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Memorizing Fretboard Note Names

One of my students' most asked questions is: How do I memorize the notes on my bass fretboard? In these next few lessons I will explain good ways and bad ways of memorizing the notes names on your fretboard, and I will describe the memorization method I developed for my students.

Why Should I Memorize the Notes on the Fretboard?

First, why bother with memorizing the notes on the fretboard? Memorizing the fretboard will open worlds for you. It will help you learn keys, chord and scale patterns and relationships, chord progressions, play anywhere on the neck, sight-read, communicate with other musicians, and expand your basslines. Once you have the notes memorized, you won't know how you managed without knowing them.

The better you know the note names, the more confidence you will have when you play. A person has only so much attention. Confidence, in any area of your playing, improves other areas because it gives you more attention to devote to them. This aspect alone is a good enough reason to memorize all of your note names on the fretboard.

Think Note Names

You need to think in this language of note names as much as possible. It is difficult at first. Everything works against you—your guitarist friend talks in fret numbers, your fingers know various patterns, books use tab with fret numbers, etc. It takes a commitment to learn them, but you'll be happy you put in the effort.

Although you don't constantly do it while on stage, try thinking of the note name of each note you play. You can take songs or exercises you know well and name them out loud as you play. It's okay if you go slowly.

If you're in a band, try to get everyone on board with only speaking in note names. You will all be better for it. Or, add some members—keyboardists or horn players—who don't speak fret numbers.

The point is: use the language of note names as often as possible.

Stop Staring

One approach people often take is staring at a diagram in hopes they absorb it. Memorizing in this way takes forever and often does not stick. Looking at a diagram is a passive activity. You need to use an active approach—use your mind to find the notes. It is a struggle at first. Be patient with yourself.

Direct Access vs. Indirect Access

In your mind, you need instant recognition of each note on the fretboard. Because music is based in time, there is often little time to think. Your knowledge of each note name must be a reaction, a reflex. You can't start from a note you know well, and work your way up to the one you need. There's no time for that! Your goal is to be able to instantly identify each note of each fret without associating it to another.

Avoid Patterns

It is difficult, but try to avoid finding note names by using patterns. Patterns, such as the octave, are useful in the very early stages. But, you need to start getting beyond that at this point. Even one extra step in finding a note will hold you back.

Rhythmic Pressure

When practicing any note name exercise, use a metronome. Practice note names to a steady pulse. It's rarely mentioned, but using a metronome is a great memory aid. When you play to a steady beat, it gets your mind thinking more quickly. Thinking ahead in music is essential. The metronome makes sure you don't slow down when things are difficult, and speed up when they are easy.

Always start slowly. When things are going well, gradually increase your speed.

Say The Note Names Aloud

Another key to memorizing the note names is to say them out loud as you practice. This really helps reinforce them. You might feel silly, but do it anyway. I promise it makes a difference.

In Summary

When learning note names on the fretboard, your goal is to find the note in one step. Think in terms of note names as much as possible. Don't stare at a diagram. Use your mind to actively find the notes. Avoid using patterns to find the notes. Always practice using a metronome to put pressure on yourself, and reinforce the note names by saying them out loud.

Next we will look at two ways of memorizing the note names on the fretboard.

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