Fretboard Diagrams For Scales

When chord box-type fretboard diagrams are used to show scales, you will see that there is often more than one note on a string, so it’s important to understand the order these notes are to be played in.

We’re going to be use the example of an A Minor Pentatonic scale, which is usually the first scale that a beginner guitar player learns. We’ll learn a lot more about its ‘theory’ later on; for now we’re using it as a vehicle for learning to read scales on fretboard diagrams. 


Take a look at this diagram. First, note that there is no dark line (or double line) to show the nut. It's common to see a number on the left of the top fret, which indicates the starting fret, but in this example there is a red root note indicating that it is a moveable scale (more on this concept later!). Hear it and get more details on how to play it from the Blues Lead 1 course: Minor Pentatonic Pattern 1.

Often the finger number will be written inside the dots on the strings; sometimes the finger numbers will be written next to the notes (I use both numbers next to the dots and inside them depending on which software I'm using for my chord boxes, but some people write the fingering beneath the chord box - where I would put the note function if useful).

Most scale diagrams might also have some kind of ‘Root Note’ indication. This is the note that gives the scale its note name; more on this later. It will be shown as an ‘R’, or perhaps in a different colour or shape to the other notes (I use red notes or the letter "R"). The book or site you are using should have some kind of explanation to check against if you’re not sure; as you get better it should be obvious which note is the root.

Which fret?
Good question! Scales and chords that don’t use open strings can be placed anywhere on the neck, so the ® root note tells you what fret to start on (you’ll learn more about this as we progress). To play an A Minor Pentatonic, we want the ® on the note A, which is on the 5th fret (of the thickest string). If we wanted to play an F# Minor Pentatonic we’d want to put the ® on an F# note, which would be at the 2nd fret. Don’t fret (excuse the pun) if this is confusing at this stage, we’ll be talking a LOT more about this soon!

Which note should you start on?
This question has a few different answers, depending on how far you are along your guitar journey. Beginners should start on the thickest string (on the left-hand side) as near to the nut as you can (the top) and then work down (the page) on each string. Then, move on to each string in turn, and go as far as you can, which should end up at the last note on the far right string. Then you go back down the scale, playing the same notes in reverse order. More advanced players should start and end on the lowest root note - more on exactly how to do this a little later.

Check with the TAB
To check you’ve understood this, and are doing it right, have a look at the TAB below. This TAB and the above chord box show exactly the same thing! If what you’ve just played is different, go back and check the above sections again. This will give you some TAB reading practice as well!

minor pentatonic tab

I usually try to present both options where I can, but it’s unlikely that examples you see from other sources will have both, so you should get used to reading TAB and fretboard diagrams. Often diagrams are a good way of seeing the ‘shape’ of a chord or scale and so can be helpful aid to memorization, but TAB can be clearer, which is why the two together is usually the best option!

Music Theory 2