Summary: Because all twelve notes are contained in either the C major scale or Eb minor pentatonic scale (with no redundancies), if you simply explore and learn the C major scale (all of the white keys on the piano) and the Eb minor pentatonic scale (all of the black keys) all across the fretboard, you will have learned every note on the neck efficiently and in a learning-conducive musical context!
Learning the fretboard inside and out is one of the keystones of advanced guitar playing. Unfortunately, it’s a tedious project that can prove challenging and downright annoying. But there is hope! I utilized a system for memorizing the fretboard that made the process much easier! Though I imagine others have used this approach, I personally have never seen it explicitly explained or endorsed by anyone else.
I call it the C Major + Eb Minor Pentatonic Method. Or, if you prefer, the White Key and Black Key Method.
And it’s very simple. The C major scale is defined as the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, which are all of the white keys on a piano. The Eb minor pentatonic scale contains Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, and Db (also known as D#, F#, G#, A#, and C#), which are all of the black keys on a piano. There are only twelve standard notes in “Western music,” and these two scales happen to cover all twelve—seven of them in the C major scale and the other five in Eb minor pentatonic—with no overlapping notes. The same is true for many other scale combinations, but these two are unique and particularly useful on account of the handy “white key” vs. “black key” distinction, making them especially easy to memorize and visualize.
If you learn both the C major and Eb minor pentatonic scales across your entire guitar neck, you will have memorized the entire fretboard! I (and most people) find learning to be infinitely easier when it is based in context, and there is no better context for learning your fretboard than through the avenue of actual music. These aren’t obscure scales. In fact, the major and minor pentatonic scales are arguably the two most useful scales one can learn for guitar, and even these particular keys, C and Eb, are common (especially C, affectionately known as The People’s Key.) Exploring the fretboard via these scales in a musical context gives exponentially more meaning to the notes than simply staring at a chart of the note names or using goofy mnemonics, and this added meaning is jet fuel for learning.
I suggest this process:
1. If you aren’t already digging into scale shapes, look up and settle upon one system of shapes for the major scale, a system that covers the entire guitar neck. There are two common systems: A. the five pattern version and B. the seven pattern version. There are pros and cons to each. The five pattern system requires “shifting” and the seven, “stretching.” The simplicity of the five shapes is balanced against the extra options of the seven. I learned the five pattern system and slightly prefer it due to said simplicity, its ease on the hands, and the fact that, having learned the five pattern system, I’ve found it easy to expand into the “stretching” patterns intuitively when needed. It doesn’t really matter which one you use, but I would choose one system and stick with it until the patterns are second nature. Start to memorize these shapes visually and by playing them smoothly up and down the scale, preferably with a metronome.
2. Repeat step one for minor pentatonic scale patterns. There is only one main system of minor pentatonic scale shapes that I am aware of, and it’s a five pattern system.3. Once you have at least some familiarity with these shapes, choose a favorite song or two in C major and others in Eb minor. I’ll offer Let It Be by The Beatles for C major and Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Jimi Hendrix for Eb minor (Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are great resources here—because they often played blues on guitars tuned a half step down, they both wrote many songs in Eb minor.)
4. Jam along with these songs using the scales, but don’t just mess around or rock out! Practice the shapes, paying attention to the scale degrees as you play. This is the key: instead of mindlessly going up and down the scales with muscle memory as your guide or letting your emotion take over as you wail, play intentionally and be aware of which notes you are playing. At first, you’ll likely be limited to counting upward from the root and then back down, but as you begin to become familiar with the shapes and memorize small sections of the fretboard, you will be able to jump around more and more without losing track of what note you are playing.
That’s it! After some period of time, you will become familiar with little pockets of the fretboard, and then those little pockets will expand and merge with other sections. The whole puzzle will begin to take shape, the whole neck will come into focus!
When first getting into this exercise, you should concentrate all of your attention on memorizing the notes on the neck because that’s a substantial task in its own right, but if you really dive into fretboard exploration, then, over time, you can actually practice literally dozens of musical skills all at ONCE! Through this process, you will be mastering your major and minor pentatonic scale shapes (and these scale shapes can be transformed into various modes and other scales quite easily) as well as training your ear. Eventually, harmonic exploration, chord shapes and inversions, improvisation, new licks, and voice leading all naturally come into focus simply from this practice. All of these disciplines can be plumbed while you practice these scales across the neck, unlocking the fretboard’s secrets with intentional exploration.
This is possible all at once because, really, all of music is just one thing… By learning your scales, you are learning your fretboard, and by learning your fretboard, you are learning scales, and by learning scales, you are learning harmony, and by learning harmony, you are learning improvisation, and songwriting, and expression, and rhythm, and, perhaps, the secrets of the universe!
It is my hope that the C Major + Eb Minor Pentatonic Method will take you deeper on that lifelong, magical road.
Best wishes in 2021!