Mastering the fretboard using mental maps is, in my opinion, the most effective means to gaining confidence and competence learning the fretboard.  By doing so you will learn to integrate more information quickly as compared to looking at an image of the total fretboard (we’ve all seen these nasty images like the one below) and attempting to memorize it.  Instead, the use of mental maps will help you SEE relationships on the fretboard that are far more useful and easier to learn.  The more mental maps you have, the better your comprehension of the fretboard will be.


Instead, the use of mental maps will help you SEE relationships on the fretboard that are far more musically useful and easier to learn.  The more mental maps you have, the better your comprehension of the fretboard will be.

Why is Mastering the Fretboard so Challenging?

The ability to physically play the guitar (including technique and learning songs) always seems to develop faster than a student’s actual understanding of what is going on…and this is particularly true with learning the fretboardAnd when I say learning the fretboard I am specifically referring to learning the actual layout of notes.

To be fair, the fretboard is a fairly featureless landscape

Other than frets and strings and the odd fret-dot, there is not much to help us guitarists navigate the fretboard with confidence and certainty.  Is it any wonder that we tend to rely more on visual shapes to help us make sense of the thing. 

Piano players certainly have the advantage as the keyboard presents far more visual and  musical information.  It is, of course, colour coded in black and white ; as well it has  a curiously repeating pattern of those black and white keys that hint as to the nature of how Western (as in Western Civilization) music works. 

The guitarist’s fretboard is completely devoid of this kind of information (visually that is) so how do we fix that?

We need Mental Maps!

Mental maps allow people to visualize relationships that are not immediately evident.

Star constellations are a great example of mental maps.

The Big Dipper does not really exist.

It’s the name we’ve given a certain cluster of stars to help us navigate an otherwise bewildering night sky.   All we did was connect some stars in a creative way to come up with a picture that can help us know where we are (You can’t see the Big Dipper in the Southern hemisphere so you at least know, when you do see it, you’re in the Northern hemisphere).

Mental Map No.1

Here is the first mental map I always show my students to help get started with mastering the fretboard.  It’s simple in its presentation but the fact remains that many guitarists don’t access this visualization of the fretboard.


From this one image alone, guitarists can gain some insight into concepts of:

Mental Map No.2

Here is another mental map I use often which is based on the familiar CAGED system.  It helps students to visualize OCTAVE PATTERNS throughout the fretboard.


Why should you know this Mental Map?

The  octave patterns (specifically the notes) serve as little light-houses that never change their relationship to each other.  It allows you to understand the fretboard from a broad view making sure you never get lost.

The same relationships hold true for ANY note you are interested in.

Mental Map No.3

This mental map (Key of C Major) might appear a little less obvious than the previous.


If you know the interval formula of the Major Scale, then you know that there are two clusters of notes that are a semi-tone (one fret) apart between the 3rd & 4th degrees (in this case, E & F) and the 7th & 8th degress (B & C).

These little note clusters tend to stand out among the remaining notes because they are physically close to each other on consecutive strings.

As such, it makes sense to visualize these clusters on each string as a tool to help navigate the fretboard…at least I think so.

Where to Go From Here!

There are two key features I want you to take away.

 1. As a guitarist looks down upon the empty landscape of a fretboard, invoking all sorts of mental maps will be the primary tool to navigate the fretboard competently.  These mental maps will come together at any moment to help you get a BIG picture of the fretboard or they might “flicker” in and out of your awareness as you play.  It’s a very dynamic process that no one will ever SEE going on in your mind.

2. The process of integrating mental maps is, as you might guess, not something that happens over night.  As usual, practice, time and commitment are key but the payoff is so worth it.  The process is not really a difficult one but rather it just needs continuous attention- like everything about learning the guitar.  

I hope you are the type of guitarist that is willing to put in the required time and energy to really learn the layout of the fretboard and enjoy a greater sense of confidence about how the fretboard really works.

So the next time you can see the Big Dipper and how it’s familiarity makes you feel, at least, a little confident about knowing where you are in the world,  mental maps of the fretboard will give you that same sense of confidence. 

Don't Strum Another Song Until You've Read This GUIDE!

"I think it's a fairly well-accepted urban legend that strumming will just occur naturally once a guitarist learns a few chords...and while this may be true for some, your teaching is precisely what the rest of us need in order to progress". 

Dan Tanner

Learn to strum