Fret board intervals; When playing and looking at the guitar fretboard, is it best to mentally use pictorial patterns, (chords, scales, modes, arpeggios) to help in the (my) solo direction, or counting intervals?

In other words what would be the proper or better way to look at the frets on the guitar neck fretboard with all of the options of cords and modes, scales and so forth, I have a hard time counting fret Intervals from string to string.

I know the tuning of standard 440 and I know string to string is tuned to the fourth except the B. It’s the visual part I have problems with,and when I am soloing I forget all the other options, is there a better way to memorize and reflect coherently to speed up my direction when soloing I mainly play old school and the 12 bar blues.

2 Answers 2


My students generally work on patterns. Once a scale shape is learned, the intervals are of academic value. And that third between G and B strings means you need to be aware that intervals there are different from those on other adjacent strings. So, patterns work best.

That apart, those patterns are moveable to play in other keys, so they work well.

The more you play, the more you'll hear the intervals and associate them with positions. Counting up frets and strings is too slow anyway when you're in the middle of a solo!

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    Once a scale shape is learned, the intervals are of academic value - Respectfully disagree: When you think about the music and not just the patterns, you open yourself to all sorts of new possibilities. Patterns tend to lock you into a rut. I played with patterns for years - then I had a teacher who forced me not to use patterns but to always think about the intervals and the notes for that reason.
    – Stinkfoot
    Sep 24, 2017 at 17:24
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    patterns are moveable to play in other keys - notes and intervals are infinitely more "movable": they work everywhere - a pattern only works for certain playing positions on that instrument. On bass, for example, open and first positions are very important, and their fingerings are different than when you play further up on the neck. If you only learn the "portable" pattern and move up and down the fretboard, if you want/need to play open position you will be lost.
    – Stinkfoot
    Sep 24, 2017 at 17:29
  • @Stinkfoot - I suppose if that's a problem for you, and others, you could always sort out patterns from open strings not using your index finger. In other words, play 1st fret with middle; then those patterns will be the same higher when you use the index in place of the nut. Personally, I rarely use open strings, can't see the point. And instead of bottom E, I'll probably play it on the B string, unless of course, I've a drink in my left hand...! But I tend to use my right for that. Thank heavens for hammer-ons.
    – Tim
    Jan 29, 2018 at 12:20
  • sort out patterns... That wouldn't solve the biggest challenge: play a note without fretting and no fret to orient you: Your patterns are built on a series of notes on the fretboard. Thanks to 'maestro', I use open strings a lot. If I can play in open or first position on the E or A string, I do-that means almost everything. D and Eb don't work well down there-end up with a lot of shifting/moving too far up on the G string - best reason to use a 5. I rarely use open strings, can't see the point - maybe it's the opposite: you don't see the point because you rarely use them. :)
    – Stinkfoot
    Jan 29, 2018 at 18:04
  • @Stinkfoot - I understand what you say. You could sort of press the nut with index, to retain the pattern. What's 'maestro'? Have you come across 'slingshot', I think it's called. Special tuner that can drop a string down by one or two frets.
    – Tim
    Jan 29, 2018 at 18:15

Learn visual patterns but also learn the notes and the theory behind those patterns.

One thing I'd be careful of is relying too much on visual patterns. The transposable nature of the fretboard makes it so easy for us to get quick results but it becomes a crutch in the long term.

It's certainly worth learning some visual patterns at first and the only answer is memorization. Sure count or use some cheatsheet or whatever to learn but eventually you'll have to memorize it. Maybe start with octaves and that will give you a bit of a marker. Then within those octaves start learning smaller intervals like 3rd or 5ths.

But don't only do that. I'd learn some scales and arpeggios and say the notes out loud (or at least think them) while you're playing. Also try saying the scale/chord degrees instead of just the note name. That will help your soloing, your knowledge of the fretboard, and your knowledge of what notes are in what keys/chords all at the same time.

A common problem is that it can be tough to truly learn the notes if you're already dependent or allow yourself to become dependent on visual patterns. And a practice technique to combat that is to purposely handicap yourself in a way that forces you to break out of those patterns. Try playing a scale only on one string or using one finger or using a fingering system that you don't normal use. It will force you to think about the notes a bit more.

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    Do we actually think in terms of note names when soloing? I don't believe we do. It's far more about next few notes, so patterns will sort out that. If I have to solo in a different key, I certainly won't be thinking note names, more likely moving it all a couple of frets. Why should a long term crutch be a problem?
    – Tim
    Sep 23, 2017 at 15:47
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    You might not. I do. And many don't but I'd argue that they're missing out. For instance you mentioned "moving it all a couple frets". Shapes make you rely on movement up or down the neck but that's only one dimension. Why not use both? And, no, when I'm playing I'm not always thinking about note names. Ideally I'm not thinking about anything. My philosophy is that you learn things well enough in practice that it should just come out when improvising. But when I do think about something it's usually the notes especially in relation to the current/next chord tones.
    – user37496
    Sep 23, 2017 at 16:36
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    And a long term crutch is a problem—in the metaphor—because it keeps what could be an otherwise healthy leg from getting stronger. In reality it's a problem because 1) It enables noodling on autopilot without truly learning the fretboard or the theory behind what you're playing. It doesn't have to prevent that learning but in practice it frequently does. 2) People tend to play the same things over and over again when relying only on visual patterns. Again, I don't think visual patterns are all bad—they're even essential—but you shouldn't stop there.
    – user37496
    Sep 23, 2017 at 16:38
  • ...try playing a scale only on one string or using one finger or using a fingering system... - great advice.
    – Stinkfoot
    Sep 24, 2017 at 17:16

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