An overview of the topics ahead and how to use this book.

An overview of the ideas in this book

If this was a step-by-step guitar method, it would traditionally be organized in reverse. First it would teach notes and scales, then how to assemble the scales into chords, and finally improvisation, chord melody, and playing by ear.

But I have found it more useful to study guitar in the opposite order, and in short iterations rather than a long step-by-step path. First improvising by ear, however clumsy or imperfect, because making music is the whole point. Then practicing chords and changes, to play a bunch of songs. Then refining with scale practice. And then iterating again and improvising, “improving”, like a spiral rising ever upward.

Playing by ear

The most important skill for learning a musical instrument is “using your ears”. That means listening, essentially, though “tuning” might be a better word for it. Listening, making adjustments, and listening again, in a feedback loop until the tone suits our taste. Without this fundamental habit, it’s hard to make music.

The simplest way to practice using our ears, and arguably the simplest way to play a guitar at all, is to “play by ear”. This turns out to be easier than most people can believe, until they actually try it as described in Part 1.

Chords and harmony

Most beginning guitar players start by learning open position chords, and gradually become adept at changing between them. Then it’s common to learn a few movable barre chord shapes.

To achieve fluency and command of the entire fretboard, we need to understand the intervals of the chords and how they harmonize together. That’s the objective of Part 2.

Scales and melody

Scales are often misunderstood or misused, to the extent that some guitar players avoid them entirely, while others memorize and repetitively practice arcane shapes with little understanding or melody.

This is unfortunate, because scales are the simple patterns that underlie almost all music. In theory, if we were stranded on a desert island with only the major scale (and a full stock of provisions), we might eventually reinvent tonal harmony from first principles.

A practical and hopefully enlightening approach to scales is given in Part 3.

What’s not covered



Guitar basics.

See References and for better sources on these topics.

Studying music on guitar

Over 2000 years ago, a Greek philosopher and mathematician named Pythagoras laid the foundations of Western music by studying the properties of vibrating strings.

Today, the guitar is an ideal instrument on which to explore music ourselves in a similar way.

Differences from piano

There are some basic differences when studying music on guitar as compared to a more conventional instrument like the piano.

For one thing, on guitar it’s easier to play the same tune in different keys, known as “transposition”. Different keys can often be played with the same fingerings at a different fret, so on guitar it’s less important to devote equal practice to all keys. It’s more useful to have C major down cold than to be partially fluent in many keys.

Musical staff notation is not as well suited to guitar as it is to other instruments like piano, in part because on guitar the exact same pitch can be found at multiple places on the fretboard.

On a fretboard, intervals are the same shape in every key, but notes are hard to identify. On a piano keyboard, it’s the opposite.

Intervals over notes

Because of these differences, on guitar it can be efficient to study music by focusing more on intervals, and less on note names and staff notation.

That’s the approach taken in this book.

How to learn

Master guitar educator Christopher Berg wrote an invaluable book that must be mentioned here: Practicing Music by Design: Historic Virtuosi on Peak Performance (2019). He reviewed “peak performance” literature about research into the development of expert skill, and combined it with his own expertise on the techniques of centuries of master musicians. The result is a gold mine of practical advice for learning an instrument with maximum efficiency.

It is well worth the time of any aspiring guitarist to read the entire book and put it into practice. But in the interest of triage, here’s a quick summary of some of Berg’s findings about the most efficient ways to learn.


Chunking means breaking information into constituent “chunks”, learning each chunk separately, then learning them in combination as a larger chunk.

Most people can hold about 5-7 things in mind at any one time. This seems like a pretty low limit, but fortunately each of those “things”, or “chunks”, can themselves be composed of 5-7 chunks, each of which can be a composite of more chunks, ad infinitum. Experts can rapidly chunk together bits of new material because they can relate it to a foundation of prior knowledge.

The key is to master the smaller chunks thoroughly before moving on. Trying to learn more than 5-7 new things at a time will result in learning none of them well.

Slow practice

Contemporary neuroscience research and the “old masters” seem to agree that the slower we practice, the faster we advance.

The main point is to carefully avoid mistakes in early practice, and to address mistakes by replaying them correctly several times over, so the correct information encodes itself into the physical structures of our brain.

Imagine starting a saw cut in a piece of wood, or scratching an irrigation channel into the dirt with a stick.

For a variety of reasons, this kind of slow practice can result in learning several times faster than otherwise.

Mental work

Perhaps surprisingly, the same brain structures we carefully grow through slow practice and chunking can also be developed just by using our imagination—away from the instrument.

Reasoning about the music, and visualizing ourselves playing it, allows us to practice in a pure and focused way, without the distractions of physical reality.

Incorporating visualization into practice is reported to dramatically increase the speed of learning.

Variety in repetition

Studies show that repeatedly practicing the same thing over and over is actually harmful in many ways. Instead of mindless repetition, a more effective approach is to analyze a particular subject and practice it from multiple angles.

Varying rhythm, dynamics, accents, and articulation keeps practice interesting, helps to solve technical problems, improves the ability to effect musical nuance, and trains us to make sophisticated adjustments in real time to adapt to unexpected circumstances.

The appearance of fluid grace by expert performers is a sort of illusion created by these skillful micro-adjustments and compensations.

How to use this book

This book does not provide a step-by-step method for learning guitar. It’s more of an encyclopedia. Or maybe a grimoire.


This book is designed to be “skimmed”.

Try relaxing your eye muscles to soften your focus, and scroll rapidly through a chapter, so that all you can really see are the headings and figures and the general shape of the text. That’s “skimming” the chapter.

The headings throughout the text are written as an outline, intended to be readable on their own, as a summary of the text. This makes it easy to take in an overview by quickly skimming tables of contents and chapter texts.

Get an overview

The best way to get started with this book is with an overview of the subject matter. Read the Table of Contents first.

The topics in this book are presented in a deliberate order, with a narrative through line that can be read from beginning to end.

But perhaps more practically, each section starts out simply and gets denser and more complex as it proceeds. So the book is designed to be read until one gets stuck, confused, or bored, and then skimmed ahead to the next section, chapter, or part.

Work on a bit at a time

For example, unless you already have an encyclopedic knowledge of CAGED voicings, after working through the C CAGED shapes you might want to digest them for awhile, rather than trying to grind through scores of CAGED shapes and fingerings in one sitting.

So skim ahead to the next section on ergonomics, and then continue on to the chapter on major harmony. Later on, if you find you need to learn a couple more chord shapes to play in one of the major key positions, refer back to the CAGED chapter to study those particular shapes.

Quick reference

Once an overview of the topics has been acquired, the book is designed to be used as a quick and fairly comprehensive reference, in order to support your own guitar studies.

Any topic or diagram should be easy to find within a few “taps” through the tables of contents.

Additional resources

The Fretboard Foundation website offers a variety of additional resources, including self-paced courses, free tutorial videos and articles, private lessons, and software applications for exploring the ideas in this book in an experiential way.

See for more information.