in sequence from left to right.
The piano, of course, has a wider range than the guitar. A full 88-key keyboard spans just over seven octaves, while the average guitar will reach a little below four. (An octave is the distance between a given note and the next higher or lower note with the same letter name). Some electric guitars go all the way up to 24 frets to complete that fourth octave. A single string has a total range of just under 2 octaves, but the frets above the 12th are used fare less often and rarely on the bass strings. So for the most part, the average skilled player is working within an octave-plus on each string.
You can explore this by trying to play simple melodies on a single string.
The first lesson I would often give a young child would be to play “Hot Cross Buns” by sliding a finger along the first string, starting at the third fret:
This puts the melody in the key of F, but you can play the same melody anywhere on the neck by starting on any fret above the 4th, dropping two frets, and then two more. This will change the key, of course, but not the melody itself.
Now look at an open position fingering across two strings:
At first, it might seem arbitrary why we change strings when we do. But consider two factors. One, we’ve established that every string has the same linear layout as a keyboard. Two, each of the six strings is tuned to a different pitch, getting gradually higher as we move from thicker to thinner strings. The distance between each pair of strings is a perfect fourth, which works out to 5 frets. (The only exception is the third and second strings, which are a major 3rd apart or four frets).
Given that even a short-scale neck has at least seventeen frets, there’s obviously going to be some overlap between the pitch ranges of different strings. So you could think of the guitar neck as six overlapping keyboards, each sharing notes with adjacent strings. With this in mind, take a look at the next diagram:
Here, we have a C major scale spelled out on the 5th string, with duplicate note locations indicated in the tab. From each note locations, there’s at least one other possible place to play the same note. So playing the scale is essentially navigating a matrix, in which you can choose one move or another to arrive at the same note.
Obviously, it takes time to learn the neck well enough to be able to navigate all the possibilities comfortably. But understanding the nature of the guitar neck helps move that process along. Memorize scale fingerings to acquaint yourself with how some of the patterns fall. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that those finger patterns are where the music is. That comes with time, exploration, and listening.