Master the Neck using Music Keys

Exercises for developing guitar neck mastery are one of the most fundamental things that you can include in your daily guitar practice program. But, how smart are you approaching the work you do on the neck from a musical perspective?

In this lesson, I cover the idea of developing guitar neck mastery by way of, "musical congruence" when studying the neck.

Practicing with "Musical congruence," means that you should avoid doing guitar practice that tends to focus on strictly; patterns, notes, or intervals.

If you really want to have guitar neck mastery, then start building a workout that creates a strong relationship to the musical principles which tie all of the patterns, notes, and intervals together.


A lot of my students are watching YouTube videos and getting a little confused between whether they should; learn notes, learn shapes, or learn about intervals to be able to master their guitar neck.

I want to make it clear that notes are great, when they are taken into context of where they exist. Shapes are great when you as a player know exactly what shape that you’re playing and how it functions within a musical context. 

And, intervals are also great, but only when you consider how the interval is functioning – again - within a more broad context.

At this point you’re probably wondering, why I keep saying the word “context.”

It is important to understand that music does not function in a bubble. Music operates with "groups" of notes that are in some way beholden to a specific form /structure.

This is true whether you’re playing melody lines, or if you’re playing chord strumming.

For example, the note of “G” is the root in the key of “G Major,” but it’s also the 2nd degree in “F Major,” and it is the 3rd note of “E Minor,” But, it does not end there, "G" is also operating as the 4th tone in the key of “D” and its the 5th tone in the key of “C major.”

I could keep on going, but I think that you’re starting to get the big picture idea here (in respect to context).

Notes in music (and obviously on the guitar), function differently depending upon what key that they exist within. If you begin studying this in detail, your neck will open up to you and you'll have a far better understanding of music and the guitar.

This means that, if you’re playing music, you need to understand the key of the music and you need to understand how all of the notes relate to your guitar part and to the song. Above all else, this needs to be done through patterns, notes and intervals on the neck.

When this is understood, you relate the notes that you’re using back to the key that you’re music is composed in.

If you study guitar this way, you’ll understand the notes that are involved, you’ll get to know and understand your guitar neck far better and, (most importantly), you’ll become more aware of the emotional effects that the various positions (of the note in a key and on the neck), will offer you.

To help you start practicing this way, (and to help you with learning your neck better by using a “context dependent” approach to the fretboard), I have an exercise that you can work through.

This exercise will help you get more familiar with the locations of your notes, and how they operate when you practice by way of thinking about, “note functionality within a key.”

The importance with this learning method is based upon considering the way that notes shift from one to another as they’re applied within a musical context.

STEP 1).
The first thing that we’re going to do is learn a melody line and some chords that can operate underneath it. Our key will be the key of “A Minor.”

NOTE: This key (A Minor) is a nice key to work on theory with because it does not contain any sharps or flats. All tones are natural tones.

Here’s the first step, we will learn the chords and a short melody and then we’ll study how the notes function.

Example 1:
"A" Minor Melody and Chord Riff:

Now that we’ve established a melody and an associated harmony, we can map out our notes and start to better understand what we’re dealing with from our key signature.

This melody uses six notes from our key. They are the root of “A”, as well as, the B, C, D, E and G.

What are the Notes Involved?

Together, these notes form a template on the guitar neck and this template can also be thought of as a movable pattern.

What is the "Template" (Pattern) that is Generated?

Once you’ve established something on the guitar that’s moveable, (the Template), you can use the shape and the notes involved to transfer your idea anywhere on the neck, (just as long as you remain on the same string sets).

Let’s do this with our “A Minor” example. We’ll take it from the position it’s in and simply slide it over to the key of “D Minor.”

STEP 2). 
Moving the "shape" of the melodic statement elsewhere, and maintaining a related harmony is the next task. In our case, we'll relocate our "template" to function in "D Minor."

Example 2:
"D" Minor Melody and Chord Riff:

It’s easy to visually understand how this operates, because all we’ve done in this example is move the template of what we established in the key of “A Minor” up the neck to the new root position of “D” and then, we played the exact template again. 

But, what most guitarists never end up doing, is taking things a step further and analyzing what happened to the individual notes – what notes on the neck were lost and what notes were gained.

Remember, that back in the key of “A Minor” we had the root of “A”, as well as, the notes of B, C, D, E and low G.

In the key of “D” Minor we have the Root of “D” plus; E, F, G, A and low C.

If you start thinking in terms of note context, instead of thinking strictly patterns, what you discover is that we’ve got a phrase in “D” that can function perfectly alongside of the phrase we had in “A” Minor.

This works well because the notes and chords are balanced between both keys. The riffs are congruent!

There is an important term in music it’s called “Musical Congruence.”

And, this term has everything to do with the context of what’s being performed. When we have congruence everything we play feels balanced.

Just like in our example, all of the notes from our key of “A Minor” riff, were congruent with our “D” Minor riff.

But, if we don’t have musical congruence, we experience a psychological discomfort because the notes clash and they feel out of place.

Now, this isn’t bad, nor is it necessary good – it’s just the musical effect that in-congruent notes have on human beings when musical ideas are being performed.

The sad thing is that this concept is often over-looked when learning the guitar neck, and we need to more pay attention to it if we ever hope to truly master our guitar neck.

It is vital, because we will learn notes, shapes and patterns far better when we comprehend how the musical ideas tie everything together.

Plus, we’ll learn in a more sophisticated musical way when we think about the music that we compose when applying this type of an approach.

I want to leave you with one final idea to consider. Our “A Minor” and our “D Minor” riffs (despite being the same geometrically), had note groups that were musically congruent (they both could be tied to the key of “A Minor”).

Consider that the key of “A Minor” has no sharps and no flats, and that maybe we can make a slight shift away from this key (using this idea of Musical Congruence), and shift up to the next key, the key with one sharp, ("E" Minor).

The key of “E Minor” introduces an “F#.” I know that "F#" is not from the key of “Am”, but the question is, “can it still be considered musically congruent?”

Does that “F#” note fit into any related context off of the color of “A Minor" ?

Well if you’re a student of mine – working through one my courses, you probably already answered YES - it does.

There’s a contextual link here to the key of “A Dorian.”

Example 2:
"E" Minor Melody and Chord Riff:

Here’s that riff again, (organized on the neck in a new pattern orientation). This time - based from the root of, “E Minor.”

Perform all of the riffs back to back moving from the, “E Minor” riff, to the “D Minor,” and finally to the resolution of them all at, “A Minor.”

It sounds cool, and it all works in a very interesting musical way! This approach not just helps you learn the neck better, but at the same time, you've also accomplished something very musical.

There’s an endless amount of exercises for nailing down the notes on the neck, but things start getting more musical when you consider how notes interact from a more context based learning strategy.

When applying this method, the study of the neck becomes far more musical and the consideration that is made to notes, their keys and their patterns on the neck begin forming more musical associations that will make you a much better musician and a much better guitar player. 

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