May be a multipart (beginner) question. Context: not taking lessons. Reading a bunch of books but nothing really focuses on improvising/playing by ear.

When I try to play along with stuff on TV or radio, I would essentially try to sing the solfeggio and keep transposing it until the melody of the music fits in a 'major scale'. I'd then take the open C major shape and transpose the whole first 4 finger positions (open + 3 fingers) down the fretboard until it matches the transposed solfeggio I was singing. This essentially means (I think) that I can play along with any key in any major scale or natural minor scale with one single hand position. Though I'd like to get some feedback on.

1- I guess when I sing along, I can only recognize relative intervals by transposing the solfeggio. I have no idea if the note I'm singing is a A# or a G. If that note is the first H of WWHWWWH in the melody, then it's a 'fa'. Is this bad? How useful is it to recognize the note in absolute term by ear without trying to match it on a guitar?

2- When playing single notes along a scale, is it better to keep the 4 fingers along the same frets and use all 6 strings (and have access to 2 octaves-ish) or use fewer strings and change fret positions a lot?

3- By sticking to just one hand position, I suppose it means I only know 1 of the 5 CAGED shapes (is that what it means?). Is that bad practice?

  • Just a small tip here, practice shifting your hand quickly along the neck. When improvising, it's comforting to know that you can reach a lot of notes without interrupting the rhythm, and have a lot of fingering options. Avoid stretching you fingers, and keep them close together; this forces you to move your wrist from side to side a lot more often. After a while you'll find your wrist motion becomes much quicker and sharper. I find this a very important aspect of playing guitar that I neglected as a beginner.
    – Anthony
    Aug 25, 2016 at 21:59

4 Answers 4


1- I really don't understand this question. But it sounds like you need to work on memorizing/understanding the fretboard. 2- Keep four fingers in a single position and learn a scale (CAGED or otherwise) then focus on connecting scales to stay in a single key up and down the fretboard. Then, especially for guitar and play-along, learn your modes. Between scale and mode mastery, with regular practice, you will become a fretboard master. 3- Learn about 5 connecting scales for utility. Ultimately you will find that you will primarily rely on two or three, but the other ones will come in handy for variety of sound.

Also, I would recommend this book. https://www.amazon.co.jp/gp/product/0793581931/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o07_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

That link is on Japan Amazon, but also for sale in the US.

  • Would you agree that, if one knows a major scale shape, then starting on the secong note, and going one higher at the other end, one has played Dorian? Starting one note lower, it's Locrian, etc. So maybe there's no need to learn a whole set of modes, as they can be adapted easily.
    – Tim
    Jul 8, 2016 at 6:10
  • That is the way modes are generally taught, but unfortunately that is just the nutshell version of modes. To really get to know modes, go through this lesson. It will provide a much better explanation and teach you in a way to enjoy modes in lead practice over various backing tracks. justinguitar.com/en/SC-501-ModesIntro.php
    – blusician
    Jul 8, 2016 at 8:22

Good questions! Well Lets do it step by step; 1- You do not have to know if you are singing is a G or Ab, it doesn't matter, if you can transpose thats enough... 2- About knowing if it is W (first note) or WHWWWH... hum well this is not too important but is more than your first question, lets say you want to know if you are sing a melody (a motive) based on Locrian or Dorian (which is used in Blues/Jazz) or Phrygian (Malmsteen) so if you know this it can help you composing or it can make your life easy on understanding some riff or lick. 3- You don't need to know absolutely term for playing your guitar you have to get used listening to that, if you know that when you play in 5ht frat is higher then 3dr you are in the correct way. just make sure where you are in your instrument and how it would sound (take your time and you will get precision). 4- About your technique (playing using 2 octaves or in a vertical) use both, practicing using vertical and horizontal way. 5- Using just one shape CAGED is a bad practice, I recommend you learn more and mastering them it will make your sound more natural and not like a robot typing scales, make music do not type scales, you are going in a correct way singing scales and now try to use your instrumento smoothly with freedom as you sing.


Q1. Probably a better scale shape to learn and use will be (for example) the one in A that encompasses the 4th to 7th frets, starting on the fat string, 5th fret. It's good as it means you can play two whole octaves, without a hand position shift. Most songs will fit into that, and it's moveable down to key F, and up as far as your hand will reach.

You can still use solfege, but may find it easier if you mentally transpose what you hear into doh is always the root note, number 1. I guess you're using fixed doh at C now. This makes life a little tedious (for me at least), as transposing gets complex.I don't believe it's more important to know the name of the note you're playing, than knowing its relative position in the scale/tune you're playing.I don't think most players, when transposing on guitar, are thinking note name by note name, but rather they will shift relative positioning. While downvoting me for that, please explain why you disagree...!

Q2. If you use the shape I mention, then initially, it'll work really well, with a spread of actually more that 2 octaves, without moving the hand anywhere - just play the root note with your middle finger for best results!

Q3.Yes, so eventually, learn the shapes either side of the one I suggest, then spread out to the last two. The notes at the top of one shape are the same as those at the bottom of the next, so you'll always be halfway to learning the next, anyway.


For transposing, you need to move beyond the "open" chords and into either barre chords or other chords which do not utilize any open strings. Then you may readily transpose them chromatically, one position at a time, until you discover the key that you are searching for.

This may help. Download this file and open it in your browser. (I had it hosted, but my ISP recently dumped personal web pages, and I haven't yet re-hosted it elsewhere.) This contains moveable chord forms for expressly the purpose of transposing to any key. Go have fun!

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