Everything You Wanted To Know About Jazz Guitar Positions-1
Throughout your guitar journey you may have seen the term ‘guitar positions’ crop up here and there. Confused about it’s meaning? You aren’t alone – it’s one of those guitar terms that causes a lot of misunderstanding for guitar students. And it’s often not explained correctly either.
In this lesson you’ll learn exactly what the term ‘guitar position’ means.
By the end of the article you’ll have a clear system so that you can confidently play major scales over the entire fretboard, laying the foundation for being able to improvise anywhere on the guitar neck.
Let’s get started!
Defining the Meaning of ‘Guitar Positions’
The confusion about the term ‘guitar positions’ arises because it can actually refer to two entirely different guitar fretboard concepts.
For the sake of this article I’ve created my own terms for these two meanings, which are:
- Meaning #1: Fret Position – where the left hand is located on the guitar fretboard
- Meaning #2: Scale Pattern – the notes of a scale on the fretboard if you stay in the same fret position.
Meaning #1: Fret Position
This is probably the more intuitive way people think of guitar positions, and it’s pretty easy to understand too.
In this case, you’re referring to where the hand is located on the guitar neck in relation to the frets.
A fret position is designated with a number, e.g. 5th position, 7th position, etc, and the number is based on what fret the first finger would naturally lie on depending on where you are on the neck.
On sheet music, fret positions are often notated with Roman numerals.
To illustrate a fre position, here’s an example of a piece that moves through several different fret positions.
Practicing a scale up one string is a good way to gain proficiency in mastering fret position shifts :
Ok – that’s cleared up one meaning of ‘guitar positions’.
Now let’s look at the other meaning of the term…
Meaning #2: Scale Patterns
The term ‘guitar position’ can also refer to the shapes that a scale makes on different areas of the guitar fretboard.
The best way to illustrate this is with some neck diagrams. Let’s take C Major as an example.
If you start with the root note on the 8th fret of the 6th string, and then play across the strings all the way to the first string, as opposed to playing up one string like in shifting exercise above, you end up with this pattern on the fretboard (root notes in red):
Likewise, if you play C major but play all of the notes of the scale around fret position 5, you’ll get this pattern instead:
So in this instance, the term ‘guitar position’ refers to the patterns the notes of a scale makes on the fretboard if you stay in the same fret position.
You might have seen this 2nd meaning of ‘guitar positions’ defined in various ways, such as ‘scale positions’, ‘scale shapes’, ‘fretboard areas’, and ‘patterns’.
For this article, you’ll refer to this meaning as scale patterns.
Phew! Glad we got that cleared up.
This article is now going to focus on using these two concepts of fret positions and scale patterns to learn the notes of the major scale over the entire fretboard, so that you can improvise with this scale anywhere on the guitar neck.
Let’s take a look.
Major Scale Patterns
There are various different ‘scale pattern systems’ you can learn, however the best one to learn initially is known as the Five Pattern System.
To put it in context, here is a neck diagram of a G Major scale over the first 12 frets on the guitar.
The 5 pattern system splits this up into 5 discrete scale patterns on the guitar:
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – how do you remember which pattern is which?
How do we remember what each shape looks like?
And how do you remember the order of the shapes as you go up the guitar neck?
For the solution to these problems, you need an effective naming convention for these 5 patterns.
Common Naming Conventions for the 5 Patterns
Pattern Number 1 2 3 4 5
Modal Name Ionian Dorian Phrygian Mixolydian Aeolian
CAGED Letter: E D C A G
Unfortunately there’s no standardized naming convention for these patterns – which adds another layer of confusion when trying to understand guitar positions.
Later on in this article I’ll explain in details my preferred method for naming and understanding them, but feel free to use one of the other methods if you find it makes more sense to you.
Here are the options:
‘Position Number/Pattern Number’
This is the simplest way to label the five patterns.
Each shape is given an ascending number based on the order of the shapes listed above.
A disadvantage of this method is that the pattern number could easily be confused with fret number (and you have enough number systems on guitar as it is).
It also won’t help very much for you to remember the patterns, as it doesn’t describe what the pattern looks like or how it functions.
This system derives it’s labels from the lowest note of each pattern.
Taking Pattern 2 as an example, the lowest note is an ‘A’ on the 5th fret, so the scale starting from the first note will be ABCDEF#GA, which is the A Dorian mode – hence the name ‘Dorian’ for the pattern.
(For those of you familiar with modes, you may notice that Lydian and Locrian modes are missing. The Lydian pattern is on the same fret position as Phrygian, and the Locrian pattern is at the same fret position as Ionian, which is why they’re omitted in this system.)
You may think that this would be a good way to learn the patterns, especially as a jazz guitarist with the emphasis on modes in jazz theory – but I disagree.
Each scale pattern essentially has all the modes in each pattern depending on what note you start on, so it’s misleading to label a shape as just a single mode like ‘Dorian’ or ‘Aeolian’’.
A confession – this is how I actually learnt the scale patterns back in the day during my university studies in jazz guitar, but it did cause a bit of confusion when it came to soloing – the only time it has helped much is when I’m playing modal jazz tunes.
The best way to learn these shapes is by using the CAGED system, a very clever acronym that can unlock the entire fretboard. Let’s take a look.