Learning the guitar neck is like geometry: relationships between points in space, and the formations or shapes they create.
To really get to know the guitar well, it’s really helpful to learn these shapes. The guitar neck is a complicated matrix, and the patterns on the neck can really help you learn to navigate it. But in music, of course, these formations represent sounds. So while the visual formations are a convenient shortcut, they’re ultimately just a reference. The real skill is learning to hear the sonic relationships.
Every musical sound is defined by the relationship between different notes.
Notes might be played together as a chord, or in sequence as a melody. We can organize these sounds according to the distance between the notes, creating harmonic and melodic intervals. Each interval has a distinctive sound you can learn to recognize. Chords are made up of stacks of intervals that also have recognizable sounds. Learning to identify these sounds is the process we call ear training.
Along with the physical formations on the neck and the sound each one creates, the third relationship to understand is the way the sounds and shapes relate to each other. We could say that these three kinds of relationships deal with three distinct and essential musical areas: technique and “geography” (where things are), vocabulary (what things are) and theory (how things go together).
If that seems like a lot of information, it is. But the good news is that you don’t need to know it all before you can play, or even play well.
In an earlier Core Concepts post we looked at how focusing in on a single musical area can help you progress. In the same way, we can choose to focus on a particular area of the neck, a particular type of sound, or a particular set of patterns. Just as with style, the key is to develop a depth of knowledge: to learn one thing really well. That information then becomes a part of your essential vocabulary, just in the way that a chord you learned in the very beginning might be something that you’ve used every day since.
There are many ways to organize this work. The single biggest thing to remember is that it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the fingerings. Those geometric shapes and sequences are important, but they’re just a shortcut to the sounds. Not only that, but any large shape can be broken down into smaller shapes. So a six-note “E shape” barre chord is actually not one shape but many smaller ones. Trying to memorize all of these is daunting, but if you treat the process as an exploration of sounds it becomes a lot clearer and a lot more musical.
The same goes for scales, or any other pattern you might learn. If you memorize a scale as a fingering sequence but don’t get to know the musical relationships, it won’t help you become a strong melody player. This is a trap many people fall into. I come across students all the time that learn fingerings and patterns but struggle to make music with them. Learning the sounds and the way they relate provides the context you need to use these patterns as the tools and raw materials they are.
Our entire musical system is based on an interwoven network of sonic relationships.
Every style has a particular set of sounds that are used most often. Becoming a confident and musical player in any genre depends on your ability to learn those sounds and how to use them. Learning the relationships gives you a context that will guide your musical choices, and over time will unlock not just the guitar neck but whole musical worlds.